I HAD JUST finished reading the New York Times article “Republicans Reconsider Positions on Immigration” when confirmation of President Obama’s Florida victory arrived. Had more Republicans heeded the advice of Florida’s Jeb Bush, this article, and the contest it describes, might have concluded differently. Having absorbed this uncontroversial bit of information, Republicans are at last coming around to the Bush and company point-of-view, which ten years ago was summarized as “The Big Tent” and the Party of Lincoln, and whose current mantra is the phrase path to citizenship.
In the days after a presidential election, everyone is a clear-eyed political theorist expert in matters that only days earlier were murky and mysterious. Yet while the complexity of the human world (especially where politics is concerned) is a principle we do well to assert, in rare instances the simplicity of a case is what must be upheld. In this US election, there was no use denying the plain evidence of the demographics. The composition of the United States of America has been rapidly changing since the 1950s, the decade in which America was more “white” than either before or after. In a not-distant future, the majority of Americans will tick one of the census boxes which together constitute what we have become used to calling the ethnic minorities. Long accustomed to looking nostalgically backward to the 1950s, American Conservatives are adjusting to the unpleasant fact that 2050 will henceforth be the more expedient touchstone.
To render the demographics along racial lines is perhaps to obscure an underlying unity. One gathers from an analysis of the popular vote that the young, the female, the single parent, and the ethnic minority tilted in a Democratic direction, whereas the married, the older, the white and the male were more likely to vote Republican. Apprehended as economic categories, these groups and their predilections suggest an aggregated dichotomy of those who are relatively established and secure and those who are not. Or, to put the matter in more coarse and less nuanced terms, the haves and have-nots. From this one can infer for example the Republican Latino voter, quite probably older and well-moneyed, and in any case not likely to suffer under the sort of harsh immigration arrangement sometimes contemplated by the more strident politicians (not all of them, note, Republican). In other words, the categories of race and gender and marital status reflect still other categories having to do with economic security and one’s attachment, or non-attachment, to the prevailing order.
This concern with personal security exposes the chief flaw of the American political right’s 2012 political gambit, which for years now has involved slander of government and which as a result has over and again tested the electorate’s patience by rehearsing the absurd theatre of anti-Washington outsiders desperate for their one-way ticket to DC. Mitt Romney was in theory a credible candidate to urge the positive value of government, but the early and dirty work of securing the nomination soiled him beyond repair, as it has with all recent Republican candidates. When the Cold War ended many Conservatives became unable to say exactly what government was for, as they turned to the Austrian school and adopted vacuous pet expressions, such as “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” and “You can’t push a string.” Romney’s 47-percent comment was only the latest manifestation of this Conservative post-war syndrome.
It is doubtful that the outcome of this election — which consumed six billion dollars to change only five congressional seats in the entire nation — represents a generalized satisfaction. This one was for the Republicans to lose, and a bang-up job of it they did. Whether one considers the institution of marriage or the racial composition of the country or immigration or income distribution or the economy, the current trajectory of American demographics portends massive change. So long as the idée fixe of the Republican leadership is to change it back, the party will find itself not only behind in the polls but behind the times as well.