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Solving The Republican Conundrum

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The poll just released by The Pew Research Center For The People & The Press, entitled, Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2009, confirms the conclusions reached by the recent Gallup organization polls (April-May, 2009), namely, that the Republican Party is in trouble. Both of these organizations revealed that a mere 23% percent of voters now identify themselves as Republican.  As a result, Republican standing in public opinion polls is at the lowest point since the Watergate scandal (1975).  The polling demonstrates that Republicans have lost much of their once popular governing philosophy.

The reason for this is that Republican political identity is based on unifying two contradictory political ideas, which can no longer peaceably co-exist; that is, social conservatism and libertarianism.  The Party's social (religious) conservatives promote government regulations of private conduct. By contrast, libertarians base their political philosophy on respect for individual rights, and oppose coercive governmental regulations. "?Fusionism', or the attempt to combine these two, opposite political ideas, no longer attracts the voter support necessary to transform the Republicans into a majority political party. Socially conservative Republicans, in fact, alienate moderate and independent voters, who might otherwise support Republican free market and pro-business policies. 

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Unfortunately for Republicans, changing voter demographics have intensified the contradiction between libertarians and social conservatives on the question of government regulation of private conduct.  New voters display only marginal support for Republican social conservatives who endorse government interference in the private sphere, on questions such as marriage or family planning.  Over the past decade, there has been erosion in the percentage of Americans holding socially conservative views on family, ethnicity, homosexuality, and gender roles. The decline in social conservatism is largely a result of the changed values of younger generations, who take a more tolerant view of the differences amongst people.  For these younger voters, political strategies that exploit questions of difference harms Republican electoral opportunities, in part, because these voters view many of the positions advanced by social conservatives as obnoxious. 

The best-known examples of these are restrictions on marital rights that target gays, regulation of women's ability to seek to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, and prohibitions against stem cell research that seeks medical cures for human diseases.  In the past, social conservatives went even so far as to support a ban on so-called "?inter-racial dating' between whites and Afro-Americans (a policy Bob Jones University refused to end until March, 2000), as well as apartheid in South Africa and segregation in the US (the late Rev Jerry Farwell who founded the Moral Majority once promoted these positions, though later, he recanted them).

In addition, the Pew Research Center poll demonstrates that Republicans no longer reflect the growing ethnic diversity of the electorate, 32% of which comprises members of minority groups. For example, whites constitute 88% of the Republican Party, whilst making up only 56% of the Democratic Party. Latinos and other ethnic minority groups account for 44% of Democrats.  Additional social changes concern women and youth. Women, for example, take a particularly harsh view of Republicans, with 57% of women identifying themselves as Democrats, or saying they are independent but leaning toward the Democratic Party, compared with 35% who identify with or lean to the Republican Party. 

Republican attacks against Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor, a distinguished women jurist of Puerto Rican-American ethnicity, the first Latino to be nominated to the highest court, only serves to further erode minority group support for Republicans. Judge Sotomayor, like President Obama himself, stands as a trail-blazer and symbol for ethnic groups, including her own Puerto Rican-American community, as well as women. Her nomination solidifies the popularly-held belief uncovered by the Pew Research Center poll, namely, that hard work and self-discipline leads to the kind of personal success illustrated by Sotomayor's impressive life story. 

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The Gallup organization polls also concluded that younger voters come to age in the post-George W Bush era identify themselves with the diversity themes embodied by President Obama's administration.  Similarly, Gallup reported that only 20% of the so-called "?Generation Y' (18-29 year olds), or "?Millennials', identify as Republican. By contrast, two-thirds of Generation Y identifies themselves either as Democrat or Independent.

The emergence of independents as a political force demonstrates that most voter groups do not approve of governmental restrictions that are promoted by religious and social conservatives. For example, according to another recent Pew Research Center study (April, 2009), even amongst religious groups, majorities of white mainline Protestants (66%) and white non-Hispanic Catholics (62%) supported President Obama's decision to end Federal restrictions on stem cell research. 

However, the poll results suggest that Republicans could yet achieve electoral success if they were prepared to focus on their libertarian, anti-statist preferences and at the same time discard at least the more intrusive government restrictions they promote in relation to the conduct of private and family life. The Pew Research Center's study concludes that voter defections away from the Republican Party are due to the divisive core beliefs promoted by religious (and national security) conservatives, and not the party's anti-big government stance. The Pew study also revealed that Independent voters now comprise 36% of the electorate, the highest level in seventy years. Most Independents do not support the kind of government regulations advanced by social conservatives. In fact, a majority of voters (54-57%), continue to believe that government does more harm than good whilst more voters continue to view government as wasteful and inefficient, as well as controlling too much of daily life. More tellingly, a majority of these voters continue to believe that the government does not work for the benefit of all.

The polls provide an awkward message to Republicans, who, in the past, were known for their anti-big government sentiment.  There appears to be substantial voter support for a libertarian approach, but only one that abandons social conservative baggage. A successful example of this was demonstrated by Congressman Ron Paul (R-Tx), himself once member of the Libertarian Party, who attracted enthusiastic support from Independent voters for his Presidential campaign last year.  It is interesting that, on national security questions, some libertarians, such as Ron Paul, stand to the left of both Democrats and Republicans because they philosophically oppose the idea of state-initiated invasions against foreign nations, and hence oppose military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. These views on national security are also attractive to liberals, moderates and Independents, large numbers of whom question the value of war-making as an instrument of national security policy.


If Republicans want to halt their political marginalization, they will have to re-examine their allegiance to social conservatism. Given the Party's religious-evangelical base, this will be a difficult challenge. However, Republicans may find a way out of the political wilderness through stressing their essential philosophy, namely, a minimal state that respects the rights of individuals and ends coercive governmental regulations. At the very least, such an approach would steer public discourse away from distracting debates about what constitutes the good (and moral) life, such as arguments about gay marriage or abortion rights, and instead promote a constructive discussion about defining a proper role for government.  This is not to suggest that voters oppose regulation of the free market; indeed, most voters (62%) support regulation. However, such a change of focus by Republicans would at least stimulate more debate about the kind and quality of government regulations the public wants in their lives.
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Dr. William K. Barth's book is entitled, On Cultural Rights: The Equality of Nations and the Minority Legal Tradition (Boston, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2008). He received his doctorate from the Univeristy of Oxford.

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