It’s the Message Not the Messaging:  The Future of the Republican Party

Photograph Source: Office of the Speaker – Public Domain

Republican operatives such as former House Speaker Paul Ryan among others believe their party has a problem.  For Ryan it is Trump, for Republican Senator Mitt Romney, it is a lack of vision or bad messaging.  Other Republicans see the problem as a failed state nomination process that produces candidates out of touch with suburban voters.

All this may be correct but something more fundamental may be at root.  It is not the messaging but the actual message or vision that is the problem.  And it will grow as a problem into the future as the Republican Party faces an existential crisis in the coming years as its base is literally dying out.

America needs viable party competition.  There is no democracy in the world that is a one-party state.  The parties too must reflect majority preferences, tempered by respect for the rights of minorities.  But  to win elections and govern parties must build coalitions and form majorities.  This means they need to reflect majority preferences or face oblivion.

Yet Ryan confuses the symptom with the cause.  For Ryan, he sees Trump as the problem. Jettison the latter from the Republican Party and it can return to  “Reagan 2.0,” a party of limited government, deregulation, and low taxes.  For others, part of the solution to achieving roughly the same vision is changing the party nomination process such that Trump extremists do not win control.

But perhaps the real  problem is the message or the underlying public policies that  Ryan  advocates.   Even if a Reaganite set of public policies were where America once was  40 years ago, that is no longer the case.  The country currently finds broad majorities at odds with the policies of  what their vision of the Republican Party should be.

Every two years  since the early 1970s the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago  performs the General Social Surveys.   The GSS  is arguably the most comprehensive survey on American public opinion in the country.  The most recent 2021 study is instructive on many scores.

Consider first regulation of the economy and the role of the government in society.  In 2021, 51% of those surveyed  believe taxes on the rich are too low or much too low.  Nearly 67% believe that those with higher incomes should pay a much larger share of their income in taxes than those with low incomes.

More than 57% believe the government has a responsibility to meet the needs of those who are sick, unemployed, or elderly.   More than 64% believe or strongly believe business profits are not fair.  More than 70% believe that the government should ensure wages  of low paying individuals increase as the economy grows and a similar 71% believe the income distribution in America is unfair  More than 55% favor more government regulation of the economy. Nearly three-quarters believe workers should  be represented on corporate boards of directors.

Additionally, 66% believe or strongly believe the government spends too little to ensure individuals are healthy.  When it comes to  protecting the environment and  improving education,  62% and 65% have similar views.

When it comes to social issues, nearly 69% believe abortion should be legal, although  with some qualifications.    Almost half at 46% believe  climate change is due to human activity—a response more popular than any other.  Three out of four favor permits  to own guns.  And 61% believe police treat Whites a lot fairer than Blacks.  Finally, 74% oppose opening  up public lands for development.

Across the board it is clear that majority opinion nationally favors a more activist government  to regulate the economy and business and to ensure that  the basic needs of individuals are met.  This is not laissez-faire Reaganism.  Moreover the stance on social issues such as abortion, guns, and the environment is not about do nothing when it comes to reproductive freedom, crime or safety, and climate change.  The vision articulated by Ryan  simply is out of touch where the majority of America is.  And it will become less popular over time.

As the Baby Boom and Silents exit the political scene and are replaced by the Millennials and Gen Z, this generational shift makes Reaganism 2.0 even more antiquated.  Surveys of the latter two generations even more strongly support the majoritarian preferences noted in the GSS.  As rural America depopulates, the base for the Republican Party  will wane.  Over time the more urban and suburban areas of the country will continue to grow. And these areas hold attitudes on issues consistent with the GSS results.

As I argue in my new book Trumpism:  American Politics in the Age of Politainment—the number one rule of politics is having a good narrative that  is forward and not backward looking. The Ryan message is retrograde and fails to appeal to an existing and emerging majority.

Demographics are not destiny but they do portend change.  The Democratic Party too faces existential problems but for the Republicans the problem is more pressing.

In 2012 after Mitt Romsey lost the presidency to Barack Obama the national Republican Party soul-searched and concluded it needed to change to reach out to women and people of color.  Trump’s ascendency  forestalled that.  The problem is not a messaging issue for the Republicans, it is a message and policy problem.  As with dinosaurs who failed to adapt and became extinct, the Republicans need to do the same.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.