Republicans and the Smarty-Pants Vote: Part One

For all the differences that divide the country’s two main parties, Republicans and Democrats share this in common: both are torn by internal wrangling.

For Democrats, this division is evident in the trouble they’re having creating a health care bill that all of their Senators can support. Republicans are engaged in a wide-ranging debate over which path promises to lead them back to the promised land of victory — the path of ideological purity or the path of inclusiveness?

While our most recent podcast discusses aspects of this GOP debate, yesterday Michael Petrilli made an interesting contribution to this conversation that merits our attention. Petrilli is a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, and in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal he argues that Republicans need to reach out to voters who have graduated from college.

He notes that college-educated Americans are a growing proportion of the electorate — he reports that they accounted for 10% of the population in the 1960s, 20% by the late 1980s, and about 30% today. Petrilli worries that just as these voters are becoming more influential, the GOP is losing its grip on them. As he puts it, “a majority of college-educated voters (53%) pulled the lever for Mr. Obama in 2008 — the first time a Democratic candidate has won this key segment since the 1970s”.

So how can Republicans appeal to these voters? The challenges seem formidable indeed.

Petrilli’s suggestion is that the party should stick to its “core economic message” and stop “playing wedge politics” on divisive social issues. As he puts it: “When some Republicans use homophobic language, express thinly disguised contempt toward immigrants, or ridicule heartfelt concerns for the environment, they affront the values of the educated class. And they lose votes they otherwise ought to win.”

This seems perfectly reasonable, right? As Petrilli puts it, “If the GOP doesn’t want to be branded the “Party of Stupid”, it could stand to nominate more people who can speak eloquently on complicated policy matters.”

Who, after all, is opposed to eloquence?

Well, come to think of it, lots may be.

My neighbor, for instance, has a bumper sticker that shows a picture of Obama next to the observation that “Hitler gave great speeches too!”

Haven’t some Republicans had a field day claiming that the President can give wonderful talks but that he lacks any serious experience that fits him for the office he now holds? Hasn’t he often been dismissed as a kind of celebrity rock-star who can talk up a storm but isn’t to be trusted one bit?

What was the reaction when a Republican Representative interrupted Obama in the middle of one of his “eloquent” talks on “complicated policy matters” with the accusation that the President was a liar? His campaign coffers overflow.

The two-term victories of Presidents Eisenhower and Bush-the-younger, and even the election of Bush-the-elder, suggest that many Americans do not consider eloquence to be a job requirement for high office. Indeed some presidential scholars argue that Eisenhower’s garbled syntax was an astute rhetorical strategy that helped him to be successful.

And all the “speechifying” talents in the world couldn’t get Adlai Stephenson (you old folks know who I’m talking about!), Al Gore or John Kerry into the Oval Office.

I’m not suggesting that Petrilli’s roadmap to GOP success isn’t reasonable — but I do think that he’ll have a hard time convincing many Republican officeholders to follow him down that road.

Consider his suggestion that the GOP change its rhetoric, if not its actual policy position, on issues related to gay rights, immigration and the environment?


While the divide over gay rights and immigration splits Democrats as well as Republicans, does anyone think that Republicans in D. C. are going to re-think those issues anytime soon?

House Republicans spent 2006 and 2007 working hard to kill any attempt to allow illegal immigrants any chance of becoming citizens. Just yesterday, the same day Petrilli’s piece appeared, an immigration bill was introduced in the House that proposes to improve border security, crackdown on employers who hire unauthorized workers and allow some illegal immigrants to gain citizenship if they:
• can demonstrate they have been working
• pay a $500.00 fine
• learn English, &
• undergo a criminal background check

The GOP House’s reaction? They declared the bill dead on arrival.

Their current leadership has enthusiastically sponsored the “Federal Marriage Amendment” (H.J. Res.56), which seeks to amend the Constitution to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

The thrilled reaction elicited from Republican crowds during the last election whenever anyone shouted “Drill baby drill!”, and the absolute skepticism with which the scientific community’s concern with global warming is met by so many in the GOP base, suggests that many in the party are not likely to heed the advice of the kind Petrilli offers.

To be clear here — I’m not saying that those Republicans who disagree with Petrilli’s vision of their future are wrong, or wholly unreasonable. Nor am I disparaging the direction he hopes the party takes.

I do, though, want to emphasize how unlikely it is that his hopes for the party will be realized, at least in the short run.

For now, the GOP in power in DC have set their sails in the direction set by the likes of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Michele Bachmann.

Petrilli acknowledges that he frequently shops at his local “Whole Foods Market”, which he says attracts folks who “embrace a progressive lifestyle but not progressive politics”.

It seems to me that “Whole Foods Republicans” share something in common with “New England Republicans” — there must be a few of them, but in the current environment they both belong on a “Politically Endangered” list.


6 Responses

  1. This is a thought-provoking response to Petrilli’s ideas, Dan. While I tend to agree that the portion of the voters on the right who define conservatism by a general level of anger and anxiety will be unlikely to adopt Petrilli’s sentiments, I think his point was that there isn’t a choice. The bloc of voters currently firmly committed to the GOP is not large enough to win an election. So the folks who will support the GOP through good times and bad must make a choice: pursue voters outside of those who are currently in the GOP tent or lose elections in perpetuity. Now some folks would be willing to lose just so they have the right to utter as many racist and homophobic slurs as they please. But by and large, GOP people are good people, salt of the earth, who want to keep a little more money in their pockets, feel like their family is safe and free. They’ll listen to a politician who can speak to the very real problems they are facing and almost none of that has anything to do with what goes inside the beltway. Even as we speak, an old way of thinking and practicing politics in America is dying away and a new group of activists in stepping in to replace it. It will indeed be interesting to see where my generation leads the GOP.

    • Brent,
      First, thanks for taking the time to visit us at The Dark Horse.
      And your comments are thoughtful — and we do read that many younger Americans aren’t as motivated by the same kinds of “culture war” issues that often dominate the political landscape over the last two decades.
      Couple of questions, though:
      Would you agree that your description of most Republicans also describes most Democrats? That most Democrats are “by and large good people, salt of the earth, who want to feel like their family is safe & free”?
      If so, it’d be good to hear GOP leaders, maybe especially their younger ones, to start to say that — to start acknowledging that their neighbors who belong to the other party are good folks who want what we all want. And of course the same holds true for Democratic leaders too.
      And, you might want to take a look at the comment that Mary Stack left regarding this same post — I think a challenge for the GOP, maybe especially the next generation of GOP leaders, is to find a way to talk to people like her & to address the serious concerns they raise.
      Again, thanks for checking in with us, & I hope that this isn’t the last we hear from you!

  2. It would be terrific if Mr. Petrilli and like-minded others could move the GOP out of the practical and rhetorical rut in which it seems stuck.

    • For relevant analysis, see Jonathan
      Chait’s “Republican Nihilism: An Exegesis”, The New Republic, Vol. 240, Numbers 4, 874 & 4, 875, December 30, 2009, pp. 24-28. I think that Republicans wanting to realize Mr. Petrilli’s vision would have to affirm some of Mr. Chait’s claims and challenge certain practices that Party leaders currently embrace. The practice of absolutizing differences comes to mind. Absolutizing casts opponents as “other”, and politics is pointless between “others”. Absolutizing makes the “perfect’ an enemy of the “good”, and then, more tellingly, vice-versa. Absolutizing construes compromise as betrayal, as dishonorable. Chait’s recounting of Republican absolutizing of domestic conflicts throughout the 20th century is accurate, and it renders today’s Party’s tactics familiar.

  3. “Republicans need to reach out to voters who have graduated from college. ” Yes that would be a great strategy but it will fail. True, they need that educated voting block but the salient point is that 57% of college students are women. Republicans are perceived as anti-immigrant and anti-gay . An educated woman is not a fool and she sees the communion between immigrants, gays and her rights.

    • Mary, thanks for taking the time to read us here at The Dark Horse.
      That’s an interesting observation about how gender & education might interact in such a way as to make it harder for the GOP to tap those voters.
      In that vein, I wonder if you saw my 2nd post on this topic, where I tracked which states had the highest % of college grads & how those states voted in the last presidential election.
      At least on the surface, that ranking seems to support your claims — though we’d need more data and analysis to know for sure.
      Anyway, thanks for checking in with us, & I hope that we continue to hear from you in 2010!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: