In the wake of the great Republican defeat (and despite the distraction of the Petraeus Affair) pols and pundits continue to offer advice to the Republican Party as to how it might reform itself in order to…. well, do better next time around. Yesterday’s New York Times contains a number of suggestions: Ditch the radical right. Court the black vote. Embrace immigration reform. Etc.
There’s something almost always missing in the way these suggestions are presented. They are all written as if the plight of the GOP could be ameliorated through simple operations of subtraction (e.g., ditch the radical right) or addition (e.g., take up immigration reform). Only rarely is consideration given to how the proposed subtraction or addition would affect the ostensible identity of the party or how the change could be effectuated given the ostensible identity of the party.
Consider: If the GOP ditches the radical right, to what degree does the GOP remain the GOP or become instead something else? Isn’t the radical right an important voting constituency? A draw for donors? Isn’t the ideology of the radical right infused throughout the GOP? And can the radical right really be conceptualized as a divisible part of some imaginary GOP whole—a part that can be jettisoned without creating fissures and ripples throughout the party? Is it really as easy as simple as dropping a part from some part/whole metaphor?
Or consider again: If the GOP embraces immigration reform, does it not lose the support and allegiance of some of its white constituency? And is embracing immigration reform really sufficient to counter-act the effect of all the other GOP policies (and attitudes) that alienate Latino voters? A simple add-on and things will be fine—really?
So how then are we to understand the various proposals of the GOP pols and pundits? What presumptions about identity are in play here?
Are we to understand the pols and pundits to be presuming that the GOP has an essential identity that can remain unchanged even with the addition or subtraction of purportedly discrete parts? Maybe. But if so, it would be interesting to try to figure out what this essential identity might be. Not the least reason is that the effort is likely to fail. Indeed, whatever the identity of the GOP may be, it is unlikely to be of the essential kind. To put it differently, whatever may be essential about the GOP, it is likely to be somewhat abstract or, in the alternative, highly variegated (which is to say, not very essential at all).
Perhaps then, we are to understand these GOP pols and pundits to be saying that the GOP should become something else (presumably some more electorally successful version of itself). Again, maybe. But it is doubtful that the GOP (whatever it may be) cares so intensely about electoral success that it is willing to become some other party in order to get it. At the very least there is a tension here (and, again, it would make for interesting inquiry.)
Are we then to understand the GOP pols and pundits to be making a kind of pragmatic pitch—something like the following: this is what we, the GOP, should be given what we are and can realistically become in light of our ideals as qualified by the subtraction and additions presented by my argument here. Again maybe so. But this pragmatic approach seems to founder on the shoals of a very unpragmatic reality–namely, that identity of the modern-day Republican Party is weighed down (perhaps irretrievably?) by the very unpragmatic results of what was once a pragmatic strategy–namely, “Nixon’s southern strategy.” That strategy was once the height of pragmatism. Now it’s like a lead weight–rendering change or reform all but impossible. See here. That is the fundamental irony of pragmatic strategies: Ultimately, pragmatic strategies have to yield results and when the latter register, they become, not surprisingly, rather unpragmatic.
In the end, it’s also conceivable that all this advice to the Republican party is nothing more than cosmetic–attempts to call for and perform relatively minor makeovers. That possibility is not very interesting (though that does not make it any the less likely.)
Addendum; January 29, 2013
In today’s New York Times, David Brooks’s oped seems to get it Brooks criticizes Republican stalwarts (e.g. Bobbie Jindahl, etc.) along a form/substance track: The sounds of reform (let’s not be “the stupid party”) are all packaging (form) devoid of any new proposals (substance). Leveraging the form/substance distinction, Brooks then calls for a “second GOP”–one whose core commitments and issues will differ from the first GOP. (For details see here.) And then Brooks ends on almost the right note: ”This is really the only chance Republicans have. The question is: Who’s going to build a second G.O.P.?” Right. Exactly. Recycle back up to the top.