Catch-22s: Conservative David Frum On Where All The White People Have Gone–And Where They’re Going

One of the big riddles of the 2012 election cycle is lower white voter turnout. Why did it happen?

Rush Limbaugh blames lower white voter turnout on Mitt Romney. By Limbaugh’s reckoning, Romney simply wasn’t conservative enough to fire up the Republican base. On his radio program yesterday, Limbaugh speculated that evangelicals stayed home. After the Romney debacle, he wants to double-down on hard-right policy positions to drive up white voter turnout in the next election cycle.

Limbaugh’s solution, in short, is revival; a version of “give me that old-time religion.”

Conservative David Frum, however, thinks this won’t work, and he offers a different reason for the slump in white turnout: we’ve entered the 21st century. Republicans have embraced policies that belong to the 20th. That turns off key segments of the white voting population.

Put differently, “give me that old-time religion” no longer works, and the further we get into the 21st century, the more obvious this fact will become. Here’s Frum:

[I]t’s certainly possible for Republicans to choose to be a white person’s party. If we do so choose, however, we are also choosing to be an old person’s party. Since the elderly receive by far the largest portion of government’s benefits, an old person’s party will be drawn by almost inescapable necessity to become a big-government party. Indeed, that is just what happened in the George W. Bush years: Medicare Part D and all that.

In the Obama years, the GOP rebelled against Bush-era big government. But because it remained an old person’s party—more so than ever—the only way to reconcile the voting base and the party’s ideology was to adopt Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which loaded virtually all the burden of fiscal adjustment onto the young and the poor. And that of course intensified the party’s dependence on the old, white voters who set the cycle in motion in the first place.

In other words, Frum is pointing out a catch-22 within the Republican Party itself: in seeking the older white voter, it risks alienating the younger white voter; and in seeking the younger white voter, it risks alienating the older white voter. In both cases, the effect is a slump in white voter turnout. And that’s not the only catch-22 that presents itself to the Republican Party. Another is the divide between the white college-educated and the white less-educated:

[T]he GOP’s social conservatism has increasingly repelled college-educated voters. In 1988, college-educated whites voted for George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis by a margin of more than 20 points. In 2008, John McCain bested Barack Obama among college-educated whites by only 2 points. As the GOP relies more heavily on less-educated voters, it finds itself relying on a class of people who have lost ground economically. Those voters understandably tend to mistrust business. It’s an odd predicament for the party of free enterprise to base itself on the most business-skeptical voters—a predicament that cost Romney dearly in the industrial Midwest.

The ironies here are multiple. A Republican Party that blends small government advocacy with social conservatism is in danger of turning off two key groups of white voters: the elderly and the college-educated. And a Republican Party that blends big government advocacy with social libertarianism is in danger of turning off two other key groups of white voters: the young and the less-educated. In both cases, white turnout for Republican candidates gets imperiled.

So what does Frum suggest Republicans do? His path forward is to embrace the 21st century and let the white recidivist base strategy go:

On the Republican side, the road to renewal begins with this formula: 21st-century conservatism must become economically inclusive, environmentally responsible, culturally modern, and intellectually credible. […]

[A] great British conservative, the Marquess of Salisbury, warned, “The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.” The Democrats of the 1980s and 1990s had the courage and honesty to identify which of their policies had died and then ruthlessly discard the carcasses. It falls to modern conservatives now to heed Salisbury’s advice: to abandon what is obsolete—and to meet the challenge of the new.

In other words, drop the paths that continue to be forged by Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum. But do you suppose the party is really capable, temperamentally or otherwise, of actually doing this?

Frum, by the way, has written a whole book on why Romney lost. That was fast.

Why Romney Lost by David Frum

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to Catch-22s: Conservative David Frum On Where All The White People Have Gone–And Where They’re Going

  1. Chris Dudley says:

    In Frum’s first quote, he also points out, rather deliberately, that the Republican party would willingly let Seniors go without assistance, and presumably starve, if they didn’t need their votes. Telling. I take great confidence in the calls by some in the Republican ranks for retrenchment, in their accusations that stupid people voted democratic. Yes, keep telling yourself that and keep digging, please.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      One big factor in a Republican turnaround is to stop hating on Obama and to wish him well in his second term and to try to work with him. They couldn’t do it in the first term (think of Limbaugh hoping Obama would fail and the Senate Majority leader saying his number one priority was unseating him). This attitude sent a very definite signal to women and minorities: Republicans HATE it when someone nonwhite or not male takes power. Obama became a lightening rod to which a multitude of groups identified their own lives with the hatred directed at him and took it personally.

      Republicans will likely double-down on their behavior and may even be willing to tank the economy in a bid to have a comeback in 2014 and 2016. There’s a maliciousness at work that they have to decouple from for the good of the country, but that they probably won’t.

      If they do bring the country’s economy down by refusing to negotiate with the president, it’s an open question whether they’ll get the blame. They may be willing to take that risk.


      • Chris Dudley says:

        Well said. I don’t see them repudiating their viciousness either. I don’t see it working the next time, either. I do wonder, though, how far Obama will reach across the aisle? Until his soft underbelly is showing? I hope not. i’d much prefer he fought nearly as viciously as the Republicans. We’ll see. It will be an interesting few years.

  2. mhasegawa says:

    I’ve heard talk about the need for the Republicans to just package their message better meaning a non-white face and not so strident. OK, Romney was just not a good candidate but do they want to take the risk of having a “likable” candidate with the same message and have people really understand what their message is? I almost hope they run Bobby Jindal next time. Won’t that be fun?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Yes, that’s the first step, isn’t it? Just put up a nonwhite face but don’t change one’s policy positions.

      My hope is that Puerto Rican statehood comes to the fore of national attention soon and that Republicans end their resistance to it. It would be good for the country and good for Republicans (if they’re serious about moderating their policies toward Hispanics).


  3. Anonymous says:

    Republicans are OK with a black or woman being the President, but not OK with a lying cheating socialist being President.

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