Posted by on December 7, 2012

The Republicans have dug themselves into a hole and early indications are that they are still clinging to their shovels.

The pact with the devil made by Karl Rove, when he delivered the party to the religious right, has finally reached its logical conclusion.  The Republican Party has become a party of old, white men, a small part of the population that is destined to shrink even further.  The Republicans are looking at years of irrelevancy if they cling to their existing policies or, even worse, heed the cries of those who think that they should dig deeper.

There is a real risk that the Republicans, caught in a battle between the “conservatives” and the “centrists” among them, will miss the opportunity to restore their electoral appeal.  The question isn’t whether the Republicans should become more or less conservative.  The opportunity does not lie along this axis and they should step off this line.  They need to become more libertarian.

The coalition that buried the Republicans in the Presidential election consists of women, hispanics, the young and blacks.  Current Republican policies have little attraction to any of these groups.  Libertarian policies can change this dynamic, at least with respect to three out of four.

President Obama had an 11% advantage over Romney in the women’s vote, a very meaningful difference for a group that represents  over 50% of the voting population.  Abortion is a litmus test for women.  Not only do women care about the issue directly, but it acts as a shorthand for a party’s views on all so-called woman’s issues. It is not surprising that woman refuse to support a party that offers one candidate (Todd Atkin, defeated Missouri senatorial candidate) who stated that “legitimate rape” rarely results in pregnancy and another candidate (Richard Mourdock, defeated Indiana senatorial candidate) who claimed that pregnancy following a rape was something that “God intended” and therefore did not justify abortion.    It is impossible for this not to be perceived as being fundamentally hostile.

On January 22, 2013, Roe v. Wade will celebrate its 40th anniversary.  This will make for 40 years of a failed rearguard action by the religious right to overturn this decision.  It is time for the Republicans to recognize reality.  They should unambiguously declare abortion a personal matter and move on.  The cannot hope for success among woman voters until they are willing to take this step back from futility.

Another group with litmus paper is the hispanics.  For this group, which is growing quickly (a further 1% of the voting population with each Presidential election), the results were totally lopsided: a 44% lead for Obama.  For them, the issue is immigration, which is again both substantive and symbolic.

The irony here is that immigration is traditionally an issue for the blue-color core of the Democratic Party.  The strongest anti-immigrant group has always been unionized labor; after all, immigrants do not typically compete for jobs at Morgan Stanley and Bain Capital.  The last guest worker program for Mexico was killed off in the 1960s by organized labor and its Democratic allies.  It is an interesting commentary on how far both parties have wandered from their traditional support bases that the Democrats are now seen to be the pro-immigration party.

Libertarians have no problem with immigration, rightly done.  In fact, most libertarians have no problem with immigration, full stop.  But the problem with this approach is the interaction between immigration and the welfare state.  Assuming that some form of welfare state is a given, then the “rightly done” qualifier must remain.

Immigration to America in the 19th century benefited from what statisticians would call a strong “positive self-selection bias”.  Immigrants arriving in America knew that they would benefit from nothing and would have to count entirely on themselves, with maybe a little help from friends or relatives who preceded them.  America attracted only the most productive, ambitious and entrepreneurial.  The system assured that the new immigrants would, on average, give more to the economy than they took away.

With the advent of the welfare state, this self-selection process has gone into reverse.  Instead of the most productive and ambitious, we are selecting for the parasitic – not always, to be sure, but on average and in the aggregate.  The welfare state is also the cause of much of the resentment against immigrants: it creates the feeling, and often the reality, that new arrivals are consuming already strained public services without contributing to their funding.

We need immigration policies that restore the original virtuous bias.  We also need immigration policies that are, from the perspective of America, unashamedly selfish.  We explicitly want to target the educated and productive from around the world and dissuade the rest.

Young immigrants with higher education degrees should be given a “free pass”, particularly ones with technical training since we don’t exactly need to add to the ranks of our political science, art history and pre-law majors.  For those without higher education degrees, we need a proper guest worker program.  This would provide a clear path to permanent citizenship for those who can prove, over multiple years, that they have contributed economically (including paying taxes), they have scrupulously adhered to the law (including registering as a guest worker) and they have learned English.  Existing illegals should be allowed to register and legalize themselves as guest workers; perhaps even some credit should be given for prior good behavior.  This program should be combined with rigorous enforcement against the unregistered, including stiff penalties for those who employ them, and extremely restricted access to public services and welfare benefits until full citizenship is achieved.

Now, I don’t know if this kind of “tough love” will earn the support of hispanic voters, but at least it is economically rational and consistent, unlike the current hodge-podge of Republican responses which seem to have hostility as the only common denominator.

The youth vote was similarly lopsided in the favor of President Obama, who gained over 60% of their vote.  Libertarian policies, which are explicitly rebellious and anti-establishment, have a huge appeal to the young, as shown by the candidacy of Ron Paul.  This can help offset one of the greatest deficits the Republicans have: their dismal “coolness” score.  For a voter group that often chooses their politicians the way they choose their clothing, this matters.  A lot.  Libertarian policies would not overnight turn the Republicans into the party of “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll”, but their consistency and logic would go a long way to removing the bull’s eyes from the backs of Republican candidates that make them such easy targets for the likes of Jon Stewart.  They would also allow the Republicans to attract candidates who don’t have to buy a pair of jeans for campaign purposes.

There are two libertarian policies with specific appeal to these voters.  One is the clear distinction that libertarians make between being for free markets and being for big business, a distinction which is often blurred in the Republican camp – to put it mildly.  The other is the libertarian antipathy to foreign military adventures and Pentagon spending.  The easy lampooning of Romney’s budget plans would not have been possible if he hadn’t attempted to be simultaneously anti-government and pro-military.

There is a third policy that is less recognizably libertarian that would appeal to this group: environmental policy, including global warming.  Here, a lot of libertarians get it wrong.   A fundamental role of government is to define and enforce property rights, without which it is impossible for a free market to function.  Contrary to popular belief, pollution results from the absence of property rights and capitalism, not from their presence.  There is no problem with pollution on private property: pollution is an example of the “tragedy of the commons” where everyone has an incentive to despoil and no one has an incentive to protect.  Properly understood, there is no contradiction between protecting the environment and promoting free market capitalism.

The black vote is much tougher for the Republicans to crack without betraying their commitment to small government.  The policies mentioned above will nibble at the edges of this group, but Republican electoral math will simply have to count on substantial black support for the Democrats for the forseeable future.

Of course, the biggest question here is whether the Republicans can make these changes without losing the loyalty and enthusiasm of their existing “base” (or, at least picking up enough in the middle to offset any loss).  To be honest, I don’t know the answer to this question.  I do know, however, that the existing electoral math is no longer working for the Republican Party and it is not going to get any better without fundamental changes.

Roger Barris, Switzerland



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[…] greeted “almost like a rock star.”  This is confirmation for me that, as I pointed out in “In a Hole, With a Shovel,” my post-mortem on the 2012 election, the Republican Party can appeal to young voters if it […]