One of the more memorable quotes of 2008 was retiring Representative Tom Davis’ assessment of his own Republican party: “If we were a dog food, they would take us off the shelf.” Well, the votes are in and this dismal, doomed dog food has just received … almost 47 percent market share. If Alpo ever gained such an impressive share, the company would issue a special dividend to celebrate its success.
Congratulations to the Democrats on their big victory. But one of the less discussed stories of 2008 is the impressive robustness of the Republican brand. McCain, in this horrible Republican year, won a higher share of the vote than Michael Dukakis in the not-so-bad Democratic year of 1988—and he lost to Barack Obama by a narrower margin than Carter lost to Reagan in 1980.
This residual Republican strength rests on a solid social fact: the Republican super-majority among white Americans. In this disastrous year, John McCain won an apparent 55 percent of the white vote. His vote among non-college whites was even higher—58 percent.
Non-college whites represent a dwindling share of the American population, and political majorities can no longer be built on their votes alone. But they remain a very solid base—and one from which Republicans can grow.
Here are the party’s residual assets:
Republicans remain the party of American nationalism. The BBC broadcast on election night an early morning celebration in Obama’s ancestral village in Kenya. The correspondent was visibly moved by the enthusiasm of the poor villagers. But many Americans watching that broadcast might take a more jaundiced view: Who is this Obama guy working for anyway? Obama’s international appeal is both a tremendous strength for him and a potential weakness among nationalist voters.
Republicans remain closer to the ideal of equal treatment under law. Obama’s victory represents a historic milestone on America’s journey toward more equal justice. Yet for all the justified celebration of that achievement, it is equally true that he is the candidate of a party that champions the vast system of racial preferences and quotas that distorts American education, employment, and contracting. The racial spoils system is likely to intertwine itself even more tightly with the national economy in the years ahead. With the federal government holding ownership stakes in so many major financial companies, borrowers and lenders alike will come under intense new affirmative action pressures.
Republicans remain the party of America’s indigenous culture. America was founded as a colony, and like all post-colonial cultures, Americans react badly to the suggestion that foreign = better. An Italian prime minister can safely enjoy opera because opera was invented in Italy. An American politician had better prefer NASCAR. I’ll concede that there was something unusually obnoxious this election cycle in the way Republicans divided the “real” from the “fake” parts of America. There was force behind Jon Stewart’s retort, “If New York was American enough for Osama bin Laden, it ought to be American enough for you.”
Still, it’s not oversensitive for many Americans—especially those far from the coasts—to sense in the style and presentation of, say, a John Kerry, what Australians scorn as “the colonial cringe” and to see in the style and presentation of a George W. Bush or a John McCain something that is more authentically their own.
American culture is changing of course, as cultures always do. And now it has elected a man named Barack Obama—who offers a very different vision of what it means to be an American.
Tuesday’s vote demonstrates that the GOP’s residual assets no longer suffice to win a national election. Republicans will need new policies and a new tone for that. American nationalism must be linked to more modern social values and more effective and successful economic policies. But they are assets that put a floor beneath the current Republican decline. And that’s at least a beginning.