Is conservativism going extinct?
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