Will Rogers’ quip, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat,” at the time he made it, contained as much truth as it did satire and humor. I cannot know for sure that if Rogers were alive today he would revise his statement in light of current political conditions.
However, I can engage in some reasonable speculation, which leads me to conclude that the updated Rogers’ aphorism would be, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Republican.” And, if the Republican Party does not get its act together as well as acknowledge and act upon the message that America’s changing demographics is practically screaming at it, the final version of the aphorism applied to it may well be, “Whither the Republican Party?”
To avoid that ignominious end, the GOP has two significant problems it must overcome—one internal and one external.
The internal problem is the internecine struggle the GOP is now going through, most clearly—but not solely—manifested in the fractious nature of the Republican Caucus in the House of Representatives.
The far right wing of the GOP is at war with the traditional right wing of the party, and the moderates in the party (few though they seem to be) struggle to avoid not just their own demise within the party, but the demise of the party itself. The goal—and I would say responsibility—of a party in power is to govern, or to govern as well as it can within its sphere of the system separation of powers and checks and balances.
That goal has been subordinated by the House GOP to a goal of uncompromising—and I would say unreasonable—ideological purity. Compromise, cooperation, and comity, essential to forge legislation for the common good, are anathema to these hard-edged ideologues. There is little need for a party to hold office, let alone exist, if it has no intention of governing.
The external problem relates to the changing demographics of America and how at odds with it are Republican policy positions and rhetoric. These demographic changes have been in the works for some time but have been discussed more publicly and purposely only for about the last four years, since the election of Barack Obama as president. Analyses of the results of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections highlighted trends which should concern Republicans interested in winning elections.
In the face of those two victories for the Democrats and the political landscape being redefined by the changing demographics, have we reached a point that signifies an ongoing political realignment of the American electorate; that is, a generation-long (at least) shift in the partisan or ideological predilections of the electorate away from the Republican Party and toward the Democratic Party?
(Examples of such shifts often cited are the ones that occurred in 1932 with the election of FDR and in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan.)
There are a number of aspects to consider, all significant to the outcomes of future presidential elections, but I want to focus here on just one group, the young voters, specifically the Millennials. Millennials are those born since 1982. These voters comprised 17% of the voting population in 2008 and 19% in 2012.
In an essay titled “The Millennial Pendulum: A New Generation of Voters and the Prospect for a Political Alignment,” the authors noted that if the 2008 changes in the electorate reflect “generational shifts in political attitudes, then they portend a sea change in American political opinion as the Millennial Generation replaces their elders as a share of the voting public.”
What is significant about the Millennials that would make one think a shift is taking place? First, there is the fact that over two-thirds of the millennial vote (the oldest Millennials are about 31 years old), went to Barak Obama in both elections. Their share of the total U.S. electorate is going to increase in the future, ultimately tripling what it was in 2008.
If the youth vote in 2008 and 2012 is the same kind of indicator that the youth vote was in 1980, and particularly in the 1984 election when 59% of the youth vote went to Reagan, the results of the 2008 election would seem to suggest a shift is in the offing. As those young Reagan voters matured, noted the essay, they remained conservative and contributed to the realignment of American politics and the ascendance of Republicans, particularly conservative Republicans. The Republican Party has been trading off that fact for years.
The demographics of the Millennial Generation are also telling. For example: Millennials are a more racially and ethnically diverse group of voters, with the share of 18-25 year olds who are white declining from 88% to 62% between 1968 and 2006; Millennials’ views are more progressive than those of older people and previous generations; and Millennials show increasing support for civil liberties of diverse groups.
They “show a dramatic swing toward the Democratic Party.” Another interesting characteristic of the group, a statistic which is bound over time to have policy implications, is that Millennials are disproportionately represented among the nations uninsured—half of all uninsured adults are between the ages of 18 and 34. They are as likely as the oldest group of voters, note the authors, to endorse universal health insurance.
In a second essay examining the potential political impact of Millennials, authors Neil Howe and Reena Nadler, observe that this generation constitutes “a new political generation with attitudes toward politics, government, and social issues that today’s policy makers cannot afford to ignore. As their influence rises, the Millennials are likely to translate these priorities into a new social contract, radically re-drawing the institutional connection between citizen and state.”
There is an arrogance of power and at times a fatal inertia that affect all organizations, not the least of which are political parties. It causes them to misinterpret the results of an election and to misread the trends in the electorate by ascribing to those results, particularly in the wake of a loss, causes which are self-gratifying and personally vindicating to party leaders and spokesmen. They are also soothing to the party’s base. Such responses may, however, ignore the changes taking place in the electorate. If there were the seeds of a political realignment in the 2008 and 2012 elections, will the Republican Party—can the Republican Party—respond successfully?