David Brooks / Create a second GOP
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On the surface, Republicans are beginning to change their party. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana called on Republicans to stop being the stupid party, to stop insulting the intelligence of the American people. Rep. Paul Ryan gave a fine speech calling for prudence instead of spasmodic protest. The new senator for Texas, Ted Cruz, told Republicans they should focus on the least fortunate 47 percent.
But there have been more calls for change than evidence of change. Mr. Jindal, for instance, spanked his party for its stale cliches but then repeated the same themes that have earned his party its 33 percent approval ratings: Government bad. Entrepreneurs good. In their reinvention, Republicans seem to have spent no time talking to people who didn't already vote for them.
Change is hard because people don't only think on the surface. Deep down they have mental maps of reality -- embedded sets of assumptions, narratives and terms that organize thinking. Since Barry Goldwater, the central Republican narrative has been what you might call the Encroachment Story: The core problem of American life is that voracious government has been steadily encroaching upon individuals and local communities.
Losing the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections have made the flaws of this mentality apparent. If opposing government is your primary objective, it's hard to have a positive governing program.
As writer Bill Kristol has pointed out, the GOP fiercely opposed Dodd-Frank financial regulation but never offered an alternative. The party opposed Obamacare but never offered a replacement. John Podhoretz has noted that as soon as Republicans start talking about what kind of regulations and programs government should promote, they get accused by colleagues of being Big Government conservatives.
The next problem with this mentality is that it makes it hard for Republicans to analyze social and economic problems that don't flow from big government. For example, we are now at the end of the era in which a rising tide lifts all boats. Republicans can talk about improving the business climate with lower taxes and lighter regulation, but voters sense that that won't necessarily help them because wages no longer keep pace with productivity gains.
Americans remain skeptical of Washington. If you shove a big government program down their throats they will recoil. But many of their immediate problems flow from globalization, the turmoil of technological change and social decay, and they're looking for a bit of help. Moreover, given all the anti-government rhetoric, they will never trust Republicans to reform cherished programs like Social Security and Medicare. You can't be for entitlement reform and today's GOP because politically the two will never go together.
Can current Republicans change their underlying mentality to adapt to these realities? Intellectual history says no. People almost never change their underlying narratives or unconscious frameworks. Moreover, in the South and rural West, where most Republicans are from, the Encroachment Story has deep historic and psychological roots. Anti-Washington, anti-urban sentiment has characterized those cultures for decades.
It's probably futile to try to change current Republicans. It's smarter to build a new wing of the Republican Party, one that can compete in the Northeast, the mid-Atlantic states, in the upper Midwest and along the West Coast. It's smarter to build a new division that is different in the way that the Westin is different from the Sheraton.
The second GOP wouldn't be based on the Encroachment Story. It would be based on the idea that America is being hit simultaneously by two crises -- the Mancur Olson crisis and the Charles Murray crisis.
Mr. Olson argued that nations decline because their aging institutions get bloated and retard national dynamism. Mr. Murray argues that America is dividing into two nations -- one with high education levels, stable families and good opportunities and the other with low education levels, unstable families and bad opportunities. The second GOP would tackle both problems at once.
Would a coastal and Midwestern GOP sit easily with the Southern and Western one? No, but majority parties are usually coalitions of the incompatible. This is the only chance Republicans have. The question is: Who's going to build a second GOP?
First Published January 30, 2013 12:00 am