While some say the world will end in 2012, others think the apocalypse may be reserved for just the Republican Party. In February, Jonathan Chait suggested that demographic shifts are making it increasingly difficult for Republicans to win elections. Traditional Democratic constituencies are growing faster than Republican ones, meaning if trends continue, Democrats will have a commanding demographic majority by 2016. Chait argues this threat of “demographic extinction” shift explains why Republican have amped up their rhetoric, couching the 2012 election as a battle for “the soul of America.” For Republicans, maybe the apocalypse is really coming, not as a result of the supposedly radical-socialist Obama presidency, but rather changes in the American population.
The Republican party is about to disappear. Just as “apocalypse” means the end of an age rather than the end of the world, this may just be the end of an age in the history of the GOP. If Chait is right, the party will adapt within a few cycles, alter its coalition of supporters, and emerge again.
There are potential flaws with Chait’s demographic hypothesis that Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics develops in a rebuttal. The essence of Trende’s argument is that demographics and parties’s bases of support shift constantly. Thus making predictions about future election cycles, or thinking that politicians are concerned about them, is risky.
I find these pieces interesting because they dig down. Rather than explain rhetoric in terms of ideology – explaining words with words – they look for a deeper cause. Chait believes this is coalitions and demographics. A changing electorate causes changing rhetoric.
Whether or not Chait is right depends on how sticky parties are. In other words, how long does it take for parties to adjust their coalitions to new conditions? If this adjustment happens quickly, as Trende suggests it does, then Republicans will simply incorporate new groups into their coalition and will remain viable. However, if this process takes time, then Republicans may face a few lean election cycles. Either way, both perspectives imply that the Republican Party ten years from now will be different than the one we see today.
Further, both articles suggest that politics is not a debate about the “right” policy. Rather, it is about the interaction between groups in society with different policies preferences. Consumers want the government to ensure cheap food while farmers want high crop prices. Unions want protection for labor while business owners want less regulation. Retirees want benefits while workers want lower taxes. The list goes on. Parties are coalitions of these groups that form because no single one can win on its own. To do so, each gives concessions to others in return for their support, creating party platforms that are not always ideologically consistent (why does a “pro-life” party also support the death penalty?).
All this may be obvious, but we often forget it. Both politicians and pundits present politics as a great debate over the size of government and the future of America. Political scientists tend to think of it in terms some would call “real” and others “Machiavellian.” Who you vote for is not who you think is the best qualified, but rather who you think will deliver you the goods. Perhaps this view is too cynical, and certainly not universally true, but it provides another way to examine politics.