The Republican Party's future: evolve or die

If the GOP is to avoid becoming completely irrelevant, it needs to embrace people who actually understand modern America.

While President Obama’s supporters bask in re-election glory, America’s conservatives have been left asking themselves how and why their man managed to lose this election and what they can do to ensure a Republican win in 2016.  

The truth is that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why Romney lost. His failure is obvious to anyone who exists outside of the conservative bubble. People voted not just against Romney, but against his party’s values and what the Republican Party has come to stand for, particularly on social issues like race, women's rights, gay marriage and immigration, in recent years. The question now is what the future of the party is.

When, after the 2008 election, the party took a sharp shift to the right and fully embraced the Tea Party as its "base", it embraced ideology over pragmatism, and decided that fanaticism based on nostalgia for a (older, white, male, deeply religious, exclusive) America of yesteryear was better than keeping up with the pace of progress. 

The Tea Party – and other radicals like those in the Birther movement who have spent a great deal of time on petty issues such as demanding President Obama’s birth certificate - was allowed to become synonymous with mainstream conservatism, even though it is really a fringe group made up of a small number of people. This led to the Republican brand falling into an even sadder state than it had been after eight years of George Bush's contentious presidency. 

Unable to accept the shifting social, cultural and demographic realities of modern America, the Republican Party clung to the idea that it could fight the direction in which the country is moving and thought little of alienating key voting blocs such as women and minorities - to its own detriment. 

These past two elections have seen a huge increase in non-white voters and increased support from women, youth and minorities that was enough to swing the vote in President Obama’s favour in 2012 as they did in 2008. Whether or not conservatives like it, these groups hold the key to the future and will only gain in power and number. In other words, they will not be ignored. 

In the post-election analysis, some have started to acknowledge this fact, with former House speaker Newt Gingrich admitting that he and others like Karl Rove were "wrong" about Romney's prospects. "We all thought we understood the historical pattern and the fact that with this level of unemployment, with this level of gasoline pricing what would happen...,” he said.  

On the Huffington Post, a Republican strategist also outlines the level of disconnect that the current party has with the country:

  • We thought young voters would not turn out at the same level as 2008. They did. In fact, they represented 19 per cent of the electorate per exit polls--as high, if not higher, than four years ago.
  • We said that Democrats would not be +6 over Republicans and if they were, Obama would win. Well, they did and he did. Again, exit polls say Democrats were +6. Romney needed the proportion of Republicans and Democrats to be even to win.
  • We thought minority turnout would be lower than 2008. It was not. In several important precincts in key states, minorities voted in numbers equal to - and in some cases better than - four years ago.
  • We thought Romney would win Independents by double digits. He won them, but by just five points.
  • We thought Romney would have a huge gender advantage among men; it was only seven points. Meanwhile, the President won women by 11 points.
  • We thought Romney would dominate on being "better able to handle the economy." He only beat the President on this issue by a few points. Not enough.

This level of flawed thinking is stunning.

If the Republican Party is to move away from being seen as fringe and disconnected, it needs new leadership that will embrace the mainstream, acknowledge the country's changes and face reality head on. It needs people who actually understand modern America - perhaps themselves young, brown, female. But this must go beyond mere tokenism. 

Republicans would do well to denounce the deeply unpopular Tea Party as its base and admonish the racist, misogynist, fanatics that it brings with it. It would benefit from separating itself from people like the sensationalist Donald Trump, Todd "legitimate rape" Akins (who lost his Tea Party seat in Missouri) and people of their ilk, moving away from the extreme right to a more palatable middle ground for those who may be fiscally conservative yet socially moderate or liberal. It should speak to people and ask them what they need and what they’d like to see from the party. 

Those who put millions of dollars into super PACs with very little, if any, return on investment should realize that more than money, the party needs a strong sense of purpose and vision that resonates with a wider range of Americans.

I’m no Republican, but even I have been shocked by the party's lack of understanding about the direction of the country and their arrogance in believing that somehow they can ignore, dismiss, denigrate and insult large swathes of the voting population and still win. The Republican Party of today risks becoming irrelevant in future years if it cannot get with the programme. 

It is time for a new "base", one that accurately reflects the direction in which America is moving. Whether or not such leadership can emerge from the Republican Party, however, remains to be seen.

It is Charles Darwin who said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” If the Republican Party is to survive, it must listen to Darwin's words. Its current choice is to evolve or die. 

Mitt Romney makes his concession speech. Photograph: Getty Images

Lola Adesioye is a British-born commentator, writer and broadcaster of Nigerian heritage. She has been described as “one of Nigeria’s top 10 wordsmiths”, “an emerging face to watch” and “one of 11 sharp black commentators in America”.

Lola’s written work – mostly commentary and features on topical UK, US and African social, political and cultural issues - has been published in a variety of international publications.

Getty
Show Hide image

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.