Conventional wisdom says that the GOP is out of touch with the nation’s growing “salad bowl” of self-identified social interest groups, such as Hispanics, Asians, African Americans, and Women. Identity politics gave President Barack Obama the edge. He won eight of the nine swing states in play.
Conventional wisdom argues that the GOP should woo these same groups if it wants to win the presidency in 2016.
Conventional wisdom is wrong; identity politics is a party killer, not a killer app. The GOP should campaign to the “melting pot.”
The US Isn’t A Salad Bowl
Identity politics is one of the reasons why Romney lost. He had to play to so many rigid groups in the Republican Party that his message got convoluted. It wasn’t flexible enough to fit a general election campaign – regardless of how much moderate dressing Romney intermittently poured on the electorate.
One of the reasons why he came across as a “flip-flopper” was because he sold himself as a “severe conservative," but his time as governor of Massachusetts indicated otherwise.
Identity politics prevents bipartisanship. Legislators play to their bases of special interests. It wins them re-election and provides them with a steady flow of campaign donations, but these supporters expect total loyalty. If the incumbent strays from his or her promises, he or she will face a primary fight in the next election.
We see signs of this now with the “fiscal cliff” negotiations. Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, is crying foul over calls by Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Senator Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) to break Norquist’s no-new tax pledge. Former Georgia Secretary of State, Republican Karen Handel, is now exploring a run against Chambliss in the 2014 mid-term elections.
Playing identity politics gives us campaign rhetoric that emphasizes a hodge-podge of social issues. These are important to various groups, but not to most voters who want politicians to focus on the big stuff: economic growth and national security. They consistently asked the GOP to present a vision that explained how its platform and Romney’s campaign would improve their daily lives -- but instead they got a confusing, tangle of rhetorical, single-issue gobbledygook.
The nation is a “melting pot”
The GOP can avoid an identity politics trap by appealing to the Silent Majority: the large “melting pot” of middle of the road Americans. They don’t drive the national dialogue on politics, but their sheer size makes them the most important segment of the population to win. They want the forest tended to, not the leaves.
Winning them over isn’t some new-fangled idea. Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan won landslides in the 1972 and 1980 elections because of them.
The party will need courage to change. It’ll have to abandon its Christian Evangelical and Tea Party targeting strategies. It must segment the electorate by American values -- not the “family values” that have helped the party sell its tough stances on women, gays, immigrants, and minorities, but core values that have persisted throughout American history: personal control over one’s success, individuality, personal freedom, privacy, competition, free enterprise, equality, localism, small government, and transparency.
These values are part of the GOP’s genetic code, but they have been deactivated for some time now to hold the base.
The party must craft a new agenda that clearly connects values to governance: one that is simple, consistent, and easily understood. Republicans will have to stifle the far-right talk, disavow organizations that promote hate and intolerance, and disassociate from conservative personalities who are more interested in selling books and spouting baseless innuendo. In essence, the party will need to return to its “Big Tent” roots.
Republicans can take solace in the fact that values-based campaigns are very effective. Marketing studies indicate that people make 92 percent of their purchases decisions on how a product appeals to their values.
Not to mention, it’ll be a lot easier for candidates to speak to the electorate. Voters may not agree on divisive social issues, but they do agree, for example, on individualism, and free enterprise.
Republicans will have to be courageous when making these changes. It may take several election cycles to reap maximum rewards and may require some lawmakers to retire. But this will give way for young, ambitious candidates to emerge, regardless of their race, ethnicity, and gender. They’ll be New Republicans who are passionate about protecting the common good.
Whether or not New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Rep. Paul Ryan, or Gov. Jeb Bush run for the GOP Presidential nomination in 2016, Republicans must make these changes now if they hope to replicate their landslide victories of the past. Otherwise, landslides will be as fantastical as the one the GOP predicted this year.
Jamie Chandler is a political scientist at Hunter College in New York City.