The GOP’s identity politics conundrum

March 19

When I looked back at the “autopsy” the Republican party ordered one year ago as I was writing a post yesterday, I was surprised to find this line: “One of the contributors to this problem [the perception that Republicans are uncaring] is that while Democrats tend to talk about people, Republicans tend to talk about policy. Our ideas can sound distant and removed from people’s lives. Instead of connecting with voters’ concerns, we too often sound like bookkeepers. We need to do a better job connecting people to our policies.”

What’s odd about it is that for so long, it was Democrats who were thought to lack an understanding of the role identity and values play in politics. I certainly thought that. What I used to say when hectoring audiences of liberals is that, with a few exceptions (such as Bill Clinton), for a long time it seemed that elections would proceed this way: The Democrat would say, “If you read my 10-point plan, I believe you will see that I offer a superior choice to my opponent.” And the Republican would point to the Democrat and say, “That guy hates you and everything you stand for.” Candidates such as John Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis (sample quote: “This election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence.“) just didn’t get it.

Of course, that’s a bit of a caricature, but I think it captures the way a lot of elections seemed to go. Is it really possible that it’s been reversed, and Republicans have forgotten how important identity and values are to politics, droning on about policy while their appeals fall on deaf ears?

I think the answer is that Republicans can still play identity politics; the problem is that identity appeals can’t capture a majority of voters for them anymore, at least not nationally (on the local and state level, when they’re appealing to smaller groups of voters, it still works perfectly well). Ironically, it’s because they’re more defined by identity than ever — an identity as the party of old white guys — that they are stymied when they try to figure out how to play identity politics that goes beyond that demographic.

Witness, for instance, these two ads, part of a new campaign by the GOP to reach out to young voters, in which a hipster dude proclaims that he’s a Republican:

I’m sure I’m not the only person who saw these and asked, “If this guy’s a hip young millennial who lives in the city, what is he doing driving a car?” But what I find interesting about this is that the broad point of the ads is about identity (“Hey, look, a young hipster Republican” is how you’re supposed to react), but the substance of the appeal is all about policy. “I’m a Republican,” he says, “because we should have an ‘all of the above’ energy policy.” Or, in the second ad, “I’m a Republican because my friends need a paycheck, not an empty promise.” In other words, he’s a Republican because of issues!

What other choice did they have? He couldn’t say he’s a Republican because the Republican party is made up of people like him, or because all his friends are and he feels at home in the GOP, or because the Republicans share his values in the social and cultural realms. Because if you’re a twentysomething urban hipster, those things just aren’t true. You might argue that those are poor criteria on which to decide one’s vote, but that’s how identity politics works. If Republicans aren’t playing it enough, maybe it isn’t because they don’t know it’s important, but because it’s increasingly difficult for them to do.

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Paul Waldman | March 19