Friday, March 11, 2011

Q Day 1: Cameron Republicans?

Anonymous asks: "How long, in your opinion, will it take for Republicans to embrace a David Cameron-style leader?"

I don't have a "when" for you, but I'll give you some "how" answers.

I'd say that there are two things that generally drive party change. One would be major demographic shifts in the composition of the party -- adding Anglos from the South to the Republicans and subtracting them from the Democrats in the 1950s-1990s certainly had series effects on party policies, as did the addition of various urban ethnic groups into the Democratic Party (various European ethnic groups in the 19th and early 20th centuries, then African Americans from the Great Migration) in previous generations. So if you see anything like that coming, that could shift things dramatically.

The other thing would be electoral pressures to moderate in the face of losses. That's not going to happen in a major way anytime soon, given GOP successes in 2010, but it could happen around the margins...well, at some point. If Barack Obama wins reelection, at least some Republicans are going to notice that Democrats will have won the most votes in (then) five of six presidential elections and start thinking about change. But those voices may well lose out to others who will conclude that Romney or Pawlenty or Daniels or whoever was too moderate, and Republicans did better in 2010 when they ran purist campaigns. Remember: Democrats started nominating William Jennings Bryan and getting clobbered in 1896, and were still doing it in 1908.

What else? Should Republicans win in 2012 and actually have to govern, it's certainly likely that they would react by dramatically ramping down the rhetoric, and possibly moderate some policy positions. Oh, and a fourth thing: it's of course possible that individual Republicans or GOP-aligned groups could change their minds about things and change the party from the bottom (or middle) up. It's hard to believe that the GOP isn't going to moderate on sexual orientation issues over the next decade or two, at least not if generational effects on public opinion continue to be as strong as they have been. That happens, too: see the Democrats' positions on those issues from 1990 to now, or the Democrats on feminist issues from 1965-1980.


  1. I think two things create pressure on GOP politicians to resist change.

    One is the absolutist and reactionary nature of the conservative project. Based largely on both religious and patriotic fervor, this project is by definition apocalyptic and uncompromising. Convinced they have it right, they can be expected to continue rejecting candidates who can win general elections as apostates for some time to come--at least until Evangelical Christians and American Exceptionalists are marginalized by demographic and normative change.

    The other is that a combination of gerrymandering and anti-democratic institutional structures (Senate, Electoral College) gives them political power out of proportion to their numbers. This helps create the impression that the political power of white privileged Christians (and their less-privileged but supportive evangelical patriots) is not fading by making electoral sweeps like the 2010 off-year elections possible.

    This does not make change in the Republican Party impossible. But is will delay it quite a bit.

  2. What if Obama wins 2012 in a landslide (like, by at least 10 points)?

  3. The problem with a David Cameron style leader is that Cameron isn't it.

    When he came along in 2005 he tried to be a kinder, gentler conservative who would help the environment and continue Labour's spending levels (in the same way as Labour itself promised to continue at Conservative spending levels for two years after winning power).

    But then the financial crisis happened and the deficit became the big issue in Britain and Cameron shifted right. He's now pushing through spending cuts that would make American right wingers salivate and as a neo-Thatcherite by much of the country.

    Indeed, exit polling from the 2010 election shows that he didn't win a majority because people thought the Tories were still too right wing. This was when he was up against an exhausted Labour government with a deeply unpopular leader.

  4. RSS,

    It's not really true that the Senate, EC, etc. give the GOP an advantage. There's some advantage for rural vs. urban, but not much if any partisan edge.


    As I said, most likely the conservative reaction will be that the candidate wasn't conservative enough.


    Cameron is certainly carrying out a policy that would, in my view, be very unpopular in the US -- and which there's a strong argument to be made that it's terrible policy. However, I don't think the question is only about popular, or even "correct" policy; it's more about the crazy.


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