Conservatives, at least a bunch of them, have become too fatalistic these days. The GOP can’t change on immigration, is the frequent refrain, not surprisingly from those who themselves don’t favor immigration reform. Matt Continetti (who has guest blogged here) writes, “Illegal immigration is not the reason Hispanic voters support the Democratic party. Hispanic voters support the Democratic party because they tend to agree with its domestic policy agenda of redistributing money to the middle class and needy . . . Not only would an amnesty fail to win Latino votes, it would tear the Republican coalition apart.”
That is wrong, from our vantage point, and betrays a regrettable trend among right-leaning pundits. The idea that the electorate is frozen, unreachable through persuasion and reason, is a sign of intellectual exhaustion. In fact, the GOP electorate and the country at large morph and evolve all the time.
Since the election Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have explained and cajoled fellow conservatives on immigration. A significant number of conservative pundits have embraced their efforts, or at least not declared war on them. There is a healthy debate, care of Jeb Bush, as to whether permanent residency or citizenship should be the outcome for those here illegally. What seemed impossible in the 2012 election (Amnesty!) is now a real potential. We may yet see a conservative plan for immigration reform and legalization that can gain widespread acceptance in the party.
Even in Arizona, yes Arizona, sentiments are changing. Clint Bolick of the conservative Goldwater Institute (and Jeb Bush’s coauthor on their immigration book) writes that “the view of an increasing number of Arizonan Republicans is that . . . comprehensive immigration reform is necessary in order to reduce the incentive to cross the border illegally. The fact that such an insight seems to be taking hold in Arizona, of all places, should give rise to optimism that long-overdue national immigration reform may well be within reach.” That came about in part due to changes in the electorate as more Hispanics registered to vote, but also because Republicans were watching election returns. (“The shift began when Mr. Pearce, the author of S.B. 1070 [Arizona's controversial immigration law], was successfully recalled less than a year after he became state Senate President in 2011. . . [And] when Mr. Pearce sought his old seat in 2012, he was soundly defeated in the Republican primary by a fellow conservative whose main difference with Mr. Pearce was over immigration.”)
Likewise, some but not all evangelicals are rallying to the immigration reform effort. Bloomberg Businessweek reported that evangelicals favor immigration reform in roughly the same percentages as all voters and seven points higher than Republicans overall.
The fatalism of some on the right extends to the conviction that certain segments of the electorate are unwinnable (e.g. Hispanics, gays, women) and that trying to win them will destroy the fragile coalition of the GOP base. (This is of course another rationale for not doing what they don’t like, namely immigration reform.) Well, if modern conservatism can’t gain adherents from different segments of society (the ones growing the fastest, to boot) they might as well close up shop.
The party that evolved from green eye-shade economics to supply side economics and from Robert Taft isolationism to Reaganism can undergo some serious rethinking and realignment on any number of issues. For a party that is supposed to believe in individual self-government, too many conservatives take a dim view of their fellow citizens. In lieu of making conservatism appealing and growing the party, they seem all too willing to adopt a pale imitation of the welfare state. (I agree in large part with this critique from Reason magazine.)
Figuring out what to save and what to discard is at the heart of the conservative challenge. Peter Berkowitz has called it the tension between liberty and tradition. What conservatives can’t do is be at odds with the American experience of greater inclusion and social tolerance. Railing at women in the military (as opposed to making sure standards are upheld so only the most capable of both genders are in strenuous, front-line positions) or making opposition to gay marriage a plank of a national party is not going to get the GOP anywhere. Conservatives don’t need to cheerlead for positions with which they disagree but flailing at long-term social trends and popular referenda in state after state isn’t recommended.
The question for the GOP, and for conservatism more generally, is if it can defy the stereotype of an intolerant, unsympathetic party of whites. Conservatives shouldn’t be part of efforts to cement those stereotypes by writing off blocks of voters or saying their own voters are resistant to experience and reason. Instead, they should be out rallying like-minded individuals and making their views the new normal for the party. I’m betting that Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and others will be capable persuaders.
Whether it is tax policy or health care or education, the GOP has to take what is central to its message (freedom) and demonstrate that it is a relevant value with policy applications for Americans. And really, the whole crotchety routine (Forget Hispanics! Kick gays out!) has to go. It is a turn-off and is, at its core, morally wrong.