Much will be made of this historic election; debates will be had, dissections of what worked or didn’t will occur; some will ask why Romney lost, others, why Obama won, and ultimately all involved will circle with the same question: “Can Republicans be relevant in the 21st century.”
The jury’s out.
This is a party adrift, caught between their more moderate, reasonable past and the religious fundamentalism and social extremism of their current incarnation. While the classic mantra of “small government” remains party dogma, in truth, their misguided insinuations into reproductive politics, LGBT equality, and other personal elements of social policy have made transparent their selective use of the word “small.” There’s a narrow-mindedness there, a mean-spiritedness that’s reflected in their media spokespeople from Rush Limbaugh to Bill O’Reilly to Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck. It’s a party tangled in the past, run by “old, white men” so deeply entrenched in outdated paradigms, blinded to the true nature of America, that they’ve become increasingly less relevant as America continues to evolve past its sepia toned beginnings.
To put it bluntly, Republicans are like Uncle Pierce and Aunt Bunny dressed to the nines in their country club whites, sipping Appletinis and dancing badly to a lounge version of “Hot In Herre.”
Democrats are everyone else.
Party politicians want to keep the focus on how they’re the businessmen, the “job creators,” the smart, savvy economists who know best how to move the country forward, cut the waste, snap programs into step and save the world all without breaking a sweat. But, in fact, they missed the bus that went flying by several cycles ago. While the rest of the country was busy evolving, opening their minds, welcoming diversity, expanding their view of what America was and could be, Republicans shoved their heads in the sand and pretended the only America worth imagining was the one that used to be; the old one, the past one, the America they were convinced needed “taking back.” And so the GOP became the party branded by old: past, antiquated, vintage…irrelevant.
On election night I jotted down occasional comments expressed by TV pundits, newscasters, journalists and politicians engaged in the conversation on both sides of the aisle, interested in how they viewed the questions of the Republican “brand” and “where do we go from here?” Here’s a sampling:
- Chuck Todd: NBC Analyst: ““The Republican Party has not kept up with the changing face of America.”
- Steve Schmidt, GOP commentator on MSNBC: “The GOP will never be able to win another national election until they understand the new demographics of the country.”
- Sarah Palin: “It’s a perplexing time for many of us right now if things continue in this trend that we’ve seen earlier tonight.
- Random right wing commenter: “Our job now is to prevent Obama from being able to act on his evil agenda to destroy the nation. Political guerrilla warfare. Force gridlock.”
As you can see, my list went from wise to worthless. Which portends a party obligated to do some serious “soul searching” as Todd put it, in hopes of finding their footing. While operatives can analyze the campaign and find people to blame, decisions to adjust, weak spots to fix (as many on Fox News already are), what they’re repetitively missing is the bigger conundrum: WHO IS AMERICA TODAY AND HOW DO WE FIT IN WITH IT?
I used to work for a very successful ad man and brand maker, an imaginative fellow who came up with some of the most iconic branding in the world (logos and trademarks you’d recognize). I paid attention and learned a lot from him about how to position products and people to fully maximize their value and appeal to customers. Here’s how he put the basics:
“It’s all about branding. If people don’t associate a product with something they want, something that appears essential for them to have, they’ll pass it by, dismiss it as irrelevant, unnecessary…not hip. Which is death. Which is when you lose your position in the marketplace.”
And that’s what the Republicans have done. How? Consider their brand:
Predominately White, Christian majority, socially conservative, tapped into middle class privilege and opportunity, focused on building wealth that’s disproportionately available and often unscrupulously protected, flanked on the lower economic rung by those bound to the party by shared fundamentalist religious dogma and a rejection of science.
Does that sound like a brand you’d be drawn to, one that represents an “appealing product”? Does it sound like something that’s vibrant and contemporary, representative of the actual world we live in, as opposed to an outdated image of days gone by? Does it sound like anything you’d want?
More and more these days the answer is NO. When Mitt Romney stood up to make his concession speech, like the captain of the football team who’d tried to win president of the student council, he seemed, even then, regardless of his grace in defeat, like a man out of time. A man unaware of what that “council” really was and how he might best serve it. An online commenter protested, “But he still got almost half the votes! Why do we act like this is such a great loss…it was a toss-up!” Well, actually it wasn’t, but I get her point. The problem is, the 50+% of the country Mitt lost is the growing part; the part that’s expanding and filling in the blanks. It’s darker, younger; more tolerant and diverse, typically lower on the financial ladder, but eager with innovation, creativity, an eye toward the new, and an appreciation for making the world a better, more interesting place.
Surely there are some of those in the Republican party, but the leaders? They’re still doing the “old man” dance to “Hot in Herre.”
Like the dinosaurs, the Republican party will either adapt or die. That’s where they’re at after this election: adapting. At the moment they’re too busy creating scenarios to explain why they lost (and their version has little to do with lack of relevance). Which means their only hope is in their still-seeking younger members, the ones who might transcend partisanship to see the writing on the wall.
The jury’s out on that too.
So as that 50+% that gave President Obama a second terms continues to grow and change in this amazingly diverse society of ours, evolution will do what evolution does: thin the herd. Whether the Republican party can survive that will depend on traits they use rarely but will ultimately find non-negotiable: Stepping outside the bubble of their entrenched world to see the America that actually exists and, once fully viewed, adapt to find their place in it. If they don’t, the world will shake them off and carry on without them. Relevance. It’s their call.