Identity politics in political parties
Since November 4th, one of the most widely discussed topics in the public sphere has been the future of the GOP in national politics. If we think back to this year's Democratic and Republican National Conventions we may see exactly why. Looking at the crowds that filled the stands at each party's convention, the contrast could not have been greater: at the Democratic convention in Denver, we saw a highly diverse and youthful group of people who really did look like America's future; at the Republican convention in Minneapolis, we saw a group of people which was almost entirely white and noticeably older than its Democratic counterpart, calling to mind images of our country's not-so-distant exclusionary political past. If we look at the composition of each party's membership in Congress, we may notice an equally stark contrast: Democrats have among their members many women and blacks, along with a number of Hispanics and Asians, as well as all three openly gay members of the federal legislature (Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and the newly-elected Jared Polis of Colorado); Republican members of Congress, on the other hand, are, as far as I am aware, entirely white (with the exception of Anh "Joseph" Cao, a Vietnamese American, who was just recently elected to Congress from Louisiana's 2nd District) and have a significantly smaller proportion of women among their ranks than do the Democrats.
As the various demographics of our nation shrink and swell with the tide of history (according to the U.S. Census Bureau, whites will compose less than 50 percent of the United States' total population by 2050), it becomes increasingly apparent that the Republican Party's ability to represent the interests of the average American are diminishing as a factor of the tremendous incongruence between the makeup of its members – both its elected officials and its supporters – and that of the electorate at large. Noting the tremendous margins by which Barack Obama defeated John McCain among black and Hispanic voters, the infamous Karl Rove recognized that his party must address this issue sooner rather than later: "[The GOP must] be a party governing all Americans… It can only do that by making the case to African American and Latinos." There is a growing concern among many moderate conservatives that the Republican Party has become, as the Huffington Post's Sam Stein puts it, "too country club," creating the distinct possibility that "Democrats will have a generational lock on the growing minority vote." The GOP's reach also appears to be becoming progressively more limited geographically. Said Michigan Republican Party Chair Saul Anuzis, "There is a perception that we are a regional party and that we are a party from the South because that's the region we're consistently winning today…I do think we need to have our version of the 50-state program that [Democratic National Committee Chair Howard] Dean had." Republicans have not been competitive in the majority of congressional races in much of the northeast and the west coast in years, not only because of these areas' comparatively large minority populations, but also because of their use of extremely divisive political tactics of recent election cycles in order to promote so-called family values. "By relying on wedge issues to win, they've used issues to divide people and worked to appeal to an increasingly smaller group of people," said one DNC staffer.
In recent elections, through the use of such divisive issues as gay marriage and abortion, the Republican Party had hoped to drive up turn out among its base, which encompasses primarily white, working class evangelicals. This was quite successful in 2004, as religious voters turned out at the polls en masse to deny rights to gays through ballot initiatives in various states (and, wanting "God in the White House," cast their votes for the born-again George W. Bush). As we have seen, however, such a strategy is simply not politically sustainable, particularly as such voters are becoming an ever more irrelevant segment of the national constituency. For some time now, moderate Republicans like Ron Paul have been expressing their dissatisfaction with the religious takeover of their party, demanding a return to Goldwater-style conservatism. Some in the GOP hope that their party's restructuring will come with the rise of a new generation of leaders, such as the aforementioned Congressman-elect Anh Cao and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who is of Indian descent and has been called the "Republican Obama." Such figures would indeed be a refreshing change from the current Republican Congressional roster and allow the GOP to engage a new, remarkably diverse generation of voters in their own terms. If such a restructuring occurs and the Republicans expand their base beyond its historical confines, this will be beneficial not just for their party but for all Americans. By recognizing and respecting the differences among Americans rather than confining their attention to the interests of one homogeneous group, the GOP can improve our political process and, ultimately, the country at large.
Josh Baker is a Rutgers College senior majoring in sociology. His column, "Zeitgeist," runs on alternate Wednesdays. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.