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The Republican Party is still on life support

September 8, 2010 |  9:42 am

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones points out some of the peculiarities of the much-hyped Washington Post-ABC News poll showing that Democrats are headed to an electoral thumping this November. While a clear majority of Americans (53%-40%) say they plan on voting for the Republicans in their House and Senate races, according to the poll, a plurality of us actually believe that Democrats represent our values better and deserve to be reelected at higher rates. The lesson, according to Drum and the Post's Ezra Klein, is that elections are more of a referendum on the party in power (Drum says, "It's the economy, stupid") than a reflection of Americans' moral and political philosophies.

Expanding on that train of thought, there's also a lesson for Republicans concerned about their party's long-term viability. Days after the 2008 election -- less than two years but seemingly another political era ago -- UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain wrote in a point-counterpoint debate for The Times' opinion website that the Democrats' victory exposed "long-term demographic trends and general party tendencies that require much more serious consideration by thoughtful Republicans."

Cain continued:

What are they? First is the continuing geographic and numerical expansion of the Latino population. Stationed in Washington for the University of California system, I see the East Coast going through the kind of rapid growth in the Latino population that Californians experienced in the late 1970s. At various times, the Republicans have made serious inroads into the Latino vote only to fall back by embracing harsh anti-immigrant policies (such as California's Proposition 187 in 1994 and the House immigration bill in 2006). Nativism in the GOP stoked by terrorism fears after 9/11 pushed Latinos back into the welcoming embrace of the Democratic Party in the last two elections. This has to be taken seriously.

Secondly, the Republicans are struggling with holding on to the fast-growing Southern (North Carolina and Virginia) and Southwestern states (New Mexico, Colorado and soon Arizona). As some excellent work from the Brookings Institution reveals, the common element here is the influx of educated white-collar workers. That leaves the geographic base of the Republican Party in slow-growing and rural states. Shrinking into a declining economic and geographic base is a prescription for long-term trouble.

My theory about this -- and it is only a theory -- is that educated people generally prefer fact-based pragmatic governance to faith-based, damn-the-facts governance that rewards loyalty. The party that most successfully delivers along these lines will capture more of their votes. In this sense, the Democratic Party is ironically helped by its ideological incoherence. Its economic credo is really about smoothing the harsh edges around capitalism. There is no vision of a state-owned economy. There is no demand for complete equality, just a little bit more. And there is a huge faith in technology, science and rational inquiry.

The Republicans take great comfort in the fact that the polls still indicate that more people call themselves conservatives than liberals, but the reality is that the modal response is moderate and the labels of liberalism and conservatism are minimally two-dimensional and confusing. The Republicans are in a hole because they did not perform well in office over the last eight years. The pragmatic majority took notice and swung to the Democrats. The Republicans, in my opinion, need to prioritize pragmatism and policy competence ahead of ideological purity and faith-based instincts.

Finally, there is the new generation. Even before this election, the Generation Y kids were participating in public life at higher levels than their Generation X predecessors. What strikes me as I read their resumes and talk to them at the university is that they are more service-oriented (partly because community service is a requirement at many schools), technologically oriented (they have been running computers and electronics for their parents for years) and world-savvy (they intern as a way of testing out the world). Generation X was the "me" generation; Y seems to be the "us" cohort. Republicans may want to think about what that means for them.

You can shrug off Cain's analysis as one of numerous premature GOP obituaries written in the Obama afterglow. But Cain's demographic snapshot two years ago seems to be borne out by the Washington Post-ABC News poll: Even in a terrible year for Democrats, voters are by no means embracing GOP principles, suggesting the kind of demographic crawl Cain noted in 2008. Republicans may win big this November; what they do after the election, however, will have much more of an impact on the party's long-term prospects.

-- Paul Thornton 

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