The GOP base is hurting Republicans' ability to win elections
Published April 27, 2023
Jesse Helms never lacked pariahs to demonize. Building a political career when the legacy of segregation echoed powerfully in North Carolina, Helms promoted various Black political figures as villains in the drama of American politics. In 1984, he released dozens of pamphlets linking his opponent Jim Hunt to the Reverend Jesse Jackson. The crude Helms explained this demagoguery as an effort to unmask Democrats’ dependence upon an African American “bloc vote.” More respectable observers expressed disdain for the Democratic Party’s “interest group politics.”
The 1980s were an era in which “interest groups” came across as a cutting pejorative. In many observers’ estimation, the Democratic Party had abjured holistic community goals for an assembly of needy left-wing pressure groups. These interest groups had supposedly pulled the party to the radical left, and in 1992, Bill Clinton sought distance from their claims to establish a national reputation for centrism.
Many of these accusations were soaked in racism. But the political reality was that voters in this era reported far more racial resentment than is common today. That racism tended to be genuinely felt; studies of online behavior (a metric that didn’t apply to the 1980s but became salient in Clinton’s era) have illustrated a diminishing interest in racist ideas. So in terms of hardest political calculation, “interest group politics” do appear to have been a significant problem for Democrats.
Our less racist America has effected a full reversal of the “interest-group” dilemma. While Democrats increasingly seem to have built a majority representing the American consensus, Republicans’ electoral potential is more and more limited by the stricture’s of their party’s central constituencies. This disadvantage surfaces on many of the most pressing emergencies of concern to the American voter.
Sixty-three percent of Americans believe that abortion should be allowed in all or most circumstances. Long a pro-choice nation, we have moved even more decisively in favor of legal abortion care. But the Republican base stands starkly opposed to this consensus: 63% of them want abortion restricted to a nearly total degree. Guns, too, reveal a pattern of Republican opposition to a restive, progressive majority.
This tilted landscape would place any party at a disadvantage in the political debate. But Republicans are even more apt to struggle based upon a deep dependence on out-of-touch constituents. This is because Democrats are gaining ground in a country of changing and browning demographics. Republicans simply need to drive turnout upwards to stratospheric levels in order to compensate for their weakness among educated, diverse, and Millenial Americans. As a result, they’re stuck in a conundrum where they cannot, in effect, appeal to the clearly held views that characterize a growing consensus in the country.
North Carolina Republicans abolished pistol permits a day after the Nashville massacre. Florida Republicans passed a six-week abortion restriction weeks after Wisconsin elected a pro-choice Supreme Court by 10 percentage points. If there could be a greater political contradiction, I am not aware of it. The Republican Party is driving itself into marginalization across purple America. It must be maddening for GOP strategists to know they had no other choice.