I don’t generally relish driving traffic to (un)Sound Politics, but since Postman has already linked to Eric Earling’s post on what Republicans need to do to win in the suburbs, well, why the hell not?
Earling thinks Republicans are losing on the issues, specifically, education and transportation. Well, duh-uh. It’s not chicanery or ballot fraud that has led to Democratic dominance in the GOP’s former suburban strongholds, it’s the fact that the Republican Party as a whole has grown increasingly out of touch with suburban voters. But as Earling is discovering in his own comment thread, it’s more than just issues, it’s ideology.
For despite all the complaints from political extremists and unengaged independents about not being offered a distinct enough choice at the polls, the two parties actually sit on either side of a substantive ideological divide: at their core, Democrats believe in government… whereas Republicans don’t. Sure, this is a broad generalization, and the ideological divide does not always manifest itself in practice (hence the Bush administration’s profligate spending and relentless encroachment on privacy,) but it dominates the rhetoric in which the two parties frame the issues.
Earling seems to lament the region’s affection for light rail and other mass transit solutions, but advises his fellow Republicans to accept it as reality and find a way to give the voters what they want. The problem is, the GOP’s stubborn opposition to transit stems not just from a policy dispute or a revulsion to higher taxes, but from a revulsion to big government programs in general… and what could be bigger than the physical and social engineering involved in building a commuter rail system? The free market cannot and will not build the Puget Sound region a modern transit system, and so to the free market ideologues who dominate the GOP base, Sound Transit just reeks of Soviet-era central planning.
Likewise, Earling laments the failure of vouchers and charter schools to catch on with voters in our “blue state,” but once again pragmatically advises his fellow Republicans to just… well… deal. But I think the more interesting question to explore is exactly why vouchers and charter schools hold such a strong appeal to the GOP base? Of course, these are market-based solutions, and as such reveal the party’s fundamental distrust of the government they seek to run.
The fundamental problem for Republicans is not that they picked the wrong issues, but that on issue after issue both their position and their rhetoric reveals an anti-government meme that is simply out of step with the majority of suburban voters. None of this should be news to Earling or anybody else; the trends have been apparent for years. Indeed two years ago, in the wake of the disastrous 2004 election I expounded on this theme in a presciently titled post: “Subdivide and conquer: a strategy for a new Democratic majority.”
Families move to places like Mercer Island for better public schools, cleaner streets, safer neighborhoods, and all the other public services that a higher property tax base provides. These are people who believe in government because they benefit from it every day, and they routinely tax themselves to pay for the services they want.
These are people with whom urban Democrats have common ground, and we have an opportunity to exploit the wedge the neo-cons have provided, to expand our base politically and geographically. For in addition to a shared belief that good government is necessary to maintaining a high quality of life, suburban and city voters have a mutual interest in maintaining an economically and culturally vibrant urban core.
The problem facing Eastside suburban Republicans is not tactical or strategic, it’s philosophical. The KCGOP was once dominated by “Rockefeller Republicans” (or in the local parlance, “Dan Evans Republicans”)… socially liberal fiscal conservatives who, like their Democratic counterparts, believed in using government as a tool for promoting the public good. But today’s GOP is dominated by ideological purists who would, if given free reign, dismantle and privatize the public services that define suburban life, while imposing the moral strictures of their right-wing, fundamentalist Christian allies.
Okay, again… perhaps I’m generalizing, but the larger point remains. Suburban Republicans are losing elections because suburban voters simply don’t trust Republicans to run a government they clearly profess to despise. Read the comment threads on (u)SP or the righty trolls here. The problem with education? Those greedy teachers and corrupt, incompetent administrators. Transportation? Self-aggrandizing government officials, wasteful civil servants, and self-serving special interests. Crime? Liberal judges who care more about the rights of criminals than the rights of victims. Even when it comes to social issues Republicans have adopted the rhetoric of blame. The gay civil rights bill wasn’t about a class of people demanding the same legal protections as everybody else, it was about a bunch of perverts seeking to impose their disgusting lifestyle on the rest on us.
Meanwhile, at the same time Republicans are putting so much time and effort into maligning government as incompetent, inefficient, and sometimes, downright immoral, suburban voters enjoy the benefits of a functioning local government everyday. They love their schools, their libraries, their parks, their police and their firefighters, and they consistently choose to tax themselves to improve these services. Thus the main problem for suburban Republicans is that the reality of suburban life simply doesn’t match the bulk of Republican rhetoric.
I appreciate Earling’s efforts at introspection. But it’s going to take a lot more than a shift in tactics to revive the GOP on the Eastside.