In May of 2009, I predicted that if President Obama failed to address the trade deficit in a meaningful way, he’d be a one-term president. (See http://petemurphy.wordpress.com/2009/05/12/obama-approach-to-economy-faltering/.) I was wrong. Although, predictably, unemployment is no better today than it was in 2009, it didn’t doom Obama to a one-term presidency as it should have – as it did to every president in the past.
It was clear from the polls that the economy and high unemployment were the biggest issues in the campaign, and that Americans were dissatisfied with Obama’s meager progress. When Reagan campaigned against Jimmy Carter in 1980, he asked Americans “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”. The answer was a resounding “hell, no” and Carter lost in a landslide. In 1992, the Clinton campaign’s mantra was “it’s the economy, stupid” and George Bush, presiding over a recession, was summarily drummed out of office after one term. How is it possible that Republicans couldn’t parlay similar circumstances into a Republican victory on Tuesday? Mitt Romney was a good candidate – articulate, handsome, a successful businessman, a successful governor and savior of the olympics – perhaps the best Republican candidate since Ronald Reagan.
On Wednesday morning, pundits cited all kinds of factors, including Romney’s position on issues and demographic factors. But I believe there’s a more fundamental and more powerful factor involved – one that becomes evident when you examine the electoral college map and the state maps showing the blue and red counties. Densely populated states went heavily in favor of Obama, as did densely populated counties in the more sparsely populated red (Romney) states. Back in September, I noted the huge discrepancy in the average population density of the projected Obama states vs. the projected Romney states. (See http://petemurphy.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/the-population-density-factor-in-the-national-election/.) To summarize, Obama’s states had an average population density of 928 people per square mile, while Romney’s states averaged only 60. We’re not talking some 60-40 demographic split here. This difference is greater than an order of magnitude. That’s huge – far too big to be shrugged off as mere coincidence.
In Five Short Blasts, I wrote of a divergence of interests that occurs when population density breaches some critical level. While it remains advantageous for corporations to see the population continue to grow, stoking total sales volume, worsening population density begins to erode per capita consumption, employment and the quality of life of individual people. The Republican party, above all else, serves the interests of corporations, believing that “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” (A quote from Charles Wilson, head of General Motors, while testifying before a Senate subcommittee in 1952.) Back then, it was probably true. But no more. While no one understands this divergence of interests, people living in crowded conditions sense it, just as animals that have never experienced a tidal wave sense danger as one approaches. While the Republican message may still resonate with people in rural conditions who have never experienced overcrowded conditions, it falls flat in urban settings, and America is steadily becoming a more urban country. For these people, the Republican message of placing faith in corporate growth while being stripped of government safety nets doesn’t ring true. They know instinctively that they’ll be left high and dry.
The irony is that the Republican Party finds itself stewing in its own juice. The growth that it so fervently championed for decades, stoked by a flood of H1-B visa immigrants, has resulted in an urban America where the supply of labor is out of balance with demand, leaving workers and unemployed alike more heavily dependent on safety net programs.
Of course, both parties embrace free trade and globalization. They’re equal partners in crime in the decimation of America’s manufacturing base and the corresponding decline in wages and cuts in benefits. It’s one thing to take away people’s ability to make a decent living, but at least the Democratic Party provides a backstop with safety net programs. Republicans would take that away too, still believing that, like half-a-century ago, the unemployed are simply people too lazy to work. That’s not the world we live in today – the world that the Republican party helped to create.
So how does the Republican Party distinguish itself once again from the Democratic Party, appealing to urban voters, while holding true to its “conservative” philosophy? It can begin with a return to true conservative values and turn away from the brand of conservatism that favors corporate interests over the interest of the common good. If it wants people to embrace the virtues of hard work and self-reliance, it needs to champion policies that give people a real opportunity to earn a decent living in the private sector. The only way that’s possible is by promoting a return to sensible trade policy that employs tariffs to assure a balance of trade and to bring our manufacturing jobs back home, abandoning the radical free trade experiment begun in 1947. That’s true conservatism. That’s a clear difference from the policy of the Democratic Party.
If the Republican Party wants to promote less government intrusion in our lives, then it needs to promote a return to a less crowded America where that was once possible, the America it foolishly destroyed to satisfy corporate benefactors. Nobody likes living in crowded conditions. The promise of escape from such conditions will be appealing to many urban voters who feel trapped there.
If the Republican Party doesn’t like government health care, then it needs to offer a real alternative, not another government health care version that carries its own brand. We need to return to the days when employers offered health plans at affordable prices because they had to in order to remain competitive.
If the Republican Party wants to balance the budget, then it needs to address the real driving force behind deficit spending – the trade deficit – and stop pretending that the two aren’t related. That’s true conservatism. That’d be a real distinction, one that’d send people flocking away from the Democratic Party and back to the Republican Party.
Much has been made of the Republican Party’s failure among certain demographic groups, notably Latinos. It can hold strong to its opposition to illegal immigration, but it needs to do a better job of explaining to Latinos how illegal immigration harms them, as Americans, just as much as any other American.
Beyond these things, there are other changes the Republican Party needs to make. It needs to distance itself from the extreme elements that are increasingly characterizing the party, and it needs to more quickly repudiate weird and offensive statements.
The Republican Party has a choice to make. It can remain the party of corporate interests and try to fool the populace into believing that growing corporate bottom lines will translate into success for them as well. There’s obviously mountains of campaign finance money to be had there. But what did it buy them in this election? Nothing. Not the presidency. Not even any seats in the House or Senate. They actually lost seats in both. People aren’t buying the message any longer. They work for those corporations and can see very well the disconnect between growing profits and their wages and benefits. The idea that the government should cut spending on the very programs they now increasingly rely upon to keep them afloat, just so that tax rates on corporate profits can be cut further, makes no sense to more and more voters.
Or, Republicans can choose a different path, one that offers a conservative, viable alternative to the Democratic platform, focused not on corporate interests but on the interests of the common good. They can offer to bring our manufacturing jobs home, to balance the federal budget painlessly and to stop the cancerous growth that’s choking our quality of life. The Democrats offer an assurance that people will be taken care of as they eke out a meager existence. Republicans could offer so much more.