The Republican Party isn’t doing so well; after a electoral defeat in the 2008 cycle that in many ways was a repudiation of Bush-era politics, the party finds itself intellectually bankrupt and massively unpopular. Indeed, the most legitimate faction remaining within the GOP is those who identify strictly as fiscal conservative/libertarian, though I fault them for generally not presenting meaningful intellectual opposition to the Administration or to the Democratic party in general.
I’ve argued for years that part of why the GOP is intellectually bankrupt is because of its strident effort to merge multiple, mutually exclusive ideologies under the umbrella of one cohesive narrative. Most specifically, and most relevant to this post and recent events, is the incompatibility of the narratives of the American Religious Right, which argues for a deep level of government control and leadership in individual lives with the aim of creating a moral, ‘Christian’ nation, and the narratives of classical liberalism and libertarianism, which generally advocate for an extremely limited governmental role as an arbiter of last resort and a provider of public goods like national defense.
Where the GOP ran into trouble is where they made the narrative of religious purity and morality part of their party advocacy. So they actively went after bans on same-sex marriages, abortion, vaccines to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, amongst others, without providing meaningful empirical justifications. The narratives they chose for ther ideas were couched in the language of values, unity, and binary distinctions, without allowing for nuance. Bans on same sex marriages particularly were justified by theoretical objections over the sanctity of marriage (as if government, and government alone, could uphold this concept of a sacred marriage). Such arguments never gained much traction for me; we grew up in a world where some 50% of marriages end in divorce and relational violence is a real problem. The suggestion that most marriages are conducted in a ‘sacred’ or a ‘holy’ manner is quite laughable to me.
Which brings me to South Carolininan Governor Sanford, who resigned his position as head of the Republican Governors Association yesterday after admitting to an extra-marital relationship with an Argentinian woman. His resignation means that the Republicans have one fewer serious presidential candidate to front in the next election cycle; another serious contender, Senator Ensign (R-NV) just admitted to an affair with a campaign worker and resigned from his leadership position as head of the Republican Policy Committee. The Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, who the Republicans presumably thought would provide an intellectual, inspirational point to rally conservatives and counter Barack Obama’s traction with the nation’s non-white voters, had a disastrous appearance on national televison. Which leaves us with Governor Sarah Palin (R-AL) whose jovial ignorance has made her a laughinstock across the nation, even as she feuds with the father of her daughter’s out-of-wedlock child. I don’t know Governor Sanford’s politics that well (I have read that he isn’t a big social conservative) but he is the governor of one of the nation’s most conservative states. Anecdotal example: When I think ‘South Carolina’, I immediately think ‘Christian Exodus‘, a movement of ultra-conservative Christians moving to South Carolina with the goal of gaining a majority stake in democratic policymaking. The wiki is here.
There is a common thread here. The GOP invested a great amount of its image in an essentially unsustainable promise of moral leadership, a promise that is undermined every time a major social conservative is caught with their pants down. But it presents a real problem. In trying to build a national coalition, the GOP embraced too many incompatible narratives and is rendered politically impotent as a result. The downside, as I mentioned earlier, is that they end up failing to present the kind of opposition that renders democracy powerful; the Democratic coalition gets to push through legislative change using economic arguments that really need to be challenged.
My recommendation for GOP party strategists? Dump the social agenda. Because it allows the everyday failings of your leaders to undermine your message and cultivates an anti-intellectual environment, marginalizing key thinkers and discouraging diversity of thought. Those concepts are at the center of any effective political movement. I’m not the only person making these arguments; here is Nobel Laureate Gary Becker (U Chicago) making a more nuanced version of the argument.
EDIT: I incorrectly noted that Sanford resigned as governor; this hasn’t happened yet, though he did resign as head of the Republican Governors Association.