Republican Futures

Article excerpt

MESMERIZED BY STARK swaths of red and blue, political writers studying the 2000 electoral map have produced some alarming analyses. In the January issue of Commentary magazine, for example, Terry Teachout laments that the United States has become "two nations" separated by vast differences in lifestyle and philosophy. Responding to the article, Gertrude Himmelfarb, an earlier proponent of the theory that the population of the United States has fragmented into two groups with distinct and often hostile worldviews, agrees that if not two nations, we have certainly become "two cultures."

This interpretation very soon found superficial support in the furor surrounding President Bush's nomination of John Ashcroft for attorney general. Bush and Gore strategists, as if by collusion, had managed to keep controversial cultural issues off the table during the presidential campaign. But the Ashcroft nomination demolished their careful structures of inoffensive words and images with extraordinary speed. Ashcroft's record on racial issues, attitude toward homosexuality, and stance on abortion stirred activist organizations on the left into a vehement protest. Images of the "armies of compassion were dispelled in favor of the bloody coat hanger on one side, the aborted fetus on the other. Democratic senators, initially inclined to approve Ashcroft on account of standard deference accorded Cabinet nominations, respect for a former colleague, and the prevailing rhetoric of bipartisanship, were caught by surprise. They ended up subjecting Ashcroft to harsh questioning, and the vast majority voted against his nomination. The controversy had all the appearances of another outbreak of our ongoing culture wars.

Yet the noise surrounding Ashcroft died down as quickly as it flared up. Within days of his confirmation, the political whirlwind had moved on. And the electoral map is less easy evidence than it might appear. Red districts were not uniformly Republican, nor blue districts uniformly Democratic, and the voting breakdown in most counties was closer to 60-40 than 90-10. So where does this leave us? The United States has a population which is more conservative, and a population which is less conservative. There are people at the far ends of both sides of this spectrum, true believers who find the perspective of the other side alien if not morally disgusting. The geographical distribution of these groups may have evolved. But this is a political landscape not fundamentally different from that which has existed throughout American history.

Losing the center?

THAT SAID, REPUBLICANS still have cause for concern. One need not be an impassioned culture warrior to cast votes on election day. And if the electoral map isn't evidence of a national cultural crisis, it does underscore the dwindling potential of the Republican Party's longtime electoral coalition and the party's need for a new political framework. Why should a refiguring of Republican politics be necessary, given the eventual triumph of the GOP candidate in what looked like daunting electoral circumstances -- a thriving economy, a popular incumbent? Parsing the electoral returns, writers in the National Review, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal all discerned less-than-promising trends. Immigrant groups for which the Republicans had high hopes -- Asians and Hispanics in particular -- voted overwhelmingly for Gore. Also discouraging for the GOP, upscale suburban areas, longtime bastions of Republicanism, grow increasingly Democratic. Gore triumphed in New York City suburbs like Westchester coun ty, Nassau county, and Bergen and Passaic counties in New Jersey, even in Greenwich, Conn., the Bush family seat. The notoriously old-WASP towns of mainline Philadelphia also went Democratic, as did the suburbs of Chicago and Detroit, and several wealthy California counties. Democrats control the coasts, the cultural and intellectual centers of the nation. …