Republicans trade conservatism for shibboleths

The country is still basically conservative. Republicans, however, are not. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, D.C., November 7, 2012 — According to some pundits, Mitt Romney and the Republicans took a drubbing yesterday. President Obama ran up a solid win in the Electoral College, Republicans lost two seats in the Senate, and they lost a couple of seats in the House. Women, Hispanics, and young people (18-29) broke decisively for Obama (we needn’t mention the black vote, which is not in play, won’t be in play, and so doesn’t factor into anything but electoral math). The country seems to have turned left.

Or not. After the most expensive political season in history, the party composition of the federal government didn’t change much. Obama is in a strengthened position today, but his margin of victory was much smaller than four years ago, and his share of the electoral vote is far out of proportion to his share of the popular vote. Voters this week broke less Democratic than four years ago, not more, and many voted Democratic because they were put off by the Republicans, not captivated by the Democrats.

This isn’t to minimize the problem facing Republicans. Demographics aren’t in their favor, as the populations of Hispanics, the un-churched, and other groups that voted for Obama continue to grow. It is to point out, though, that the Republican drubbing is easily exaggerated. The GOP is in trouble; it isn’t on life support.

The “war on women” was a manufactured issue that Republicans could make go away. In a year when the economy was the biggest issue, Republicans just couldn’t keep themselves from talking about rape. Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock have deeply held convictions about abortion, and they were often misquoted (there’s a meme going around that Mourdock thinks that rape is God’s will, which is a huge distortion of what he said), but how might things have turned out if they’d managed to focus on the economy? 

There should have been a national discussion about HHR regulations requiring all insurance plans to include “free” contraception. That the GOP position came to be viewed as opposition to contraception in general was due both to the malice of the press and to the carelessness of Republican politicians. There’s nothing the GOP can do about the former, but every time Democrats and the press gave Republicans the opportunity to talk about contraception, they grabbed it. Why are Republicans so easily distracted by sex?

There’s an acrid haze rising over Colorado and Washington, where votes in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana use are cited as further evidence of a liberal turn by the voters. The same is true of the votes in favor of initiatives in Maine, Maryland and Washington to legalize same-sex marriage, and the vote in Minnesota to reject a constitutional amendment banning it. 

These aren’t liberal-conservative issues. Strong conservative arguments exist in support of legalizing marijuana use and recognizing same-sex marriages. The assumption that people have rights unless the state can show a compelling reason to deny them is a conservative position, while denying rights just because some people feel uncomfortable with them is not. These issues at least force us to ask, just what is it the GOP represents? What do Republicans want conservatism to be about?

If the answer is a simple laundry list of positions on social issues - pro-life, anti-same-sex-marriage, anti-pot - the GOP has made itself an arm of the Christian evangelical movement and should content itself with being the majority party in Oklahoma. 

On immigration, Republican candidates were so eager to demonstrate their opposition to illegal aliens that they boxed themselves into easily labeled positions that were easily caricatured later. There’s nothing intrinsically conservative about different positions on immigration reform (the concept of the DREAM Act was originally Republican), but Republicans managed to convince Latinos (with the help of a media machine always ready to be helpful) that the conservative position was anti-immigrant.

The central tenets of American conservatism have traditionally centered around fiscal responsibility, individual responsibility, individual liberty, and economic liberty. Those are winning issues with a lot of people - Hispanic, female, gay, young, white male, and even black (though because those votes aren’t in play, there’s little point trying to win them). And yet conservatives would often rather focus on positions that aren’t really conservative at all.

The United States remains a fundamentally conservative country, but only when we look at conservatism in terms of liberty and responsibility. When we expand it into “social conservatism,” the country is much more mixed. Americans are moving away from the values of white Christian evangelicals. Democrats have managed, with the help of conservatives and the media, to identify conservatism and the GOP solidly with social conservatism, while managing to sell themselves as the defenders of liberty. 

Republicans don’t know who they are. Democrats do. They’ve changed with the times, learned to tap into both the liberal and conservative strains of American thought, and left Republicans with a rapidly aging laundry-list of positions without any principles to give them cohesion. This election didn’t show that America is becoming more liberal, but only that Republicans no longer have confidence in conservatism and have traded it in for a form of political fundamentalism.

If they want to stay off of life support, they’ll get back in touch with their conservatism - conservative principles, not shibboleths. If they don’t, they’re headed for irrelevance. 


James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He doesn’t know what’s so conservative about telling people what to do, but it is a lot of fun. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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