The Myth of the Permanent Majority

THE MYTH OF THE PERMANENT MAJORITY….The Pew survey I linked to yesterday showed some pretty stunning reversals for the Republican Party, and I think it’s worth taking a minute to deconstruct what the numbers show. The party ID catastrophe, in which Republicans have plummeted from a 43-43 tie in 2002 to a 50-35 deficit this year, obviously happened on George Bush’s watch. He’s the least liked president among moderates and young people in over a generation. But the survey also shows something more fundamental: a loss of sympathy for conservative positions, a trend that began well before George Bush ever set foot in the Oval Office.

In a nutshell, what I think happened is this: beginning in the early 90s the Republican Party hitched its wagon to two things: tax cuts and culture war politics. In the short term this worked nicely: people like low taxes and talk radio was pretty successful at keeping cultural conservatives in a constant state of inchoate outrage. George Bush and Karl Rove were this strategy’s ultimate practitioners, and the attacks of 9/11, which they treated as a culture war issue, kept the GOP successful through the first part of this decade.

But in the long term this strategy has been a disaster. Even the wingiest of wingnuts understands that you can’t keep cutting taxes forever, and after 2003 the tax cut jihad simply ran out of steam. There were no more taxes to cut. On the culture war side, as the Pew charts confirm, the problem is that America is getting slowly more culturally liberal as time goes by. Partly this is a generational thing and partly it’s just a continuation of the same slow march of social tolerance that’s been a hallmark of the past half century. Every year there’s one or two percent more of the country that doesn’t hate gays, doesn’t want to ban abortion, and would just as soon see the Ten Commandments stay in church.

Both of these trends are only going to get worse for the GOP. As entitlement benefits grow, taxes are going to have to go up. Everyone knows there’s no way around this, and insisting otherwise will increasingly mark you as a fringe crackpot. Likewise, as culture war issues slowly become the province of a dwindling band of senior citizens and dead-end homophobes, arguing about gays in the military will seem about as relevant as attacking the tin trust.

The GOP isn’t dead, and Democratic victories in future years are hardly assured. But there’s not much question that Republicans are going to have to find a new schtick. The combination of Grover Norquist and James Dobson had its day, but that day is fading fast. If they want to stay relevant, they’re going to need some new ideas.