By Reed Galen
Yesterday, I had a chance to catch up with a colleague from my days in Washington, DC who has since moved back to her home state of Illinois. She noted that in 1994, when she started working in politics, Republicans controlled every Constitutional office and both legislative houses in Springfield.
Twenty years on, Republicans may retake the Illinois governor’s mansion, but that will more likely result from Gov. Pat Quinn’s abysmal performance and the state’s enormous problems than any true shift in Illini voting mentality.
Advice and counsel for the GOP’s future is as ubiquitous as it is unheeded. There are plenty of thoughtful suggestions coming from the conservative intelligentsia, but the transformation from philosophy to politics and policy has yet to occur.
As Niall Ferguson notes in his book, The Ascent of Money, biological evolution doesn’t mean the best species necessarily survives, but the one with the proper attributes for survival at a given time and place. His explanation of the financial sector has many applications for the political environment:
“Considering biological evolution as a metaphor for financial [political] evolution brings to mind Joseph Schumpeter's concept of "creative destruction." In a capitalistic system, as in biology, the companies [or parties] that don't adapt will fail.”
Political transformation is highly affected by external forces – how a party responds to them, or refuses to respond at all, will have a marked effect on both its short-term electoral success and its longevity.
According to Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, left to its devices, an organization will continue down a given path, apace. It may deviate marginally, but those movements are based on tactical or myopic events and assumptions. Planning for long-term or unseen needs of customers, or in this case, voters, is passed over in favor of short-term goals.
Change, to truly take hold, must be engineered and re-engineered constantly. On policy, technology, tactics, strategies, messages, Republicans far too often stand pat when they should be hitting on 16. We might bust, but if we’re going to lose either way, we might as well be bold while we’re doing it.
So as we move into yet another active election cycle, will we A) allow our environment to determine our fate B) inject some intelligent design into the process or C) hope for a lone savior who can lead us to the mountaintop?
Democrats have opted for choices B and C. However, after nearly two terms of President Barack Obama, even the chosen one’s climb is rocky and the anointed is often all-too-mortal for the likes of their most devoted disciples.
Another fundamental question is whether the Republican Party as it’s constituted today can live with itself. While parties typically have a hard-core, somewhat disaffected minority, they are usually swept along with the current of a larger movement.
However, in the case of the Tea Party, their lack of central organization and strict adherence to ideology over politics makes them a potent ingredient tossed into the evolutionary soup.
That the Establishment wing of the party is either unwilling or unable to co-opt them for the larger goal of winning major elections shows just how exotic an addition to the mix the Tea Party is. They won’t do what you want them to unless they’ve already made up their mind to do it. Reasoning with them doesn’t work because their starting point isn’t based in rationality but passion.
The Establishmentarians and their DC-centric view of the world sometimes places the desires of corporate America over Main Street America and relies on tired tropes about ‘job creators’ but produces precious little new in the way of policy proscriptions.
Both wings suffer from a severe case of ‘Anti-ism’, stuck in the rut of being a minority party and believing that waiting for things to get ‘bad enough’ is enough to get us back to the win column. Indeed, as with Illinois noted above, the race-to-the-bottom mentality may garner the occasional victory, but it won’t result in long-term, sustainable loyalty from voters.
And both factions need one another to complete the mosaic of a coherent conservative movement in the United States. However, the foreshocks grow every election cycle. Without some outside relief of pressure, a tectonic event will take place, shearing the two apart and leaving both weaker in the aftermath.
Now that voters have begun casting ballots in many states across the country, it is unlikely that Republican candidates or campaign committees will devote much, if any time to the GOP’s long-term forecast. They shouldn’t be blamed for that.
But someone, or some group must focus on where we were, where we are and where we’re going as a country and consequently as a party. Otherwise, left to the fates, we’ll have even fewer compelling things to say and less people to whom to say them. We will evolve or will we go the way of the dodo?