In the history of America’s two-party dominated political system there has generally been a division in the orientation of the parties. Since the formalization of parties after 1796 there has been a party of coalition and a party of idea. This is not a perfect construct, but accurate enough to provide a useful way of understanding party dynamics.
Without belaboring the point, the Democrats have been the party of the coalition, and thus have changed their ideals as their coalition has changed over time. The party of the idea has changed, sometime dramatically, as the driving idea has changed, thus Federalists gave way to Whigs who yielded to Republicans. Significant third party challenges in federal politics, organized around an idea, have therefore been threats to the predominant idea party, the challenges of Theodore Roosevelt and Ross Perot being the most prominent examples.
President Obama has pushed the Democrat coalition to a tipping point that suggests the potential for dominance through several more election cycles. The decrease in the number of tax-paying Americans, the increase in poverty rate and consequent reliance on government programs, the influx of immigrants of color, linked with lockstep unions and supported by coastal elites, have expanded the Democrat coalition to the point where it can eschew the temporary support of independents.
For their part, Republicans have been largely cornered by the rising coalition. Republicans have at once failed to portray a clear organizing idea and allowed its opposition to mock it as the “party of no.” The resulting problem, and its clichéd solutions, suggests continuing difficulty for Republicans.
A) The GOP has been told it is too narrow, and thus needs to build coalitions by reaching out to this group or that group. Though tempting, this is usually a Democrat suggestion because it prompts Republicans to play a game they cannot win. First it destroys Republicans as a party of idea, and second it would ask voters to choose between a committed and long-standing coalition party, and an insincere coalition-lite party.
B) Republicans are criticized as too conservative. This is a semantic trap. The idea behind the Republican Party is one of individual liberty. Yet that idea has been placed at apparent odds with elements of social conservatives that are as willing as secular socialists to leverage the power of the state to promote a preferred lifestyle. The internal contradictions of individual liberty and an inclination toward uniformity reduce the effectiveness of the idea. Republicans are not too conservative, they are not conservative enough in their fidelity to the letter of the Constitution.
C) The Republicans have become a regional party with but toe-holds in the Northeast and coastal west. Regionalism is a problem because it defines itself not by its own standards, but instead the measurements of the opponent. Republican regionalism is inherently defensive. Middle America, with its traditional disposition, is put in a posture than can – and will – be increasingly marginalized by Democrat advances. It is a given that the cultural emissaries of the Democrat coalition will continue to make inroads, while Middle America necessarily lacks proselytizing missionaries.
The solution for the Republican Party is a recalibration as the party of innovation. That is, the organizing ideal of the party of the idea needs to be innovation and its component parts of technological advances, entrepreneurialism, and dynamism. I believe innovation to be a powerful enough idea to elect governing majorities for a generation.
1) The innovation agenda both consolidates and then expands freedom as a raison d’etre. Innovation is not planned and controlled, it is unleashed. Carefully choreographed life does not yield innovations, experimentation does.
Innovation is anti-regulation, anti-taxation, anti-bureaucratic, and de-centralized. The conditions of innovation are subsidiarity. An innovation agenda will embrace the Federalists idea of the states as the laboratories of democracy and follow it down a logical continuum.
2) Innovation rejuvenates American Exceptionalism. Democrats have waged war on this notion, first deriding it as jingoistic and then redefining it as a tautological belief that America is superior because it is America. Nonsense. American Exceptionalism is the belief that America is an exception to the family of ordinary nations because America is a mixture of unique conditions and circumstances with a guiding idea that supersedes the usual dividing lines of faith, race, region, or inheritance. American Exceptionalism is linked to innovation and will benefit from a focus on innovation.
3) Innovation as idea allows Republicans to unify with their libertarian siblings. Libertarians, dedicated as they are to individual freedom, often commiserates with Republicans, but just as often splinter away from the GOP. Though a small group, libertarians are influential and dedicated. I also believe it is a growing movement that is attractive to the youth of the information age.
4) A demonstrated commitment to innovation allows Republicans to claim the science agenda. The two are inextricably linked. At present, neither Republicans nor Democrats are fully aligned with science, as I have discussed before, but an embrace of innovation allows Republicans to gain an advantage in the lingua franca of the age. Science will also power economic growth and military supremacy. Republicans want to be on the side of science.
The problem with science and its requisite experimentation is that many, many experiments will fail. For instance, basic economic logic dictates that a hybrid vehicle like the Toyota Prius is a bad financial decision for almost all drivers. But just because it does not quite do what it purports to do, and just because self-righteous Leftists wear the Prius as some sort of badge, does not mean that the underlying effort is not worthy. It was Thomas Edison who said “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
Republicans understand the path to achievement is strewn with stumbling blocks, but it did not stop them from embracing a missile defense program in the 1980s. Republicans can and should embrace efforts to advance technology. They can remain skeptical, but mocking does not suit the party of the idea.
5) Innovation is the agenda of entrepreneurs and small businesses. The statistics are overwhelming and well-known. Small business drives America. Republicans want to stand with entrepreneurs and innovators. Courting big business is the fabricated punch line to too many anti-Republican jokes. The fact is that big business is politically agnostic; it will follow power and use its influence to quash competition or court favors. Small business is dynamic, multitudinous and aligned with liberty.
6) Recognition as the party of innovation will allow Republicans to pivot away from the disastrous policies of Democrats and their entitlement state. New ideas, like school choice, health savings accounts, and alternatives to the social security Ponzi scheme are easy for Democrats to demagogue as assaults on a particular set of voters. The alarmism of Democrats allows them to ignore the unsustainable finances and often heartless bureaucratic trappings of big government social programs. Innovation embraces alternatives that could not only improve the status quo but allow for consideration of marked alterations.
7) An innovation party has the opportunity to contrast the opposition as stagnant. Republicans are already prepared to make this argument. Democrats have addressed education problems with money. Faced with continued problems their response has been more money again. Democrats have thwarted advances in adult stem cell research in favor of quixotic hopes offered by embryonic stem cells. Conservative think tanks can provide literally hundreds of examples of Democrat commitment to protecting the status quo. Defensiveness is, after all, an unavoidable attribute of a party of coalition.
Adoption of an innovation agenda will not come without a price for the Republican-conservative voting bloc.
The conservatism of Russell Kirk is imbued with a pessimism that finds a ready home in the conservative mind. Innovation entails rejection of pessimism; innovation means that the Right would need to reject the charge of William F. Buckley to stand athwart history. Fortunately, Ronald Reagan demonstrated that a conservative can not only discover optimism, but can also come to represent it.
The second cost of becoming the party of innovation is a disciplined ideological consistency regarding personal freedom. Conservatives understand that certain practices and behaviors come to us after centuries of testing. Tradition should be defended, or at least hesitatingly ceded, because so very much of it works to brace society relationships. But, just because some institution is statistically successful does not mean it is best for any given individual.
Grover Norquist has for years pitched the conservative movement as something of a “leave me alone” confederacy. This boils down to a philosophy that says “I won’t tell you what you do, just so long as you don’t tell me what to do.” I suspect most NRA members would gladly accept this trade. For social conservatives it will mean tolerance of issues like same-sex marriage.
Democrats have adopted this approach on the issue of abortion. They claim to privately or personally oppose it, but state a reluctance to legislate it. Social conservatives can take a cue. A consistent defense of personal liberty will allow Republicans to advance green technology while opposing the enviro-statist policies of the Left. Adhering to personal freedom will permit full-throated support for the Boy Scouts of America, but entail others exercise of free association.
As the year turns from 2012 to 2013 with Republicans gnashing their teeth and Democrats gloating a sharp move toward recalibrating as the party of innovation should allow the Grand Old Party to march successfully into the new century. More important than electoral success, the innovation agenda will secure America’s continuing role as a shining city on the hill.