In the weeks and months following President Obama’s reelection, Republicans will struggle to rebrand and redefine themselves for the electorate. A few have already come forward with prescriptions for the future. Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana argues that the GOP must stop being the ‘stupid party’ and craft a message for all Americans. John Boehner expressed a willingness to consider revenue increases, though not yet tax increases, and spoke of Obamacare as the ‘law of the land’. Sean Hannity made a passionate plea on behalf of illegal immigrants the day after the election, suggesting that those who have been here for years and broken no laws – aside from being here illegally – should be put on the path to citizenship. As much as these efforts to moderate or modernize the GOP make sense, they will be unsuccessful because they risk revealing the big lie that keeps many poor, working class and middle class people voting Republican: the lie of authenticity.
Newt Gingrich has invoked the authenticity lie many times during his political life, telling constituents once in 1992, “We are America1. Those other people are not.” The people who ‘are America’ are the authentic: humble churchgoers, who drink domestic beer, live in middle America, who have some education but more common sense, and who want to be left alone to raise traditional families. The people who ‘are not’ are the inauthentic: a combination of arrogant latte sipping coastal elites and assorted welfare dependents, gift takers, and people who “want stuff”. In his party’s heyday Gingrich would have been ready to ship those people off to one of his experimental moon colonies. Today he wants to learn from them, but if that ‘learning’ translates into any real changes in policy or messaging, then the big lie will be called into question and with it all of the little lies.
The little lies are mostly contradictions that suggest that maybe — just maybe! –Thomas Frank and others are onto something when they argue that the GOP uses rhetoric about social issues to promote an agenda that is almost wholly economic: And not economic in a fiscally conservative or balanced budget sense, but economic in a big budget, deficit inducing sense. A little lie might try to explain away the failure of earmark reform; or why Paul Ryan will rail against the stimulus plan then beg for stimulus dollars; or why the government grows no matter which party is in office. Little lies are easy to hide when they are in service of some larger truth, but when they are not they become obvious to anyone paying attention.
Consider the last fifty years and the successes that conservatives have had on the economic front. In the fabled decade of the 1950s the tax rate on the highest earners was 70%+, topping out at 91% in 1962.2 Today it would be considered a grand concession – or date rape according to Grover Norquist – for Republicans to agree to raise the tax rate on the highest earners from 35% to 40%. Businesses have little to fear from unions these days, because there are more ‘Right to Work’ states today than the 1950s or 1960s. There are fewer price controls over industries like banking, airlines and trucking. Most importantly, working class and middle class conservatives channel the grievances and outrage of big businesses and the rich. When a Papa John’s pizza franchisee argues that he may have to raise the cost of pizza by 20 cents due to Obamacare, everyday Joes share his outrage. Or when the CEO of Denny’s floats the idea of adding an ‘Obamacare surcharge’ conservatives credit him for his courage. Some, like Joe the Plumber, even take umbrage at the President for raising taxes on businesses that don’t exist in professions they are not even qualified to practice. Joe was neither wealthy, nor a plumber, nor a business owner but that was beside the point. He was doing his part to preserve the conservative line on economics, and for that he was celebrated. What about the conservative line on social issues?
While managing to dominate the economic debate, conservatives have made little progress preserving the traditional America that many envision. Contraceptives and school prayer were controversial in the 1950s, now one is a permanent part of our culture and the other a distant memory. The 1960s brought outcry over pornography, but today multinational corporations like AT&T, AOL Time Warner and Marriott make hundreds of millions from pornography3. Roe v Wade is no closer to being overturned. Big box retailers transform small communities, often with the help of local subsidies and tax breaks. Fast food chains obliterate family owned restaurants with the help of federal SBA loans4. The social conservative has adjusted with few complaints to challenges brought about by the free market, and now he will be asked to make further sacrifices.
The same people who launched the culture war to begin with would now like to negotiate peace, but not at the expense of supply side economics or deregulation, but at the expense of the ‘everyman’/’forgotten man’/’silent majority’. What will the authentic American get for his cooperation? A Pyrrhic victory that betrays his interests and values: a deal he is not likely to make. One cannot argue in one election cycle for patrolling the borders with predator drones, then for amnesty in the next without losing some voters. One cannot argue that 47% or 51% of Americans are ‘takers not makers’ then try to win those voters in the next cycle without losing some folks. One cannot argue in one election cycle that the president’s healthcare plan is a plot to euthanize grandmothers, then label it simply the law of the land in the next without leaving some folks deeply alienated and angry. The party cannot withstand this confusion, so the leaders who have been making these arguments and raising hundreds of millions of dollars based on them will have to go along for the ride whether they like it or not.