What the Hell Happened to the GOP?
After a historic parade of October surprises, the final week before the election is packed with more uncertainty than ever–meaning Donald Trump’s improbable run for the White House is far from over. What keeps him alive, despite his glaring faults?
First, Trump’s formula has demonstrable staying power. This year, he brought together a conservative base with mainstream voters nervous for their future, and rallied a near-majority of Americans who could still put an authoritarian populist in the White House.
Second, the GOP has consistently made the mistake of dictating their platform to their base, instead of building on voter input. The majority of voters, including right-wing conservatives, vote not just for their representatives, but also for the issues and policies they care about. Top-down governance historically fosters distrust and suppression in the governed. A constituency with no room to contribute other than reactionary outrage will only produce more of the same.
Whatever the election’s outcome, this election has proven that feelings of frustration and victimization motivate a portion of every voter segment, regardless of party affiliation. This fear-based campaign platform will return next cycle, and every cycle following, until our government can address those feelings directly.
That’s the central message behind the Bridge Alliance--a diverse, cross-partisan community devoted to civil discourse and inclusive politics. I, along with corporate and political leaders nationwide, formed the alliance around a simple idea: Political anger and polarization do not reflect the priorities of the average voter–especially in the conservative base.
This election has brought us closer than ever to irreparably damaging our systems of governance. Even now, it isn’t too late to step back, admit where both liberals and conservatives jumped the track, and introduce a little civil discourse in the process.
The GOP Forgot to Listen
To win the Republican nomination, Donald Trump tapped into a whole new class of victims in need of saving: white, working class, older, and religious men and women, millions of Americans preconditioned to topple a system they have no proof of being built for them.
That’s a ready invitation for a demagogue who can unite “victims” on both sides. The totalitarian temptation didn’t die with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. It re-emerges whenever gross economic inequities combine with social instability.
In terms of intuition, Donald Trump is engaging his audience to great effect. Where other GOP hopefuls depleted their own cachet, Trump filled the void. By identifying voters as victims, he accessed the emotions rubbed raw in previous GOP campaigns.
Nobody Likes to Be the Victim
As a rare San Francisco Republican, I often support objectives like environmental protection and equal opportunity, but favor methods like freedom and markets. I’ve found if I want to understand a problem like social injustice, it’s important to look left. If we want to find a solution, like economic opportunity, it’s important to look right. Of course, like we learned in school, it’s best to look both ways. The right understands the importance of standing with tradition, the left is bolder at stepping into the crosswalk. The two together can look both ways, then step forward.
Individual Americans reject being labeled as “dependent” or “victimized”. Our research shows that 55 percent of all voters believe in first empowering people over big corporations, government, or authoritarian leaders.
In the same study, we found that 55 percent of both men and women voters, along with 40-60 percent of minority voters and 6 in 10 millennials lean fiscally right and socially left. It doesn’t take a conservative to distrust big government, just like progressives don’t have a monopoly on distrusting corporations.
So What Do Conservatives Stand For, Anyway?
The College Republican National Committee (CRNC) issued a report, “Grand Old Party for a New Generation.” The Republican brand, the CRNC reported, had been badly damaged by campaigns that defined the party as anti-women, Hispanic, gay, middle-class, and environment.
This consumer base is led by women, young people, and minorities who see themselves as strong, capable individuals who overcome all obstacles to be their best. Democrats currently dominate these demographics. Republicans need them, and they need to learn how to talk to them.
The traditional Republican base equates freedom with self-reliance, a core driver of industrial-age prosperity. Our respondents combine this with a “progressive” sense of individual expression and personal power, reflecting the distinctive individuality of a digital economy.
Responsibility as a conservative pillar comprise the personal discipline to resist impulses and adhere to rules. Most voters go beyond Ayn Rand to apply this principle to community involvement.
Opportunity, to the GOP base, means a fair chance on a level playing field. Most voters are aware that society is not built on level ground. “Opportunity” should include reaching out to those bearing the burden of history or circumstance.
Innovation to the current Republican base suggests linear progress. As the Internet has shown, the market favors discontinuous and even disruptive change. When yesterday’s industries are allowed to make way for new solutions, static, material standards are exchanged for experiential ones.
Enterprise to the Republican base means hard work and perseverance. In the CRNC’s vision, productivity includes the ability to work smart and foster creativity.
Where Can the GOP Go From Here?
Donald Trump has doubled-down on yesterday’s Republican base, portraying a rigged system designed to benefit anyone but the working class. This kind of self-consuming circular negotiation could either lead to the end of the Republican party as we know it, or a fundamental change.
Either way, the success of the Trump campaign is an early sign of a coming partisan realignment. It could turn Democrats sharply left and Republicans sharply right. It could unite fiscal conservatives with social libertarians. It could bring an authoritarian with bipartisan support to power, or reawaken the historical mission of both progressives and conservatives to empower people.
The outcome of the realignment depends in part on chance, but significantly on bridging gaps–between aisles, to be certain, but also between the representatives and those being represented. Both parties can still win elections by perpetuating a sense of powerlessness that keeps half our purported victims voting for Democrats, and the other half voting for Republicans. But that would ignore the voices of millions of constituents on both sides looking to cast their vote for something better.