In January 2010, at National Review Online, I wrote “The New Republican: How to Build the GOP’s Next Generation.” That article was theory. Six years later, NewRepublican.org is growing in influence. Newly elected U.S. senator Cory Gardner ran and won, following the principles we set out. Republican candidates for House, Senate, and president are campaigning with a New Republican approach. New Republican is helping advance principled conservative legislation. This is Part II, in which I describe New Republican theory in practice and argue that the answer to the Republican party’s problems is not identity politics. It’s a new understanding of how freedom is the indispensable element in a connected world.
To hear Democrats tell the story, the Republican party has a problem: We are running out of old white men.
Not long ago, they tell us, old white men were plentiful and served as the GOP’s primary footstock. Large herds wandered the fairways of private golf clubs, camouflaged in mismatched plaids, pounding the ground with clubs. They roamed the grassy plains of their native habitats in abundance. More common varieties hibernated in the stands of NFL stadiums, drank beer because it had calories, and worked as auto mechanics or plumbers.
Today, as we emerge from old-growth manufacturing forests dense with factories to a new communications ecosystem of service jobs, a sharing economy, and digital paper-shuffling, old white men have lost their primacy. New species — Millennials, women, and minorities — have supplanted them. These voters, Democrats tell us, are unfamiliar to Republican tastes.
In The Emerging Democratic Majority, John B. Judis and Rudy Teixeira argue that demographic trends compel an unavoidable political realignment that will keep Democrats in power perpetually. White voters who have sustained Republican majorities are, at best, static in number, they report, while the electorate is growing increasingly diverse, with expanding minority populations.
From the the Los Angeles Times, April 23, 2015:
It is hard to say when it will come, but our democracy faces a tipping point in the not-to-distant future when a fearful, ticked-off generation of conservative white voters will have passed on and a multiracial, socially liberal generation finally gets the voting habit. When that happens, the Republican Party risks going the way of the 19th-century Whigs because, year after year, the GOP’s constituency has been growing older and even more white.
And so the story ends: The GOP is doomed. Our dependence on a stagnating pool of voters has left us facing famine. If we do not find a way to nourish the GOP with the voters of the future, we will become the party of the past.
(Data slides in this document are courtesy of GOP pollster Whit Ayers, author of 2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America; Gallup; and Wes Anderson, of OnMessage Research.)
The Real GOP Problem
There is truth in this Democrat storyline. A demographic transformation is reorganizing America’s voting pool.
But the news for the Republican party is that our problems are much, much larger than our inability to appeal to swelling demographic groups. Those challenges, in fact, are small potatoes. As a national political institution, in our responsibility to lead the nation, the Republican party is failing with all voters, everywhere. Even old, white men are disillusioned with the GOP. They just have nowhere else to turn.
In focus groups across the country, the saddest thing I hear from voters of all ages, all classes, and all colors is this: “The world is changing and the Republican party is being left behind.” Uniformly, voters report they see a Republican party that believes its principles are good only for telling people what they can’t do and shouting “No” at increasingly high decibels.
At the federal level, in off-year elections, when voters are looking for a corrective, they trust Republicans to slam the brakes and say, “Stop.” But in presidential elections, when voters are looking for leadership, they don’t trust us with the steering wheel.
If you build a church without Jesus, all you’ve got is a warehouse. So it is with the Republican party: We seek power without purpose. Americans see a Republican party largely incapable of explaining why we need GOP principles to lead us to a better place.
Demography Is Not Destiny
The theory behind The Emerging Democratic Majority is built on the assumption that growing demographic groups will, for all the ages, vote Democratic. But grounding a political party on demography instead of principle is perilous. Enticing constituencies to follow a trail of Democratic promises and morsels of federal funding will work only until Washington runs out of bread crumbs — which is exactly what has occurred.
Millennials are coming out of college with massive student loans, mounting debt to their country, and diminished prospects of work and careers. Many must live at home with Mom and Dad and defer marriage. Minorities are seeing their children trapped in failing schools and young males incarcerated at alarming rates, as their communities collapse into crime and poverty-ridden islands. Young women, finally invited to the dance, find they have arrived too late: The party is over. Just as they are beginning to shatter the glass ceiling and gain access to economic opportunities previously available only to men, these prospects are evaporating for both genders.
The Democratic strategy of promising everything and delivering nothing is economically and politically bankrupt.
It is not just Republicans who have lost public trust: Both parties sport team jerseys that most Americans are reluctant to wear. Gallup reports that “the percentage of U.S. adults identifying as Democrats is now at the lowest point in the past 27 years.”
Our electorate is becoming younger and more ethnically diverse, and women are gaining economic, cultural, and political power. At the same moment, however, America is looking for an alternative to both a Democratic party that only offers more of what is failing us and a Republican party that only says “no” to Democrats.
And therein lies an opportunity for Republicans: Somewhere, beyond today’s horizon, is there a Republican party that is principled, necessary, and respected? Is there a Republican party whose jersey most voters would proudly wear?
A GOP That Appeals to All Voters
At NewRepublican.org, we’ve spent the last two years taking GOP principles, policy, and messaging to all flavors of voters — our base, swing voters, and the growing populations whose support we need to earn.
We have conducted surveys, focus groups, and dial tests, publicly available at at our website. We’ve listened and also learned about making the case for the ideas that have energized our country since its creation.
Our task was not to become “Democrats-lite.” We were not aiming to compromise conservative principles in ways that our base would find unobjectionable. Nor was our aim to design new approaches — new rhetoric — to deceive the voters of the future, tricking them into supporting a Republican party that offered little in exchange.
Our mission was to learn whether freedom was still necessary to all elements of our evolving electorate. Is there a hunger for it in the electoral pool where conservative Republicans cast their net?
The Need for Freedom in a Connected World
Here is what we’ve learned. If we ask younger voters, Millennials, for example, what they think about “freedom,” they tell us: “It’s great. I love freedom! I read about it in history class! That’s the thing we won 200 years ago, right!? The guys in the powdered wigs?”
They have no clue about “freedom” in their own lives, no hint of why they need it, when they use it, or how to value it.
But when we ask them the same question in language they understand, about the world they inhabit, the results are remarkable. In some ways, they are the most freedom-loving generation in history. The key is to ask them how they employ freedom, not in theory, but in practice. In that context, they’ve told us that one of the most powerful ways today’s voters understand freedom is through their ability to connect with others and share information.
Our predecessors, 240 years ago, understood freedom similarly. When they rose in the village square and fought for their right to connect with others and exchange information, they called it “freedom of speech.”
Today, most of us understand and even take for granted our ability to connect with others and exchange information through something new: our cellphone and mobile devices. These devices are at the center of our lives and at the heart of our expanding individual potential.
Americans understand this: Close things up and we do less and become less; open things up and we do more and become more.
Do you ever wonder why we feel such powerful and painful withdrawal when we lose our phones or become disconnected from them, if only for a few seconds? Most people describe their reaction with the same word: “panic!” Why is our response immediate and our loss nearly unbearable? After all, a cellphone is just a device. It’s not difficult to replace one.
But that’s the point: Our phones are not something “other” than us. They are us. With them, we are constantly and infinitely connected. We are one with everyone, everywhere. That connection expands what we can do, which necessarily expands who we are and what we can become. In today’s communication culture, our devices have helped us expand and link together our individual nervous systems. Our connectedness is an enlargement of our abilities and possibilities, an opening up of our individual promise and potential.
All of us want to keep that phone and the promise of that connectedness open. We have to. We don’t need to be educated about it or have it explained to us. We get it. Our research and experience over the past two years tell us that connected Americans understand this: Close things up and I do less and become less; open things up and I do more and become more.
In a way, that is what our Founders felt 240 years ago. If the Crown took away their freedom to speak, they would be lessened. If they could preserve their freedom, America could grow.
Open versus Closed
Our research indicates that today’s voters see their alternatives similarly: If we give them a choice between “open” and “closed,” what do they choose instantly and every time? They choose “open.” They choose freedom. And that has powerful political implications.
We’ve found that if we give voters a choice between an “open” economy as Republicans intend and a “closed” economy as Democrats have defended, voters choose “open.” They choose freedom.
If we give voters a choice between an “open health care system,” as Republicans propose, and a “closed” one, as Democrats offer, what do Americans choose? They take “open.” They choose freedom.
If we give voters a choice between a school system that is “open” to innovation and choice, as GOP leaders propose, and the “closed,” factory-like school system that Democrats still protect, Americans choose “open.” They choose freedom.
And reforming Washington?
If we give voters a choice between growing America’s economy as Republicans propose, or growing and expanding Washington’s economy as Democrats still defend, guess what Americans pick? They choose freedom.
Give voters a choice between fresh, bottom-up economic growth and old, top-down Democratic plans? Between growing the economy naturally and organically, as Republicans propose, or trying to grow it the old way — top-down, politically and artificially, from Washington — as Democrats still insist? Americans choose freedom.
Republican principles remain powerful and persuasive — if they are expressed as today’s voters employ them. In the communications age, “open” is how Americans of every class, age, color, and gender understand freedom. Voters beyond the GOP base also tell us they are attracted to a Republican party committed to opening America to the future — as opposed to a Democratic party that defends the closed, top-down governing structures of the industrial age.
Asking voters to choose an “open” culture, economy, and society over antiquated “closed” structures is not an exercise in abstract rhetoric. It is a cross-generational fighting strategy for Republican officeholders and candidates. We can appeal to the voters of the future by asking them to choose between an approach that works more like Uber and less like an old, yellow, taxi-cab company.
Harnessing Working-Class Frustration
No less important: When we ask voters to choose an “open” culture, economy, and society, we are also compelling them to reject the Washington status quo. The banner of “openness” is a powerful rejection of elitism. It serves as a battle flag for populist, blue-collar “Reagan Democrats” who are legitimately frustrated with Washington. Living in an open society, they will no longer tolerate the self-indulgent, condescending establishment that is incapable of meeting its most basic responsibilities.
Forcing a choice between an open and a closed economy not only compels an argument between the past and the future, it also initiates a battle between principled conservative outsiders demanding change and insiders defending “more of the same.”
Putting Conservative Principles to Work
So, does it work?
Immediately after the 2014 election, we returned to key swing states with survey research and looked at four U.S. Senate races.
Did voters understand their choices as we expected? If so, did this help candidates associated with “an open economy, not a closed one”? Did it aid candidates who supported “an economy that grows naturally, bottom-up, not top-down from Washington”? Do voters reject candidates who defend a “closed economy where Washington puts political and artificial limits on their opportunities”?
They do. In Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina, displaying nearly identical patterns, swing voters elected the candidate they identified with an “open” economy that grows “naturally, bottom-up,” not a “closed economy where Washington puts political and artificial limits on our opportunities.” Only in New Hampshire, where independent voters did not see this difference between the candidates, did the Republican lose the race.
The results below are from OnMessage Research, November 2014.
Re-Expressing Conservative Principles for Today’s World
Why not keep talking about the world the way Republicans do now? If we paint the house the same color, nobody knows we’ve painted the house.
New information changes things; old doesn’t. If we tell people what they already know, they stay where they already are — and we lose the opportunity to attract new voters who already embrace our principles (even while they dislike our old “Republican” label.)
Change is not easy to swallow. Terms such as “free trade,” “free enterprise,” and “school choice” are deeply ingrained. Republicans should never and will never abandon them. But they are already built into our GOP stock price. They are no longer politically transformative. As we advocate a new direction, we must be careful about relying only on language that identifies us with Republicans of the past.
The language for which we are known today elicits a polarizing, Pavlovian response: Familiar arguments drive partisan fighters to their comfortable corners.
The language for which we are known today elicits a polarizing, Pavlovian response: Familiar arguments drive partisan fighters to their comfortable corners, from which progress is least attainable. If Republicans mean to be change, we should sound like it.
Ultimately, however, we are not talking about “words that work,” even though words such as “open” do. We are searching for the meaningful expression of principle.
In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk quoted Edmund Burke on our mission. Burke wrote, “Conservatives have a gift for re-expressing their principles to fit the times.” Burke did not maintain that our gift is an ability to compromise our principles to fit the times. Nor did he instruct us to find new principles to fit the times. Instead, Burke challenged us to explain, in the language of the moment, how people use freedom — indeed, how it is vital — in their everyday life.
It’s the minimum required of any conservative who contends for leadership, and it is not as difficult as we have supposed. We happen to be right: The next generation is telling us that freedom is always a new idea, needed even more in the world ahead than in the one we currently inhabit.
The greatest intellectual contribution to the cause of freedom in recent years has been made by Arthur Brooks, of the American Enterprise Institute. In time, his most recent books, including The Conservative Heart, will find their place comfortably alongside The Conservative Mind, Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, and Freidrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.
Brooks eloquently describes the transformative power of “earned success” and notes that political parties that are against things are a poor challenge to those that are for people. His insights are being embraced by a new generation of conservative leaders such as House speaker Paul Ryan.
Still, it is a shocking admission of how far the GOP has to go that Ryan’s insistence on campaigning in black and poor neighborhoods, with a message of prosperity and equal economic opportunity for everyone, is radically new for us — as if we doubted the capacity of conservative principles to benefit all Americans.
Brooks’s arguments deserve political support. They call on us to offer a dynamic alternative to the old, insensitive, industrial-age machinery that is now hurting the very people it intends to help.
Legislation and policy alone do not compel that choice. They are not a communication strategy. Policy and legislation face inward. Senators and House members speak a unique language, not clearly understood by those outside the temple. When our leaders talk about H.R. such-and-such, continuing resolutions, and omnibus bills, they might be doing the essential work of the country, but they are not inspiring anyone to man the barricades. Making policy and legislation is different from communicating it.
Our problem, as freedom-loving Republicans, is not that we lack policy proposals that would move money and power away from the grinding wheels of our public sector. We have an abundance of good policy. But stirring the American people to support conservative legislation requires that we present them with a choice.
“Open versus closed” is not policy. It is an argument. It is the foundation of a communications strategy intended to compel principled Republican conservatism and to support an open and free society in an increasingly connected world.
Smartphones Are Freedom
Alex Smith may have the toughest job in America. She is chairwoman of the College Republican National Committee. Alex is irrepressibly optimistic. It’s her job to recruit young Americans to the party that my rotary-phone generation has left to hers. In “The Crisis in Conservatism,” at The Hill, she recently explained:
A smartphone is an argument for an open society and freedom. . . .
My generation has moved beyond the boundaries of traditional expressions of conservatism. No one needs to tell a young person today the ability to call a car at any time of day from any location from your smartphone is freedom. It’s an integral part of their lives. They just don’t use the language of the Greatest Generation to describe it.
Millennial voters demand freedom in everything they do. They’ve never allowed anyone to tell them how to live, work, consume or do just about anything else.
The next generation of Americans not only think conservatism is right in principle, they believe it is right in practice. They live it — and they are out there, waiting for us. That should renew every conservative’s faith.
The Path Ahead
What should we do about the Republican party we see before us?
As we assess our troubled 2016 GOP nominating process, our future looks dark and dangerous. Just as our party is expressing the legitimate frustration of working-class Americans with Washington’s limp, self-perpetuating elites, we risk alienating ourselves from the voters we need to win elections.
Imagine how different our prospects might be in 2016 if the conservative cause and the Republican party were energized not only by populist Reagan Democrats but also by aspiring minorities, Millennials, suburban women, and others?
If we continue to confirm the cliché of the GOP as visionless, angry, and unkind, we risk bringing on ourselves a Mondale-like presidential defeat.
In 2016, if we continue to confirm the cliché of the GOP as visionless, angry, and unkind, we risk bringing on ourselves a Mondale-like presidential defeat, and we might also lose the U.S. Senate and suffer a catastrophic loss of seats in the House. The Republican party could become a political relic that would not win the support of voters for generations.
Without a competitive Republican party, our country will be irrevocably transformed by a Democratic party that believes “businesses don’t create jobs,” that the ancient machinery of Washington hasn’t done enough, and that government via creaky assembly line should be more expansive.
Compromising GOP principles and becoming Democrats-lite would be the path to failure. Clinging to an anemic conservatism that holds that our principles are good only for shouting “No” would display an equally dangerous lack of faith. As Margaret Thatcher taught us, “First win the argument, then win the vote.” If we love freedom and want to preserve it, we cannot limit our understanding of it to history books. We must understand how it lives today. The darkness infecting today’s politics is an opportunity for those of us who love liberty to light a new and more promising path.
NewRepublican.org and others are working to build a GOP that appeals to all voters, not by abandoning conservative principles, but by embracing and re-expressing them to fit the times. We are committed to supporting all New Republicans running for office in 2016 who believe that freedom is always a new idea.
Our doors are open to anyone who would help advance the vision of a positive, popular, and principled Republican party that loves freedom — or, openness. That’s the GOP our country should have, instead of the one we see today.
— Alex Castellanos is a GOP political media strategist.