The Republican Party is broken. It’s been broken for a decade or so, and I don’t think anyone has really realised. The ongoing nomination circus for the 2016 GOP ticket is akin to the farce of the UK Labour leadership contest, with the “not-a-Republican” Donald Trump emerging as the front-runner with a centrist Bush nominally-holding second place ahead of a field of right-wing lunatics, each of whom represent a particular faction of the splintered Republican party.
Rick Santorum and Rick Perry are courting the Palinites with their specific brand of bat-shit crazy after once again throwing their hats into the ring (note: 2016 gives us Perry 2.0 – complete with glasses for that “intellectual look”). Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Bobby Jindal are all splitting the Hispanic and minority-ethnic vote to varying degrees, and trying to position themselves as a candidate of choice for “progressive immigration reform”. Carly Fiorina is the Michele Bachmann of the 2016 race, and the token female Republican candidate. Mike Huckabee is, for all intents and purposes, the Pat Buchanan of the 21st-century, and Rand Paul is his father (albeit with some of the weirder edges rounded-off). The rest are a hodge-podge of neoconservatives, warmongering hawks, and on-the-way-out governors jockeying for relevance on an already-crowded stage.
The Republican Problem is the rise, in the 1980s and 90s, of the Religious Right in the Republican Party. This loosely-formed coalition, mainly centred on right-wing Protestants and Catholics, has become synonymous with socially-conservative political positions including opposition to abortion, marriage equality, drug decriminalisation, climate change, contraception, and stem-cell research whilst championing prayer in schools and the teaching of intelligent-design and young-earth creationism. This entryism into the GOP continues to reshape the party to this day and has allowed radical views undue precedence within the American political mainstream, leaving centrists and liberals scratching their heads. George W. Bush benefited from this even into 2000 and 2004; his electoral success was largely due to overwhelming support from white evangelical voters. In 2000 he received 68 per cent of the white evangelical vote, and in 2004 that rose to 78 per cent.
“When you say ‘radical right’ today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party away from the Republican Party, and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.”
– Barry Goldwater | Washington Post | July 1994
Today, however, the Religious Right and the Tea Party hold the Republicans to ransom. Their influence on the nominating process during the presidential primaries requires most candidates to lurch to the right on social policy. The problem for the Republican Party is deciding who has the best chance of winning over the remnants of the various factions of Reagan’s Republican Coalition and, moreover, the lunatic elements of the Tea Party fringe (and all of their strict constructionist interpretations) whilst still being able to appeal to the more moderate middle-ground “independents” in a general election against Mrs Clinton. This was, of course, Mitt Romney’s downfall in the 2012 election cycle, and the Republican Party is still yet to address their failings from four years ago with young and socially-progressive voters.
It is proving more and more difficult for Republican candidates to appeal to both the far-right within their own party and the wider electorate; how do you reconcile the anti-abortion, anti-equal rights, climate change denial, social security hating (and, quite frankly, racist) positions of a very active base with the more tolerant and informed viewpoints of the majority of American voters? Indeed, a poll in February 2014 by CBS News and the New York Times showed that a majority of those who identify as Republican are far more flexible on these issues than either their Tea Party base or their candidates allow for or expect.
Barry Goldwater always renounced and opposed the Religious Right’s influence in the Republican Party, and wanted to return to more traditional, limited government conservatism. As he observed, conservatism was defined as “holding on to that which was tested and true and opposing change simply for the sake of change“. His opposition to the Civil Rights Act 1964 aside (whilst winning the Republicans all of the Deep South states for the first time since Reconstruction, he lost every other state in the ’64 election apart from Arizona) and ignoring his “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right” approach to nuclear warfare in Vietnam, Goldwater’s staunch opposition to the radical Religious Right within the Republican Party was his one redeeming feature.
The Goldwater and Johnson campaigns parodied Goldwater’s stance on nuclear war
Goldwater, who passed away in 1998, allowed his libertarian principles to come to the fore with the advent of Reaganism in the 1980s. He had always believed that libertarianism and conservatism went hand-in-hand, and that the state should have no role in regulating people’s personal lives. He saw the Religious Right’s involvement in right-wing politics, especially those of the Republican Party, as an attack on personal freedom and individual liberty. He earned the ire of the social conservatives in his party through his support for environmental issues, abortion rights, medical marijuana, marriage equality, and ending the military’s homophobic ban on gays serving their country. As he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1994:
“A lot of so-called conservatives today don’t know what the word means, They think I’ve turned liberal because I believe a woman has a right to an abortion. That’s a decision that’s up to the pregnant woman, not up to the pope or some do-gooders or the religious right. It’s not a conservative issue at all.”
– Barry Goldwater | Los Angeles Times | 1994
The conversation in America has moved on from socially-conservative issues, and support diminishes with each passing election cycle as older voters die off and are replaced by younger more progressive generations below. Whilst the Republican presidential candidates are slogging it out to promote their conservative credentials on social issues, the Democrats are quietly going about the work of rebuilding Barack Obama’s 2008/2012 voter coalition. Just as in Britain the UK Labour Party seems intent on electing a left-wing socialist dinosaur from the 1980s (Jeremy Corbyn) after the electorate has twice resoundingly rejected the Left at the ballot-box, the Republicans seem determined to cling to their white “Moral Majority” playlist of issues, and they haven’t realised that Nancy Reagan isnt in the White House anymore.
Republicans will, of course, continue to be elected to Congress; there’s no dispute about that. Whether there remains open a pathway to victory in the electoral college, in 2016 or beyond, is yet to be seen. I would posit that, if the GOP takes a beating to Hillary Clinton in the November election next year, there will have to be a long and deep phase of soul-searching to re-establish exactly what the party stands for, and what it doesn’t. Donald Trump’s views of Mexicans as murderers and rapists, whilst providing him a commanding lead in the Republican polling data, will not play out well on a national stage..