By John Rapley
It is hardly surprising that the United States' Republican Party has been asking itself hard questions since last Tuesday's elections. In the midst of a disappointing economic recovery, any opposition party could have expected to make gains. As Lawrence Powell pointed out in yesterday's column, it has been nearly a century since a president was re-elected with unemployment so high. The White House was Mitt Romney's to lose.
But lose it he did. Hoping also to take over the Senate, Republicans actually fell backwards. They retained their control on the House of Representatives and made some gains at state levels. But that was less than could have been hoped for a party whose omens were otherwise good.
As I pointed out in my post-election analysis last Thursday, and as many Republicans now acknowledge, demography is destiny. Although the US remains a predominantly white country, the share of ethnic minorities in the population is growing inexorably. For the moment, at least, Hispanics, blacks and, increasingly, Asians, are lining up solidly in the Democratic camp. And a gender gap has begun to widen, with educated women also favouring the Democratic Party.
If it retreats into a tradition-bound nativism to please its base, therefore, the Republican Party will find itself increasingly on the defensive. It needs a makeover. Many of the party's leaders and intellectuals recognise it.
There will probably be a period of internecine warfare in the party as a debate intensifies along factional lines. On one side will be conservatives, who maintain that the party did poorly in this election cycle because its presidential candidate was too moderate. On the other will be moderates, a dying but not yet dead breed in the party. They will argue that the party's sharp rightward turn, under the influence of the Tea Party faction, alienated women and ethnic minorities.
Yet, if things look dire for American conservatism at the moment, one can never rule out the Republican Party's capacity for renewal. This, after all, is the party born under Lincoln as the foe of slavery and the South, which has managed somehow to become today the party of state rights and a veiled white chauvinism. If nothing else, Americans are famously adaptive and willing to try a new thing.
The US is an increasingly secular society, and it is increasingly multi-ethnic. Sticking to a very white and evangelical message will almost certainly doom the party to decline. But there remains a large market for conservatism in the US. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of the Democratic Party is that its most reliable constituency, African-Americans, are so out of step with its liberal social agenda.
Plotting a comeback
Under George W. Bush, Republicans recognised this and made some inroads into Democratic support with appeals to Hispanic and, to a lesser degree, black voters. I wouldn't be surprised if in coming years, we hear more from the growing cadre of Republican state politicians with Latino names.
The other reason Republicans might not yet despair is that it's not clear if the strong support among women and minorities for the Democratic Party is a permanent phenomenon, or something accentuated by the presidency of Barack Obama. African Americans remain solidly tied to the Democrats. But it will take a few more years, and a couple more elections, before we will be able to determine with certainty if a permanent realignment is under way among other groups.
An ethnically based politics is guaranteed to send Republicans into decline. But then, nativism, a recurring variable in American politics, has never provided long-term success. A more multi-hued conservatism remains a possibility. Moreover, if the American economy doesn't regain some of its fire of old in the next four years - something which remains a distinct possibility - one can't rule out a resurgent Republican Party.
Liberals would do well to toast their victory, while also recognising how ephemeral victories can be in America.
John Rapley is a foreign affairs analyst. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.