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James Brennan: Old, white and on the right

By James Brennan, Columnist
Published January 27, 2013

The Republican Party has spent the past few months licking its wounds and taking a long, hard look at the man in the mirror. For the second straight presidential election, the GOP was trounced — largely due to its uncanny ability to solely appeal to old, white men. The Republican Party has dug its own grave by taking a far-right stance on religion, women’s health, the environment, the military, gay rights and a myriad of other key issues. While this may have gotten President George W. Bush to the White House twice, it's clear that the country’s electorate has changed.

From what I can tell, Republicans of my generation feel little to no compassion for the policies of the Bush era. Despite this change, the GOP platform continues to deny science, belittle women, ignore minorities and denigrate gay rights. This year’s election is proof that the socially conservative Republican is a dying breed.

Younger Republicans, as detailed in an article in The New York Times, are predominantly less conservative when it comes to abortion, gay rights and other social issues. As a whole, the United States supports gay marriage — a fact expressed in poll numbers and recent state ballot initiatives. Moreover, the younger generation has embraced access to contraception, the end of the war on drugs and less military involvement overseas. Finally, what's most indicative of the changing guard of the Republican Party is the country’s changing views on religion. 16 to 20 percent of Americans are affiliated with no religion at all, a number that increases to 25 percent in young people. The religious right was integral in the elections of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, but Christianity is losing political sway in young people.

What all this means is that the current structure of the Republican Party — one dominated by far-right social conservatives — is inherently flawed. Economic issues still draw sharp divides, but the country is slowly uniting around civil libertarianism. Young conservatives do not see former GOP hopefuls Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum as ideal candidates compared with someone in the mold of Ron Paul, one of the nation's most influential libertarians.

There is a growing demand in this country for politicians who want to limit the government’s social and fiscal sway — for people who believe in both civil liberties and deregulated free market capitalism. College libertarian clubs have sprouted up all over the country, while college Republicans are increasingly more open to social freedom. This past year, Mitt Romney did not win the majority of women’s votes and almost completely failed to attract young people and minority voters. President Barack Obama did an excellent job rallying his supporters, but the GOP has failed to embrace the changing political ideologies of America.

What the Republican Party needs to realize is that social progress has come, and it stops for no one. Gay marriage is here to stay. So is reform of the war on drugs, women’s access to birth control and further secularization of government. The party will die if it does not accept these changes, just as Democrats would have died had they tried to battle against civil rights for years after the 1960s.

The Republican Party has reached a reckoning point. Many conservatives are angry that Mitt Romney wasn’t genuinely far-right enough. Had he been a real conservative, they claim, people would have embraced his message and voted Obama out of office.

But as I said, this type of Republican is a dying breed. Poll numbers show that hardcore conservatism is a major detriment to candidates in the new demographics of America. Obama won the youth, Latino and female votes 60 percent, 71 percent, and 53 percent, respectively. Holding archaic stances on immigration, race, sex, war and religion is killing Republicans, as the numbers show.

Libertarianism, whether through the Republican Party or some other channel, will one day soon come to have major political power in this country. The GOP can either choose to embrace a long-term strategy for the future, as the Democrats did, or they can continue to be upended time and again in national elections. Many pundits and writers have embraced the idea that Republicans just need to reach out to minorities a little more if they want to bounce back, but that alone isn’t enough. The far right’s view on the role of government is dying. An embrace of libertarianism would shrink the gaps in key demographics, while finally giving libertarians — a large, underrepresented political group — somewhere to go. If the GOP plans on surviving, they have to accept the changing face of conservatism or see their brand go extinct.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.