I’m writing down unsolicited thoughts about the election (like everyone else) both as emotional catharsis and also, perhaps, as a preliminary sketch of a life project. The first section will be about how to think of last night’s results. The second section will be about how the good ideas center-right intellectuals have come up with can be preserved and implemented, and how that can give the future GOP a chance at becoming relevant again in 30 years or so.
How to think about the election:
Like everyone else, I have an emotional part of my brain, back towards the stem, and a more rational part, toward the frontal cortex (I think). The emotional, reactive part still gets prickly on a night like last night. After all, I still conceive of myself as “on the center-right” and define myself in opposition to what I often think of as the aggressive, unimaginative, and provincial political views of my cultural cohort. So the reactive part of my brain thinks, on a night like last night, while perusing my Facebook feed, which consisted of the political discharges of my friends (almost all graduates of top-30 colleges), “Look at all these intellectually incurious, half-literate middlebrows, congratulating each other for agreeing with each other, feeling triumphant over the bogeymen of their imaginations! Go back to reading Gawker, and stop pretending your political ideas have more thought behind them than your sneezes do, you middlebrows. Harumph.”
But my better angels know this is not the right way to think about politics. Rather, the right question to ask about any thing in politics is not, “Are the people who I associate with this thing annoying and middlebrow?” but rather, “Will this thing have good effects on the world, going forward?”
And I feel actually pretty optimistic that last night’s results will lead to good effects on the world, going forward, and that a Republican victory would have harmful, from the center-right perspective from which I write. (The only result I really regretted was Scott Brown’s defeat. It’s not that I think Elizabeth Warren will be a very bad Senator (though I wish more of my liberal friends had the political/intellectual flexibility to recognize just how extraordinarily offensive and indecent her lies about her supposed Native American heritage are) — it’s that I think the total political homogenization of my beloved Northeast, still the major cultural, educational, and intellectual center for the country and its leaders, will be bad for America’s future, as it can only lead to further cultural balkanization.)
The unfortunate truth is that the Republican party right now is unfit to govern and intellectually indefensible, a total embarrassment that has managed to alienate an entire generation and an entire educational stratum — the future and the influencers. If Republicans had more power, they would be able to do so with even greater efficacy, and would more permanently pollute all ideas that could be connected to the Right by association. And the fortunate truth is that Obama has, particularly since the 2010 midterm elections, led the country as a moderate. Overall, Obama’s stated policy vision — his stated preference to cut the deficit through $3-$6 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax hikes; his relatively assertive foreign policy; his usually relatively modest, measured and undivisive statements on culture wars — if anything places him much closer to me than to my Facebook friends. Overall, I find both that Obama is closer to the center-right than he is to my cultural cohort, and closer to the center-right than is the GOP (at least as represented by its primary).
I was also very excited by same-sex marriage initiatives passing in all the states in which they were on the ballot. This is exciting, both because it means that same-sex couples in these states will be able to enjoy all the benefits of marriage, and also because SSM’s successful, swift advancement through a democratic process means that it will soon become a fait accompli, less of a cultural wedge, and less of a reason for my friends to hate their fellow Americans. It may even free up mental space and time for my peers to start thinking about and getting involved with other policy issues that effect them — the government debt they are inheriting, the exploding costs of education and health-care and rent in the cities in which they wish to live, and their employment prospects.
So there’s a lot for center-right people to celebrate last night. A moderate and inspirational president (let’s not forget that America’s most fundamental problem is racial inequality, and a black president means a lot to every black kid in America, and his defeat would have meant even more) was re-elected, with a divided Congress that will hinder his ability to do anything immoderate. An immoderate Republican party was prevented from taking power for which it was unprepared. Access to the bourgeois institution of marriage was extended. All pretty much more than okay from a moderate center-right perspective.
So that’s my normative interpretation of last night’s results. But how should we interpret it descriptively? I.e., why did Republicans lose? I think a lot of the strategy talk is overdone: Pundits tend to radically overestimate the political awareness of the average independent voter (it is astonishingly low), which causes them to overestimate the impact of messaging and other strategic decisions. I think the loss is better explained by broader trends, already in motion long before the GOP primary: (1) The economy returned to an historically normal growth rate over the past several months — an incumbent president almost always wins when the economy is growing at an acceptable rate. (2) Hispanics are forming a larger and large share of the electorate, helping to form the “new Democratic majority” that has long been predicted. (3) Barack Obama is an incredibly charismatic, attractive, and inspirational human being — Mitt Romney was simply less attractive, particularly given his stiff resemblance to Gordon Gekko in this post-financial crisis election cycle. (4) Elites and the young and unmarried are increasingly homogenously Democratic, partly thanks to how Democrats have successfully inverted the political story of the early ’90s, and now use cultural wedges to their own advantage. This set makes up the other half of the “new Democratic majority.” (5) Republicans have failed to pick up any new constituents, to make up for all the demographic ground they are losing, for the simple reason that they don’t have anything to offer to prospective new constituents. (6) Democrats are now much more technologically savvy campaigners, a fact which partly reduces to the party’s domination of the youth and the top educational strata.
None of this will reverse anytime soon. In fact, all of the Democrats’ advantages are poised to grow. Some strategists think the the GOP could win over Hispanic voters by adopting a more liberal immigration policy, but, whatever the other merits of such a policy, this is a false hope — the data show Hispanic voters are liberal on the most fundamental questions of the role of the state, and are drawn to the Democratic party by those convictions, rather than a narrow focus on immigration. More, as the economic recovery continues and eventually likely accelerates, the Democrats will be able to claim credit. Meanwhile, given voter stereotypes about the parties, Republicans will catch the blame for problems that, due to globalization, technological progress, and Asian industrialization, are basically inevitable anyways – growing income inequality and adverse climate change. The cultural wedge issues will only become more advantageous to Democrats over time, as old generations die and new generations gain the vote. Combine these factors — the Democrats getting credit for a recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression; my generation growing up solidly Democratic; influential elites becoming increasingly embarrassed to be associated with the GOP; Hispanics growing as a share of the population — and you have my prediction that the GOP will be a rump party and the Democrats will dominate for at least a generation to come.
How the GOP could maybe make a comeback in 30 years:
The only path through which the GOP can make a comeback worth desiring will involve another major realignment in another generation. It will involve some three decades in which the Democrats dominate, and hence become beholden to incumbent interest groups — the future status quo — and the GOP, whipped, has some time to rethink everything, and successfully imagines and articulates a policy vision that could solve the problems of this future status quo. A lot of the intellectual groundwork for this re-imagining has already been done by the smartest right-leaning intellectuals — their ideas will have to continue to be fleshed out until, in decades, they can be implemented. A lot of these changes will depend, for their implementation, on how future technologies will influence policy. This (plus the euphonia of the phrase) is why I’ve named this post, semi-playfully, “Techno-conservatism 2040.” I want to concede up front that what I am about to write is very sketchy, for the simple reasons that the future is unpredictable, politics is no longer my day job, and I’m writing this off the cuff at a coffee shop during a surprise snowstorm.
Parties in power become beholden to incumbent interest groups. Right now, with an even balance of power, both parties are deeply constrained by the people who finance their campaigns. Our post-financial crisis financial reform, passed under a ‘progressive’ administration, has arguably helped the consolidation of the financial industry — it didn’t involve any serious efforts to pass reforms that would cut into the financial industry’s profits, like, e.g., higher equity ratio requirements. The same progressive administration’s health-care reform didn’t really do anything to cut into AMA-supported policies whose benefits accrue mostly to doctors’ incomes. Moderate Mitt Romney felt obligated, on the campaign trail, to promise an increase in military spending, despite that policy’s general unpopularity — presumably, this had something to do with the interests and influence of the defense industry and its relationships in the Republican party. And so on, ad nauseum. You get the picture. But as the Democratic party becomes increasingly dominant, major lobbies for major interest groups will be primarily interested in buying the Democrats, and less so the Republicans. This will be bad for Republican candidates’ campaign coffers in the short run, but it will be good for Republicans’ ability to adopt policies that will be good for the median American in the long run. Let me hazard some specific examples of how this could play out:
Right now, all major city governments are dominated by Democrats. One well-known technological advancement that will change city government in the near future will be driver-less cars, and innovative car-share services that they could enable. In the future, you should be able to call a driver-less car to your office door with a text message (or a wink at your Google glasses). It should be able to whisk you to your destination with tremendous speed and efficiency, because, if all the cars in the city are on an integrated and high-tech information network, it will never need to be able to to stop at a single stoplight (the cars could weave between each other with perfect planned timing at intersections). The driverless car’s perfect energy efficiency, the lack of human labor involved, and the fact that you need only ‘own’ it for the exact time it takes you to complete your trip, all mean that it should be incredibly inexpensive. This will be good for everybody, except for, in the short run, taxi drivers and public transportation authority workers, whose jobs will be obsolete. It is almost certain, then, that in the future, these groups will lobby city council members to prevent the use and integration of driverless cars and care-share services in cities. Theoretically — presuming that the politicians feel beholden to these interest groups, while ordinary urban dwellers want driverless car-shares — this situation should give other political parties an opportunity to compete. It might it make urban voters more cognizant of how competitive markets can benefit them more than public agencies and regulated guilds (like taxi drivers). Young urban right-leaning types should certainly hope so. They could also even hope that a high-profile policy controversy, like the one that driverless cars could engender, could even give them a better platform to discuss how market-oriented reforms could improve the quality of city life in other ways — i.e., driving down rent through fewer building restrictions in cities like Boston and Washington. Maybe this and other technological changes could give a tech-savvy, future-oriented Republican party an opportunity to bring center-right ideas even to cities, and give the Republican party marginal plausibility with urban voters.
This particular fantasy may not play out — hopefully, if anything, Democratic city councils will recognize the virtues of driverless car-shares in the first place. But the process I described above is the basic idea: Incumbent party becomes beholden to incumbent interest group; technological innovation gives voters the prospect of better service than that which they are currently receiving from the incumbent interest group; voters vote out the incumbent party in order to elect politicians unbeholden to the incumbent interest group. I see a couple of domains in which this process could work to Republicans’ advantage in a generation, in turn allowing Republicans to work for Americans’ advantage.
For the past several election cycles, Republicans’ credibility and ability to articulate and implement entitlement reform have been harmed by the fact that the GOP is strongly beholden to older voters. Republicans were forced to attack Obamacare not on the basis of the fact that it would not do a good enough job limiting the rise of health-care costs, but on the basis of the idea that it would involve robbing Medicare. Maybe this line of attack was strategically savvy. But it has limited, and will continue to limit, Republicans’ credibility in arguing for intelligent entitlement reform, particularly in making the broad case that we need to find ways to spend less public money on the elderly and invest more of it in the future. If Democrats dominate for a generation to come, they will become the party most beholden to the elderly. This, combined with the U.S.’s growing debt burden, could allow the GOP to reorient itself as a youth-oriented party. It could attract young voters by framing the case for entitlement reform as something needed to prevent the elderly from robbing from the youth.
Probably the biggest problem for the American middle class right now is higher education. The problem is that it is too expensive, and too much highly advanced education is required to receive credentials even for relatively menial professions. I am hoping that out of today’s inchoate efforts at online education, like the University of Phoenix, open courses, etc., we will eventually, through experimentation, find a way to provide people with decent higher education and accreditation at less cost than $55,000 a year. There will, in the future, be people who will want to gain the credentials they need for their desired professions at less expense, through auto-didactic efforts and innovative online educational and credentialing startups. These people’s efforts will be resisted by those academics and others who currently benefit from the educational regime in which you have to spend some $400,000, and seven years, in order to gain the credential to perform the menial tasks of a lawyer (or more in order to be able to write a prescription for oral contraceptives). If Democratic politicians become beholden to these interest groups, that will be another opportunity for the Republicans to be on the side of the angels/American middle class, and to win popular appeal, by fighting them. Indeed, if we find good ways to use digital technologies to improve higher education, perhaps a lot of these innovations could be extended to reform primary education as well. Naturally, teachers’ unions will be resistant to many of these reforms and this, again, offers a chance to Republicans to be on the side of ordinary middle-class parents and the angels, and to thus win new constituents in the next generation.
Similar kinds of innovative technological changes will also hopefully bring down the costs of other goods and services, particularly health care. Innovative health-care entrepreneurs will try to find ways to cut costs by giving patients the ability to receive checkups, diagnoses, and prescriptions through video-conferencing meetings — or by doing what they can to get more medical services to be performed by qualified nurses, rather than physicians and specialists. As Americans see more of their tighter budgets disappear into health-care costs and become more cognizant of the policy issues involved, they may want more relatively-benign prescriptions to be available over the counter. High-wage medical professionals and highly-profitable medical industries that will become increasingly aligned with Democrats will naturally want to resist these changes. Again, Republicans can be on the side of the median voter, against income inequality, against the sclerosis and the status quo, and for efficiency and progress, by fighting entrenched incumbent elites aligned with the Democratic party.
Next, I think it’s possible that technological change will wipe out a lot of old jobs and industries, and force this and the next generation to make their own DIY jobs. It could end up looking like the artisanal-craft economy, or it could end up looking more like the App economy. Either way, we will be ending up with a lot more entrepreneurs and small-business owners. A large portion of my friends are working for small startups, to an extent that does not, I think, parallel my parents’ experience with their fellow college graduates in the 1970s. Entrepeneurship is hot and hip. As more of my peers become entrepreneurs, they may become more interested in breaking down the legal and regulatory barriers that make it unnecessarily difficult, complex, and expensive for them to incorporate, hire people, find investors, etc., etc., etc. Small business owners have traditionally been a good political constituency for market-oriented reforms. Again, incumbent interest groups aligned with the Democrats — namely, in this case, lawyers, who benefit to the extent that the rest of us feel legally befuddled — will be resistant to these changes. Republicans should be doing everything they can to court the interest, and meet the needs, of today’s startups.
I’m hopeful that many of our divisive cultural wedge issues will fade away. Same-sex marriage will be a democratic fait accompli, endorsed fully by Republicans as well, within a matter of years. Solar power will soon become cheaper as an energy source than oil, which will change the energy-policy landscape and make Republicans seem less trogdolytic. Republicans could even seize the technological and environmental high ground by leading the way on efforts to reduce climate change’s costs through geo-engineering. Abortion policy is, of course, too enormously ethically complex a thing to discuss here, but my hope is that modern technology is already providing the ideal solution — If giving 16-year old boys the simple, harmless, and effective RISUG procedure simply became as cheap and commonplace as giving infants circumcisions, then the number of unwanted conceptions would be radically, radically reduced, which would be the ideal solution from most Americans’ perspectives. (Obviously, far more important than these issues becoming less toxic for Republicans is the fact that these advances will simply be incredibly good for the world.) I additionally wonder whether Democrats will begin to overstep on cultural wedges that right now are working to their advantage. I.e., now, a majority of American support SSM, but it’s not clear that those majorities would support, say, punishing churches or synagogues who would want to place religious limitations on the marriages they perform. If activists drive the Democrats to support such legal punishments, the GOP could find an attractive and balanced niche as the party that supports the public recognition of SSM, but also defends giving private priests and rabbis the space to perform their rites according to their own religious traditions. I also wonder if, as elites become increasingly homogenously Democratic, this fact simply by itself will give the Republican party more of a popular appeal. My sense is that the median American voter hates the culture war and reacts against which ever party he perceives as the aggressor in this war. If the Democrats give too much rein to their most aggressive activists, or become too closely associated with the regionalist prejudices of coastal elites, in their decades of dominance, the future Republican party should frame itself as, and indeed actually become, the party of cultural ecumenicism and pluralism and non-aggression.
I also hope that once the toxic culture war hot spots have faded from salience, Republicans will be more free to emphasize the more palatable and — in my view — plainly good aspects of “cultural conservatism.” I.e, Republicans can win on the ‘pro-family’ policy of child tax credits, which redistribute wealth to couples that are investing in the future by raising children. My generation is fairly hostile to religion, mostly because the only policy issue they care about is same-sex marriage, and they have been trained to immediately associate religion with social conservatism. As this issue fades from salience, people’s attitudes toward religion will hopefully become less emotionally politicized, while the American population as a whole will remain one with a religious character. Republicans will then be able to win supporters — perhaps even, realistically, among racial minorities — simply by presenting themselves as leaders who are appreciative of, and who identify with, the religious character and virtues of ordinary Americans, in a future in which geographically, culturally, and educationally balkanized Democratic elites may become unable to conceal their hostility. In the future, as in the past, liberal elites and academics who do not do a good job concealing their opinions of ordinary Americans and their folkways will be very costly to the Democratic politicians they support.
There are a number of other policy ideas that have been gestated by right-leaning intellectuals and Republican leaders that could gain popularity and influence, even in the near future, before these major technological changes — school choice, means-testing, reducing corporate welfare, cutting agricultural and other industrial subsidies, radically simplifying the tax code by expanding its base and reducing deductions — that are, in my view, pretty plainly good ideas that would be broadly popular with the average voter if only they could be brought to her attention. Republicans could do so with more efficacy if they abandoned their histrionic negativity towards President Obama, stopped elevating their buffoons in their media outlets, and gave larger platforms to those serious intellectuals among them who focus on positive avenues for reform.
If, in 30 years, the Republican party can be seen as a party that will be willing to allow entrepreneurs to implement technologies that will improve the average American’s quality of life, even when these technologies undermine incumbent groups’ interest; if it can change to become the party of cultural moderation, as against the regionalist or elitist cultural aggressions of the future Democratic party; and if it can, above all, make itself palatable to at least a sizeable minority of youths, influential intellectuals, and other cultural influencers; it will have a chance at both winning and governing well a generation from now.