Several years ago, I had this long running, civil argument with fellow Leaguer Mike Dwyer. I would talk about the need for the GOP to become more inclusive of gays and lesbians, especially if the party wanted to have a future. He would always reply that the party wasn’t going to change its stripes so easily. It was hard-coded into the GOP to be more socially conservative.
Mike wasn’t telling me that you can’t be gay and Republican. Looking back, I think he was telling me to be aware of the context I was in. Inclusion wasn’t going to look like the Democrats. For a socially conservative party, gays would have to find some sort of place in the party in its present context. But back then, I was very much into McCainism.
McCainism is what I describe as those people who were inspired by John McCain’s first presidential campaign in 2000. He was in his “maverick” phase and was getting the attention of social liberals for his attacks on the religious right and his taking on Big Tobacco. People saw in McCain what they wanted to see. They saw him as the one that could save the party from the crazies. The media was in love with him and he got the attention of Democrats as well.
I was a McCainist back in those days. I wanted to see a GOP that got rid of its social conservatives and moved forward as a conservative party in the mold of European parties.
In some ways, I’m still into McCainism, but I’m far more chastened. My McCainist tendencies was interested in former Utah governor Jon Huntsman’s campaign. But his campaign wasn’t very focused- like McCain in 2000, he kind of ran against the base of the GOP which it turns out is not a winning strategy.
As a gay Republican, I do want to see the party become more inclusive and I support inclusive candidates. But these days I’m concerned in how the GOP will deal with bread and butter issues as much as I am on social issues. I’ve also become more willing to work with social conservatives than immediately brushing them off.
In a recent blog post, Ross Douthat wrote about Reform Conservatism and the culture war. Reform Conservatism is basically a grouping of writers, politicians and intellectuals who are interested in creating a governing conservatism grounded in the 21st century and not a rehash of the Reagan years. Douthat is responding to articles written by E.J. Dionne and Andrew Sullivan who both wonder Reform Conservatism can get very far if it doesn’t deal with issues of tolerance and diversity. Sullivan of course, wants a party that wants him:
And then the reformicons are operating at a disadvantage in a culturally polarized America. It would be great if this were not the case – but since a huge amount of both parties’ base mobilization requires intensifying the cultural conflict, and since the divide is rooted in real responses to changing mores, it will likely endure. And that kind of climate makes pragmatic conservatism again less likely to get a hearing.
So, for example, I’m perfectly open to new ideas on, say, helping working class families with kids. But some pretty basic concerns about the current GOP on cultural issues – its open hostility to my own civil marriage, its absolutism on abortion, its panic at immigration, its tone-deafness on racial injustice – push me, and many others, into leaning Democrat for a while. And it’s important to note that even the reformicons are die-hard cultural and religious conservatives in most respects.
Should the GOP go after the votes of people like Sullivan (or me for that matter)? Douthat responds with a strong no:
One answer here — and it’s an important one — is that for intertwined reasons of policy and politics, reform conservatives aren’t actually trying to win over Sullivan, or at least we aren’t trying to win him over first. The immediate reformist priority, the raison d’etre of the movement, is serving the interests and winning the votes of those “middle class parents with kids” (and people who might want to be middle class parents with kids) on economic issues; the question of how the Republican Party should adapt (or not) on the issues Sullivan lists is an important but ultimately second-order concern.
Sullivan thinks that the GOP should focus on social issues first and then maybe deal with the pocketbook issues of the middle class. It would make sense that someone like Sullivan or myself would expect that the party should focus on social issues since we have to deal with social issues all the time.
But here’s the thing: I’m starting to doubt that if the GOP moderates on social issues that all will be well. The 2012 presidential race really didn’t focus on social issues; they hinged on economic issues. What is the most memorable thing said by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney? You guessed it: it was his 47 percent remark. Social issues did factor in but not as strong as it was in past years. As a gay man, I’m focused on issues concerning me: like same sex marriage. But there are not enough of me or Mr. Sullivan to make a difference to the GOP. Should the party be more inclusive? Yes. But none of that means a hill of beans if the average family is wondering how make ends meet. There are a lot of those people, gay and straight, who live in cities, small towns and suburbs all fearful of how to own a house or put their kid through college.
One other note: the word to hone in on in Sullivan’s musings is “Democrat.” I’ve been engaged in the effort of gay inclusion in the GOP for 10-plus years. What I have seen over time other well-educated urban folk like me end up leaving the party and strangely become partisan Democrats. Whenever I hear that someone demands the GOP change it’s social tone and how they would if they just started liking gays, I’m skeptical. More than likely, that person has already “gone to the other side.” There is a political party that does cater to his cultural concerns and he has made up his mind. The GOP isn’t going to a major party again by being the Democrats Jr.
Douthat shares a quote from French writer Pascal Emmanuel Gobry who also responds to Sullivan’s concern:
But, well, the reform conservative disposition says that the GOP should not court voters like him (by which I mean highly educated, urban, coastal). First because, as much as they wish it were not so, they do not decide elections in America (I’m reminded of “Yes Prime Minister”‘s description of Guardian readers as “people who think they ought to run the country”). Second because reform conservatives see the main domestic policy challenge facing America as solving the problems of working and lower-middle-class Americans, and that some of these concerns are cultural in nature, and that while these concerns may “come out” in unproductive and/or mistaken ways, lashing-out, they are also the expressions of real serious concerns with regard to (mainly) the slow disintegration of what used to be regarded as the pillars of The Good Life in America, namely marriage and the family and religiosity.
Perhaps another way to phrase this is that reform conservatism thinks that the GOP should be a populist party because, well, the populists are roughly right about what went wrong, at least in a few key respects, even if they sometimes are wrong about the particulars or about how to fix it. The Democratic Party already has the upper-middle class locked up, precisely because it panders very well at their cultural prejudices (which we hear very little about, as if America in 2014 was the only place in recorded history where only one side engages in demonization of the other side). A Republican Party that tried to go after its slice while dumping its base, which happens to be a plurality of voters in America, would, ipso facto, become a rump. Needless to say, this is not something reform conservatives favor.
What this all means is that Republicans have to focus on those downscale voters who are affected by the economic headwinds, which probably includes a lot of social conservatives. It’s important to note that Douthat is not suggesting that the GOP dive headlong into right-wing social issues. He thinks the GOP should surrender when it comes to same-sex marriage. He advocates talking with African Americans on issues that matter to them (hint: it’s economic) and less focus on Voter ID; and focus on issues that affect people of color such as sentencing reform and drug law reform.
So, five years later I get to say this to Mike: you were right. I will still work for inclusion in the GOP, but as someone who support reform conservatism, I am willing to work for a GOP that not only speaks to me, but more importantly speaks to the single mother in Detroit, the anxious parents in suburban Atlanta and the factory worker in St. Louis. The GOP has to be a party for all of America, not just a small slice of it.
Update: In looking at the comments, I think people are misunderstanding what Douthat meant. He didn’t say the GOP doesn’t want their votes. He wasn’t talking as much about that as he was that the GOP isn’t going to get far going after upper-income, educated, urban and largely white people who tend to support gay marriage, are pro-choice and so on. It’s that sliver of the electorate that McCain went after in 2000 and Jon Huntsman targeted twelve years later. When Douthat and Gobry say that there aren’t enough of these voters, this is who they are referring to.
I will say again, Douthat is not saying it’s okay for the GOP to be homophobic or racist. And yes, Douthat has his own cultural biases. But he is saying that taking the McCain route as has been done twice is not in the long run a winning strategy for the party.