Jeff Flake spent most of his retirement speech denouncing the president’s incivility, but perhaps Flake’s most important observation, which immediately followed his announcement that he would not seek reelection, is how Republican voters have shifted ideologically:
It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative, who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican party, the party that has so long defined itself by its belief in those things.
Flake’s speech would have been better had he explored why the ideological Jeff Flakes of the world struggle to maintain Republican support. It can’t just be Donald Trump’s mean tweets! One possibility is that party coalitions have changed. Mass immigration, mostly legal, has allowed Democrats to swell their ranks with majorities of Hispanic and Asian-American newcomers who are, as political scientist George Hawley has observed, “considerably more progressive, on average, than non-Hispanic whites across multiple issues.” To compensate, Republicans broke off a larger chunk of the white working class from the Democratic coalition. The new arrangement has given the GOP nominal control of the lawmaking branches, but it comes with a price — the new working-class Republicans are not as interested in the limited-government principles that Jeff Flake (and I and most NR readers) value. As a result, there may no longer be enough small-government voters to elect lots of Jeff Flakes to national office.
For Flake to explain his downfall that way, however, would be to acknowledge his own culpability. He has been a steadfast supporter of mass immigration, importing voters who are more open to big government and more likely to vote for Democrats. The ensuing realignment, in which Republicans reached for more populist-minded voters in order to stay competitive, has reduced the influence of the limited-government bloc and left Flake feeling like a man without a party.
Flake would probably argue, as most conservative immigration advocates do, that if Republicans had only done a better job spreading the free-market message to immigrant newcomers, then the party would not need populism to win elections. As I explained in a recent essay for NR, that view has never been convincing. Immigrants are ideologically inclined to larger government and have consistently voted that way, despite years of GOP outreach. Believing that we can bring in large numbers of big-government supporters without affecting the nation’s ideological balance is a case of hubris, and it may be at the heart of Flake’s downfall today.