By: Adam Stromme
To those patiently weathering the tedious fanfare that accompanies the onset of election season, the arrival of the 2016 season appears to be more of the same. Yet again, the Democratic party has chosen to keep the field small and manageable, with the Clinton brand taking front stage for the fourth time in the last quarter century. Meanwhile, the Republicans continue to crowd the field with an array of stone-throwing partisans that range from the predictable, to the bizarre, to the downright terrifying.
But there is a reason beyond the usual chirping of civic duty and partisan politics that 2016 should be followed more closely than usual by those that care about our country: it will mark the first election in a new age of the American Right. In this new age, finally, the Right will need to expand beyond its traditional white male electorate.
The Republicans as a party are not weak, but demographically they are being made increasingly vulnerable because of a tectonic shift in the base that makes up the American electorate. Although no doubt desperate to retain its advantageous and iconic status as an insurgent party indulging in “policy hostage taking” as much as possible, we are about to witness a bizarre spectacle wherein the various factions within the Republican party– from the business class, to the evangelicals, and beyond– struggle to the death for the right to control and reshape the Grand Old Party.
There is an elephant in the room for the Grand Old Party, and it is not their mascot.
The reality is that Republican Party is about to face two interconnected crises: one in the short term pertaining to its electoral base, and one which stretches out ominously into the future, questioning the very identity it has crafted for itself since the demise of the Rockefeller Republicans and the rise of Reagan.
To many, the suggestion that the GOP is on the cusp of a treacherous path towards paradigmatic change would appear strange, spitting in the face of their smashing success in the midterm elections. Setting aside the fact that opposition parties almost always pick up seats in the midterms, a deeper look suggests that all is not as it appears for the Republican party. William Frey from the Brookings Institute notes that the midterms contrasted “with the past two presidential elections, especially , when the raw power of our growing racial minorities in their enthusiastic Democratic support elected the first nonwhite president.” Critical to all of this was a depressingly low voter turnout, the lowest since WWII, which cannot reasonably be expected to occur in a presidential race year.
Which brings us to 2016.
Since 2006, the Republican party base has become increasingly older and whiter. Yet at the same time, the very electoral base of the United States is set to change dramatically. Many estimate that by 2043 the United States will be a nation without a distinct white majority, or any majority for that matter, as its dynamic immigrant community accounts for 90% of all new population growth. Already this election season, Republicans can be seen attempting to reach out to minority voters, particularly Latinos, whom they see as sharing a conservative stance on social issues.
All of this points undeniably towards a perplexing problem further down the road for the party: the need to redefine itself on issues rather than demographics. Unlike the Democrats, the Republican party over the course of the twentieth century was far more deeply rooted in nationalist and religious associations than a distinct worldview. In the coming century, this will grow to be more of a liability than an asset. Swiftly fading are the days when unprecedented hostility towards the “Other” can score the needed political points amongst a white demographic in order to win the election. Mitt Romney’s dismal performance amongst blacks and Latinos has already taught current frontrunners this lesson well.
But over time, with the new demographics, will come a new outlook. The need to be a party of principles and not just certain people has the potential to be a profoundly progressive force if the Republicans can break the shackle of dark money. Women, moderates, and the millennials will have to return to the GOP radar. For now, Republicans will likely continue to spew the same vitriolic narrative that makes them hated by all but the fringe Right in the primary. Headway towards diversity remains slow, but watch how the narrative on various issues progresses. From the electioneering of bold accusations will evolve the politics of caution. As a litmus test learned from the last election, its interesting to note that all five of the current GOP frontrunners: Rubio, Walker, Carson, Huckabee, Bush, have all provided flexible or nondescript positions on immigration: the tentative first steps towards expanding their electoral borders.
If ever so modestly, demographics, holistic representation and, in a way, American Democracy, is beginning to reassert itself again as a force on both ends of the political spectrum.