Earlier this week, there was a wide open referendum on the sitting president's performance. It was exactly the type of referendum (jobs, leadership, foreign policy) the Tea Party, and American conservatives in general, had been hoping for. And yet, conservatism fell extraordinarily flat, despite all of that.
We had a situation where a sitting Democrat president had largely marked his first four years by passing a few progressive, extremely expensive laws, but who otherwise largely pursued and enlarged his Republican predecessor's unpopular agenda (bank bailouts, Patriot Act, DEA enforcement of marijuana, drone strikes, unfunded war in Afghanistan, planned withdrawal from Iraq (another unfunded war), high deficits, failing trade negotiations with China). As a result, the incumbent also oversaw the continued smoldering of the economy - only able to claim, "Hey, we poured 4,000 gallons of gas on the fire, and the fire didn't completely go out - so that's good - right?" Sure doesn't sound like a recipe for re-election to me.
And yet, the other esteemed party in our God-awful two party system was seen, in this election, as "not a viable option" by a majority of Americans. Not just at the presidential level, but in Congress, in many state elections, and at the local level as well. Three years after the supposed "tea party revolution" that was going to "change the course of politics in America." The problem is that the population of American conservatives (as defined by "core politics") continues to grow older, and every four years, the new stable of young voters is more liberal than the group who came before them. In addition, the actual composure of the country is changing. More women voters (almost 50% of voters). More minority voters (over 30% of voters). Conservatism's "core values" don't seem to appeal to either group. And the leaders of America's conservative movement - to date - haven't really cared a lick about that fact.
So what can the Tea Party - and conservatism in general - do to maintain relevancy - or perhaps gain more relevancy - in the years to come?
1. Get real on what America looks like. The conservative bloc is dominated by older, white voters. That group is making up a smaller percentage of the electorate every year. By 2020, whites will be America's largest minority - not a majority at all. Whites over 65 years old (the core of the Tea Party's supporters) will constitute less than 18% of the nation's population. See where I'm headed with this?
Conservative politicians on the national stage cannot win on a racial or class war platform. Or a platform advocating aggressive anti-immigrant policies. Or plain-out foolish immigrant policies like "voluntary deportation." The fact that white Christian conservative candidates consistently fail to attract Christian voters of other races should be a huge red flag, but it has not, at least so far. Why in the world do devout Hispanic Catholics vote for Democrats, despite the Church's insistence that they do otherwise? Because conservative Christian candidates in many cases don't want to attract the Hispanic vote.
And it's not just race. More women are voting. More women are large campaign donors. More women are running for - and winning - elected office. Every year. Political campaigns based on state-mandated transvaginal ultrasounds for pregnant girls (see #4, below), for example, are generally not going to sit well with women (again, around 50% of potential voters). Even conservative women. Core values are great. But one can't be surprised when core values strike other people as "tone deaf."
2. Get real on the role of government. The role of government is not to give you money (I'm sad to say that some of our countrymen disagree with that statement). Likewise, the role of government is not to stand idly by and "hope" that de-regulated industries will suddenly see fit to give you money or a job, for a pay rate that pleases you, or within working conditions/hours/safety that please you. Our country did that in the 1850s, and again in the 1920s. Worked out wonderfully. Government exists, in many cases, because non-regulation failed. The FDIC. The USDA. The FDA. The DEA. The EPA. All created after industry failed to police itself, and lots of Americans either died or lost a lot of money. Or both.
An intellectually honest discussion on "Cut the EPA!!!!" must include, "with what shall we replace the EPA?" To date, most stronghold conservatives and basically all Tea Party members I've met are unwilling to consider that second part. And back to the tax issue - does anybody really think that conveying the EPA's responsibilities to the state of Georgia (and Georgia having to raise taxes as a result) would cost significantly less per taxpayer? What about a corporate, for-profit pollution police? Would that - by necessity - be cheaper than EPA? Are we really sure?
3. Get real on what can be blamed on government. Federal taxes are at a historic low. That's because Obama kept the Bush tax cuts in place, and because our tax code is full of loopholes for everybody. Federal taxes did not kill your job. NAFTA killed (and continues to kill) jobs. Favorable trade status with China is killing lots of jobs. Poor fiscal management killed many, many jobs. Uncertainty about Obama's economic policies kept many from coming back. Carrying forward a meme that "Obama killed these jobs" really means that you must believe that it's government's duty to encourage (read: subsidize) business with tax breaks that are funded by higher taxes paid by someone else, and that's hardly a conservative stance if you ask me. At what point are corporations responsible for turning their profit into jobs, despite their fear that the Democrat-led economy might crash again?
On a separate note, I'm finding it completely nauseating that so many self-avowed "personal responsibility" conservatives are decrying Obama for their current position in life. How can someone who didn't finish even community college, who has never gained traction in a single meaningful career field, who lives in an area where there are no jobs, and who refuses to move to an area where there are jobs, or to even apply for jobs in those areas, say, "Yup. Obama. That's why I'm unemployed. And you're next!" (hint: no I'm not).
4. Enough of Regulating Private American Life. Tell me again how we need to make water pollution legal (potentially killing Americans, poisoning farms, and putting commercial fishermen out of business), but simultaneously keep illegal a lesbian's ability to visit her dying girlfriend in the hospital. I know that what passes for traditional family values is still very important to some people. To you, I say: keep it important in your house. Your faith. Your values. I look at those things and I don't see Leave it to Beaver. Though I wish I did.
"Families" look like a lot of different things these days. And Americans are not going to be convinced otherwise. If conservative politicians want to move forward at the national level, the "1 woman; 1 man; no abortions; no sex education" platform is a dead horse. Decry our movement away from the King James Bible as a model for our personal life - I won't mock you for it. But trying to reclaim 1950s Christianity as a nation is going to be a failing effort. This long-term shift away from our citizens having personal relationships with God is really awful, in my opinion. But it's reality. It's most certainly political reality.
5. Stop Repudiating Science. For too long, some circles in conservatism have been able to shut down entire scientific efforts by simply stating that, "A margin of error exists. Therefore, none of this science is valid, and in fact, this topic is not worth studying." I can show you reams of data that demonstrate how watershed protection (or lack thereof) in the headwaters of a river system impacts water quality downstream (ie. on other peoples' private property). Claiming, as a rebuttal, that regulating headwaters is a communist takeover does not make any of that science invalid. Sorry. Americans, by and large, want to understand basic science.
Trying to convince Americans that science is just a big liberal government takeover conspiracy is yet another losing platform. 15 years ago, the percent of Americans who believe that evolution had "absolutely no part" in human history fell below 50%, and that rate continues to slowly drop (46% in 2012). As of 2012, only 14% of Americans believe that the climate is not changing, and 46-50% of Americans (two different polls) believe that human activity impacts climate change. Again - sorry - Americans want to understand basic science - not just bash it because science is bad for some business.
What happens next? It's hard to tell. Unfortunately, the two dominant memes I've heard in the days after the 2012 election have been, "We need some Hispanic and Black Republican candidates that have tea party values - we can trick minorities into voting for conservative politicians if they are the right color!" (see: election of Michael Steele, re-election of Allen West), and "We need to return to core values!" Neither of which will have any real impact on national politics - I can promise that. If Conservatives can't get honest about the five things I listed above, I don't understand how we could possibly see another Republican president in the next 12 years, during which a majority of the Supreme Court will be replaced.
That's it. No more overt political posts from me!