By Robert Reich
This post originally ran on Robert Reich’s Web page.
It’s as if they didn’t learn a thing from the 2012 elections. Republicans are on the same suicide mission as before—trying to block immigration reform (if they can’t scuttle it in the Senate, they’re ready to in the House), roll back the clock on abortion rights (they’re pushing federal and state legislation to ban abortions in the first 22 weeks), and stop gay marriage wherever possible.
As almost everyone knows by now, this puts them the wrong side of history. America is becoming more ethnically diverse, women are gaining economic and political power, and young people are more socially libertarian than ever before.
Why can’t Republicans learn?
It’s no answer to say their “base” — ever older, whiter, more rural and male — won’t budge. The Democratic Party of the 1990s simply ignored its old base and became New Democrats, spearheading a North American Free Trade Act (to the chagrin of organized labor), performance standards in classrooms (resisted by teachers’ unions) and welfare reform and crime control (upsetting traditional liberals).
The real answer is the Republican base is far more entrenched, institutionally, than was the old Democratic base. And its power is concentrated in certain states — most of the old Confederacy plus Arizona, Alaska, Indiana, and Wisconsin — which together exert more of a choke-hold on the Republican national party machinery than the old Democrats, spread widely but thinly over many states, exerted on the Democratic Party.
These Republican states are more homogenous and conspicuously less like the rest of America than the urbanized regions of the country that are growing more rapidly. Senators and representatives from these states naturally reflect the dominant views of their constituents — on immigration, abortion, and gay marriage, as well as guns, marijuana, race, and dozens of other salient issues. But these views are increasingly out of step with where most of the nation is heading.
This state-centered, relatively homogenous GOP structure effectively prevents the Party from changing its stripes. Despite all the post-election rhetoric about the necessity for change emanating from GOP leaders who aspire to the national stage, the national stage isn’t really what the GOP is most interested in or attuned to. It’s directed inward rather than outward, to its state constituents rather than to the nation.
This structure also blocks any would-be “New Republicans” such as Chris Christie from gaining the kind of power inside the party that a New Democrat like Bill Clinton received in 1992. The only way they’d be able to attract a following inside the Party would be to commit themselves to policies they’d have to abandon immediately upon getting nominated, as Mitt Romney did with disastrous results.
It’s true that by 1992 Democrats were far more desperate to win the presidency — having been in the wilderness for twelve years — than today’s GOP appears to be. Nonetheless it’s doubtful the GOP will be willing to eschew its old base even if it loses the presidency again in 2016, because without its collection of relatively homogenous states, there just isn’t much of a GOP.
The greater likelihood is a steady eclipse of the Republican Party at the national level, even as it becomes more entrenched in particular states. Those states can be expected to become regressive islands of backwardness within a nation growing steadily more progressive.
The GOP’s national role will be primarily negative — seeking to block, delay, and filibuster measures that will eventually become the law of the land in any event, while simultaneously preaching “states’ rights” and praying for conservative majorities on the Supreme Court.
Robert B. Reich, chancellor’s professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, was secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. Time magazine named him one of the 10 most effective Cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including the best-sellers “Aftershock” and “The Work of Nations.” His latest, “Beyond Outrage,” is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of The American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.