Is conservativism going extinct?

December 12, 2012

There was so much cacophony at the Republican National Convention in Tampa this summer that some unscripted remarks were not given the prominence they deserved. One of the most prescient, in light of Mitt Romney’s defeat, was this from South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham: “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” Graham’s bleak demographic assessment of the conservative future was confirmed by David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, whose harsh verdict was that the “Republican Party base is white, aging and dying off.”

Has the GOP really become a redoubt for “angry white guys”? Will Republicans put themselves out of business by not appealing fast enough to young voters? To put it at its most stark: Are conservatives going extinct? Graham’s view was echoed this past weekend by the Republican sage George Will. Pondering whether the Supreme Court will declare gay marriage legal, he said, “There is something like an emerging consensus. Quite literally, the opposition to gay marriage is dying. It’s old people.”

The problem with many aging Americans is that their reactionary views are out of sync with those of women, people of color, immigrants and gays who make up the Democrats’ election winning “rainbow coalition.” As the 2012 results show, when it comes to social issues ‑ women’s rights, such as equal pay; women’s health, including contraception and abortion; the rights of racial minorities, including basic elements of democracy such as access to the ballot; immigration, both legal and illegal, and equal rights for children of illegals; gay rights and homosexual marriage ‑ the Republicans fiercely defend the status quo. And the older the Republicans, the more reactionary they tend to be.

Age is a key factor in winning votes. In the presidential race, Barack Obama won by overwhelmingly attracting younger voters, beating Romney by 24 percentage points in the 18- to-29-year-old age range, while among those aged 65 and over, Romney enjoyed a 12-point lead. According to Gallup, there is a distinct difference between the parties. The older the “non-Hispanic” white voters were, the more likely they were to vote for Romney, but there was no such race gap among non-whites, where all age groups supported Obama equally, including those aged 70-plus.

This racial difference between whites and non-whites is evident in attitudes about race. Here, too, it appears the tide is going out on Republicans decade by decade. On the question of whether there should be a ban on interracial marriages, over time attitudes have become sharply more liberal among all age groups, though, as might be expected, younger Americans are far more liberal. According to the General Social Survey, in 1972, 43 percent of Americans over 26 were in favor of a ban on interracial marriages, while just one in five of those aged 18 to 25 were in favor. Thirty years later opposition to interracial marriage had declined to 10 percent and 4 percent, respectively. The survey showed a near-identical change in attitudes toward racial segregation of neighborhoods. Each generation has become more liberal on issues of race, with baby boomers (born 1946 to1964) and the Generation Xers (born 1965 to 1976) barely racist at all.

The Civic and Political Health of the Nation survey discovered that age was key in determining attitudes toward immigrants and immigration. The older the American, the less likely he agrees that “immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents.” Similarly, the older the American, the more likely he agrees that “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and healthcare.” It is hard not to conclude that when it comes to race, older Republicans are on the losing side of history.

Litmus test issues like capital punishment also reveal older Republican Americans to be out of step with the rest of the nation. Last year, Gallup found those in favor of putting to death “a person convicted of murder” divided, 71 percent to 46 percent, between Republicans and Democrats and 65 percent to 29 percent between those over and under 65. By contrast, young people aged 18 to 29 approved of the death penalty by just 52 percent to 45 percent.

When it comes to “women’s issues” like abortion, age also plays a significant part. Last year, Gallup found that the older you are, the more likely you will oppose abortion in any circumstances. The proportion of 18- to 34-year-olds who think abortion should be legal in any or most circumstances is 40 percent, dropping to 31 percent of those 55 and older, while 79 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats think abortion should be legal in few or no cases.

The hot topic of gay marriage follows a similar pattern: Older Republicans are against, younger Democrats in favor. Pew researchers found a sharp increase in support for gay marriage and found that each successive generation is more in favor than the last. Pew suggests this has to do with “generational replacement ‑ the arrival of younger, more supportive generations making up a larger share of the population.” Or, to put it bluntly, older, more conservative Americans are dying off and younger, more liberal Americans are taking their place.

So long as Republicans stick to their beliefs and maintain their hostility to hot-button issues like immigration, abortion and gay marriage, the more population shifts will ensure they remain unelectable. Last year, 2,513,171 Americans died, taking to their grave the attitudes of their generation. Life expectancy, currently 78.5, may be slowly rising, but it cannot keep pace with the churn in the population as older, more conservative Americans die and young, more liberal Americans join the electoral rolls. “Angry white guys” die 4.8 years before their more liberal female counterparts, adding to the speed of the conservative decline.

An obvious Republican fix would be to follow the British Conservatives in junking social conservative issues to concentrate on the small government, private enterprise, economic freedom arguments that Margaret Thatcher took to victory three times. The Tory leader David Cameron is distancing himself from his party’s reactionary bedrock by championing gay marriage and even amending primogeniture so that children of the monarch will inherit the throne in birth order, irrespective of their gender. But such a sensible, pragmatic approach does not appeal to the old-school conservatives who make up so much of his party. The same division is likely to happen here, splitting the Republican vote as readily as when Teddy Roosevelt formed the Bull Moose Party and let in the progressive Woodrow Wilson.

The GOP therefore faces a fork in the road: It can either persuade young Americans to adopt conservative views, or it can adapt the GOP platform to fit the liberal views of the young. Continuing to pander to geriatric prejudices is a recipe for extinction. A number of old white guys, including Churchill, are attributed with saying that those who are not socialists by the age of 20 have no heart, while those who are not conservatives by the age of 40 have no head. More pertinent for the Republicans today, however, may be De Toqueville’s take on the conservative dilemma: “I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.”

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W.W. Norton. Read extracts here.

PHOTO: A skeleton of a Mauritius Dodo bird which was found by E. Thirioux, a barber, in a cave at the foot of Le Pouce Mountain at Pailles, which is in the vicinity of the town of Port Louis in year 1900, stands at an exhibition in the Mauritius Institute Museum in Port Louis in this December 27, 2005 file photo. PHOTO: Reuters/Stringer


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Over time, views on issues change, change back and then change again. The issue of gay marriage is not a new issue. The issue existed in Sodom, where it clearly won out. It existed in the Roman empire. Maybe it wasn’t an issue of marriage, but it was definitely a lifestyle issue. Conservatism isn’t only about keeping the status quo for “white guys”, it is about trying to preserve a way of life that made the United States such a great place to be. Much of the liberal agenda has been adopted throughout Europe, and you may note that it is not a place where people want to flock to. Perhaps adopting these lifestyle changes will make us the same way, making immigration a non-issue as well. I don’t envy our children. When the older population is near gone, they will say, “remember when we were young, and opportunity abounded?” “remember when people relied on their own two hands rather than the hand-out?” “remember when America was a great country?” Conservatism is based on a moral structure of beliefs. When those morals go, so goes the country. No one will remember when this was a great Country. No, I certainly don’t envy our children.

Posted by bluewater23000 | Report as abusive

“We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
That says it all. Instead of focusing on the positive the republicans want to generate fear and anger.

Posted by ofilha | Report as abusive

In reply to bluewater23000. I must say you appear not to be too knowledgeable of europe. Many people flock to europe, from africa and asia even south america. Only somoeone living in a bubble, which is typical of many people in the US, would make such a statement about Europe.

Posted by ofilha | Report as abusive

What are the causes of the decline of the Republican Party? Yo must be kidding…just look at what comes out of the mouths of those who belong to it. Akin’s and Mourdock’s comments on rape…Ryan’s stance on abortion…Bush leading us into these disastrous wars, based on nothing but lies and ignorance..( same thing that caused 9/11)…Limbaugh’s general shotgun-style spewing of hatred and arrogance…and Palin and Bachman’s comments on anything you can name…and Carl Rove’s insane meltdown when the election results were announced. It just never stops. these people don’t know HOW to stop. The Republican party has done everything in it’s power to cause the Obama administration to fail for 4 years, and anyone who thinks that is NOT racially motivated is lying to themselves. It is nothing less than a firehose of ignorance and hatred and lies sprayed at the American public, and then the right can’t under WHY OH WHY did we lose the election.

Posted by polyisocyan | Report as abusive

Bluewater’s comments shows the current conservative viewpoint that fails to attract voters, particularly younger voters. While the story focuses on socially conservative causes, it posits the solution of following a simpler financially conservative strain. But this solution cannot work for a couple of reasons. In England, there is not a plurality of voters who bring faith into the election booth. In America, ignoring the socially conservative faithful reduces your audience even further, or at least reduces their turnout as purely political issues (those that can be solved legislatively, unlike gay marriage or abortion) are not hot button topics.

The second factor is the economic viewpoint. The comment “remember when people relied on their own two hands rather than the hand-out?” shows the conservative belief that people are self-built, and that America is a meritocracy. The liberal view, pilloried by the quote “You didn’t build that”, believes that few, if any, successes are self-built. Governmental “handouts” (include creation of the Internet, the Interstate Highway system, air traffic controllers, and college loan programs) are essential to economic success, not just hard work. Burdensome regulation also helps create a level playing field (look at insider trading and bank fraud before the SEC was created). Healthcare offers a similar hurdle; you are at your employer’s mercy with a pre-existing condition and could never hope to strike out on your own.

Needless to say, the younger, wired, global, mobile generation tends to subscribe to the liberal economic agenda as well. They don’t want their father’s cubicle dwelling life, nor do they feel that working hard is always well rewarded. Corporate careers are shunned, and entrepreneurial ideas (which did make America great) require help (government or otherwise) to get off the ground.

Posted by Mike_s1 | Report as abusive

The liberal crowd will have to eat what they produce – academics have long felt their ideas unheard and unused. The current state of almost comedic trivializing of people and their beliefs is arrogance on steroids – or maybe scotch. It takes disciplined, creative hard working professionals and executives to make our economy go. Unfortunately, that really doesn’t interest the academic – (which is another word for a liberal ideologue) he is all about ideas and it is other peoples problem to fund and execute his ideas. They aren’t building and enlarging our economic engine – they are just blaming our own failures on the system they corrupted. Our governing body is mired in lobbying, cronyism and pandering. Conservatism is a simple truism – don’t risk what you don’t have. Liberalism will bring itself to an end – because it is not sustainable – and at the heart of our economy is the free market and an individuals pursuit of excellence. Look at the cities run by liberal democratic political parties – and you won’t find a success story unless someone left a trust fund to the city. When people realize the dead end, the covers will come off. Look at our current situation – no budget in 4 years. Say what you want but it is very premature and wishful thinking to say conservatism is dead. You can only spin your biased imagery of conservatism to be old white racists only so long – this has been the tactic of the left. You will see a diverse and energetic group of new economy individuals – who will push for the freedoms and pursuit of economic success – not a government takeover. Maybe there will be curb on ultra wealth (giving that money to the government is folly) – but government as a mechanism of production is a failed proposition from the start.

Posted by xit007 | Report as abusive

Pfft, whatever. There are still enough disgruntled and/or overly religious people in America that there is lots of life for the Republicans. All they need is a beaconesque leader to rally around and they’ll be stronger than people realize. Everyone thought that the Dems were done after the 2010 midterms; then they chose to rally around Obama and blew away the conservatives. The reverse is true and all that’s needed is someone strong to rally around. Romney wasn’t it… though I don’t really know who could be. It’s not Gov. Christie – sorry.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

xit007 says, It takes disciplined, creative hard working professionals and executives to make our economy go. Go down the tubes maybe. Thank you, Bob Rubin, James Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, Dick Fuld, and let’s not forget those golden oldies, Charles Keating and Kennyboy Lay.

It’s the Waltons, Adelsons, and Kochs that guarantees, Our governing body is mired in lobbying, cronyism and pandering.

Posted by Andvari | Report as abusive

I work in an Assisted Living, Independent Living, Dementia, and Skilled Nursing Facility; Over 500 elderly residents.

Romney supporters almost to the letter. They don’t like Black, Communist Obama.

They are racist. One 94 year old calling the lady who lives next door who is 82, “the colored girl.”

This is the “twilight” of the WWII/Korea generation … and not a moment too soon.

They have way, way, way, out-lived their usefulness.

And something happens as one gets older. It’s a change in the “gray matter.”

They are all fearful.
They are all less intelligent then they once were.
They are all more child like.
They are all angry(er).
They are all sick.

This has/continues to be played upon by Fox News / the Republicans by stoking that fear and lying to them – usually to their own detriment.

This is NOT the greatest generation. This is the MOST selfish one, willing to sacrifice their kids (the baby boomers) and their grandchildren (the X, Y & millennials) for a few more years of pointless, ill life. While simultaneously selling them out by running up record deficits to fuel their pointless wars of aggression, exuberant Medicare and Medicaid entitlements … and yet, they don’t want to pay taxes.

They got to live to 90+ on “the welfare-state” but they’ll be dammed if anyone else does.

If we’re going to cut medicare or medicaid or elder entitlements we should cut them for all, now.

Let them experience some “free market capitalism” before they die, immediately, in the cold, in the street from the shock of what life is like without “government.”

Let the transfer of assets BEGIN!

Posted by Foxdrake_360 | Report as abusive

What happens when El Rushbo croaks? Who’ll take his place? Somebody has to keep the middle aged disgruntled white male electorate riled up.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

Apparently, you have a very serious “color and age” problem yourself.

The problem with the GOP is that it has an obsession with “green” — as in the color of money — rather than the horseshit described in your article.

The proof is quite obvious if you care to look around you. Not all whites are wealthy, and not all people of color are poor. That much should be obvious to everyone, but apparently it is not.

Thus, not everyone who is “old and white” — a double racial and age bias slam — is wealthy (unfortunately), since I am both, but I am certainly not wealthy.

I am, by most standards, reasonably successful, but entirely by my own efforts in terms of overcoming my “poorness” with education (through hard work and student loans).

Nevertheless, even though I am white, most of my efforts have been in vain.

I have been subjected to discriminatory practices in my life (but certainly not to the extent of most), primarily because I don’t have the proper “credentials” — as in being born wealthy, which is quite easy to tell from a quick glance at a person’s resume — so I have been forced to watch as others with significantly less qualifications and abilities being advanced and protected by their “class”.

The truth is that simply being white is certainly not a guarantee of success, and it is a racial slur to state or imply it.

My problem — along with a lot of other white people out there of all ages — is that we were born relatively poor.

Thus, we don’t fit in with the wealthy crowd, and people like you try to make it sound like “white” is the problem when it is not.

It’s the wealthy, stupid!

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

The real problem is that Republicans have nurtured and cultivated the intolerant religious right as their base, and they have an outsized influence in the primaries.

And, in bed with the 1% who see any attempt to bring a degree of equality as akin to Communism. I am not referring to a redistribution of wealth; but a redistribution of the rules which have skewed every advantage to the 1% as an entitlement, while they decry anything to others as ‘socialism’.

There is no longer an equal chance to succeed for most.

If Republicans were calling for more of those who crashed the economy to go to prison, that might show to many that there is a new cop on the beat. Instead,they fight every rule that is designed to level the playing field.

After a point, the clever use of phrases and slogans that get seniors to hold signs demanding government take their hands off their Medicare is going to ring hollow.

Anger and invective on the radio from the right wing fringe can only bring so many voters to the Republican Party. They are preaching to the choir, not enlarging the choir.

Posted by pavoter1946 | Report as abusive

@bluewater23000 said:

“Much of the liberal agenda has been adopted throughout Europe, and you may note that it is not a place where people want to flock to. Perhaps adopting these lifestyle changes will make us the same way, making immigration a non-issue as well.”

As already noted by @ofilha, this is typical American myopia and a classic case of fabricating evidence to support a flawed ideology. Reality is that a dozen other nations have higher immigration rates than the United States and all of them, save Australia, Canada and New Zealand, are European nations. Fourth ranked Switzerland’s immigration rate is more than double that of the United States. According to Wikipedia (a simple search to avoid making yourself look like a fool): “As of 2006, the International Organization for Migration has estimated the number of foreign migrants worldwide to be more than 200 million. Europe hosted the largest number of immigrants, with 70 million people in 2005. North America, with over 45 million immigrants, is second.” Given that Canada has an immigration rate more than double that of the U.S. it’s easy to estimate that twice as many people “flock to” Europe as to the United States. I’m sure you won’t let these facts get in the way of your ideology though.

Posted by jtfane | Report as abusive

@bluwater23000: sir, your knowledge of Europe is abysmal. Have you ever actually been there??

Posted by explorer08 | Report as abusive

@jtfane “Reality is that a dozen other nations have higher immigration rates than the United States and all of them”
What a bunch of bull! This is NOT, and never has been, about immigration. It was all about illegal immigration, there is a BIG difference! But liberal spin artists love to speak in half-truths while expounding their leftist philosophies. They have no more validity than a Bible-thumper who cherry picks certain passages while ignoring damaging counterpoints in validating an argument relevant to personal ideologies.
Latinos, especially Mexicans, take-up the lions share of legal immigration by a considerable amount as it is. And this says nothing about the illegal immigration numbers that have been cited as approximately 11 million illegals in the US right now. That number has gone down by 1 million since 2002 yet by 2030-2040, Latinos will be the new majority.
The inconvenient truth about not being able to track a truly unknown quantity just never sank in to the liberal mindset. But hey, the deck is, and always has been, stacked against the social conservatives and moderates. You guys control all the media, except FoxNews which is a joke, so the moderates have absolutely no voice in today’s politics. We are being fed the news through a liberally biased bottle-neck. More or less, a Sorosian filter. And I have discovered through twitter feeds that many of the (fair and balanced) journalists of controversial news stories (not just opinion pieces)such as Yahoo and CNN have been very active in crushing any differences of opinion.
So why don’t you Libs just admit that many of you are liars and bigots.

Posted by HaterOfLies | Report as abusive

@jtfane Your argument would make perfect sense if anti-amnesty advocates were against LEGAL IMMIGRATION. It is the amount of ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS that has them pouring in by countless millions. So try telling the entire story next time. And if Canada shared a border with Mexico and a HUGE mass exodus of illegals came pouring into their communities. After higher medical costs due to a quadrupling of non-paying indigent care and emergency services and over-crowded classrooms, higher crime rates, etc… I would wager that many Canadians would be singing a different tune. It is easy to cast stones until your are wearing the shoes of the receiving victim.

Posted by HaterOfLies | Report as abusive

What an odd notion. Or perhaps the question is misstated. Conservatism can’t go extinct, nor I believe can conservatives. It’s very possible ideas associated with 20th century political and economic configurations as espoused by the Republican Party will go the way of the dodo, as they should. But this applies to 20th century American-style “liberalism” that we associate with the Democratic Party as well.

To address Nicholas’s main argument: the population is aging and demographics are changing. Well, the politically powerful, but aging, babyboomer cohort will be taking control of national politics for the next 20-30 years. I expect the two major parties will reflect their political preferences, not those of the younger generations, which will be split between receiving state benefits and paying the taxes to pay for such.

As far as the main point, let me put it this way. Republican policy ideas based on corporate and financial sector dominance are anachronistic, as are Democratic ideas based on union and political machine dominance. (Granted, many fail to recognize they’re living in the past – very conservative attitude, right?) The real question is what kind of political philosophy will best guide future party platforms? Neither party will go extinct, but hopefully both will be transformed as they adapt to change. In a two-party electoral structure, there is no ying without the yang.

Posted by MikeHarrington | Report as abusive

It’s my understanding that “American conservatism” is respect for tradition, support of republicanism, the rule of law and the Christian religion,” and a defense of “Western civilization from the challenges of modernist culture and totalitarian governments”; and Mr. Graham is no longer considered an American conservative by my observation. He’s become nothing more than a two bit, vote seeking, go along to get along, typical politician who even the aging, angry or not, white man or woman can see conservative values in his words and actions, this will include the other politicians like him who, “when it comes to social issues ‑ women’s rights, such as equal pay; women’s health, including contraception and abortion; the rights of racial minorities, including basic elements of democracy such as access to the ballot; immigration, both legal and illegal, and equal rights for children of illegals; gay rights and homosexual marriage”, they lean liberal in their stance just to get that two percent popular vote. Just look at the real popular vote for Romney on the electoral red and blue map. We want statesmen who don’t pander to the two percent flavor of the month.

As for the age, race, sex, and “popular issues” factors, as an aging female I can see it play out in the same manner as it did when I raised my child. There were many things she desperately wanted at various time during her development; but as the parent, the adult, I had to guide her into what was best for her, not cave in to please her. As it turned out, she developed into a lovely young lady with an excellent, top of her class education in the study of law which cost her in student loans, but she wouldn’t have it any other way now. It’s from delayed gratification that what’s most important in life will come to fruition. Of course it’s not easy to say no to those frequent, yet unhealthy demands and requests of those who grew up in these “modern” times. The times call for instant gratification in just about everything from fast food to the plethora abundance of material items offered.

I think Margaret Thatcher approach was more one of common sense in regard to the assessment of just what it was going to take for the government to run successfully under the circumstances of that time.

In the grand scheme of things, wouldn’t swallowing some ill tasting common sense be the better action for any party to take rather than taking the pleasurable reactionary route to obtain a few votes? I think the vast majority would be able to see the need and be willing to take their medicine in order to get well rather than see a continued decline in our country while the minority will scream and kick rather than swallow the ill tasting medication but at least the sickness within our country would be curtailed.

Posted by 1saltygal | Report as abusive