Republicans and the Hunt for a Silent Majority

This quote jumped out at me as I blearily scanned The Post this morning:

Reihan Salam, co-author of “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save America,” said this week that the danger for Republicans is to think that they now represent a vast, silent majority that is waiting to reassert itself. “When you believe yourself to be a silent majority, you don’t feel the need to reach out,” he said. “Rather, you think that getting louder and more aggressive is the solution.”

Will GOP Sleep Through Wake-Up Call? (Dan Balz)

Is this why so many of the leading Republicans’ actions of late have seemed to me to be out of touch (at best) and counter-productive (at worst)? In their minds, there must be a whole mass of Middle America poised to wake up and storm the battlements with them. Oops — they’re pining for Nixon in the era of Obama.

When you play a note that’s out of tune with the band, it screeches and squawks against the other instruments. When you’re a politician and you’re out of tune with changes in the public mood, your words can can sound just as harsh, particularly against those of a pitch-perfect communicator like Barack Obama.

Republican leaders and activists don’t seem to have realized that the last two elections may actually reflect real demographic and ideological shifts, which explains their Tea Parties, the anti-gay-marriage hysteria, the flight to the Hard Right, etc.: they’re playing to the heirs of Nixon’s Silent Majority, which they must still think is a real political force. The problem is, if it did still exist, it spoke in 2008 and it voted for Obama. Republicans are like that sad last year of a once-popular TV show: their top talent is gone, the script is adrift and the remaining actors and producers are the only ones who think the whole affair can survive another season.

That’s not necessarily a problem for a Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, since their goal is a niche audience, not a viable political coalition (though even pundits risk absolute irrelevance when they bray tinnny echoes of 1960s culture wars — George Will is still upset about blue jeans??? — at a generation raised on Bennetton ads). But for a politician, misreading the public mood so dramatically can take your side from defeat to grimmest catastrophe. Sure, what probably killed the Republicans at the polls is that we gave Bush so much rope (Katrina, the Iraq War, the economy) that he hung the entire conservative movement with it, but the party’s current leadership seems intent on digging the grave deeper every day with their own words and deeds — hence the fact that we now see the smallest percentage of Americans claiming the membership in the GOP in many years.

The Republicans’ problem isn’t that they’re failing to reach an untapped pool of supporters hiding somewhere in mythical Middle America; it’s that they’re out of ideas, at least ideas that a majority of us care to listen to after we’ve seen them in action. Unless the Republican party can find a way to stand for SOMETHING that speaks to a viable national political coalition and not just to hardcore conservatives and the old Confederacy, there’s a long Democratic day ahead of us.

Update: See also this advice for his fellow Republicans from my friend Eric Frenchman.


Written by
Colin Delany
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