It’s been five days since President Obama won a second term with comfortable if not commanding margins in the electoral college and the popular vote (now 3+ million and still counting in a few areas). The universe of pundits seems to have arrived at a consensus that the Republican Party has a serious demographic problem. (That Romney lost after winning 60% of the white vote probably tipped them off.) Nor does it appear to be easily or swiftly solvable. It would be one thing if many non-white Americans didn’t like Republican leaders; it is a substantially more intractable problem that many Republican leaders don’t seem to like non-white Americans. So it’s no surprise that many of the questions being asked run along the lines of: “How will Republicans adapt to this new American electorate?”; “Can Republicans reach Hispanic voters?”; “How can Republicans appeal to more women?” etc. etc.
I’m not sure I have the wisest answers, but I am reasonably certain those aren't the right questions. Tactical policy reversals on immigration, gay rights, drug laws, and even tax reform—if they come about—would not provide a long-term solution to the dilemma of right-wing America. If 2012 is to mean anything worthwhile to the future of the Republican Party (and therefore to the future of America), it has to take the form of an ideological reckoning.
From my perch as a teacher of US history, it is hard not to draw parallels to past moments of political crisis. To me, the state of American politics between 2000-2012 has resembled most closely the ideological rigidity of the 1840s and 1850s, when the destiny of the nation was inseparable from the future of slavery. Policy was not the driver of events in those decades, not really... two different worldviews were in conflict. As various compromises and “solutions” to the slavery issue fell apart, it became increasingly evident that legislative resolution would never work so long as the existence of divergent worldviews of Northerners and Southerners, free labor vs. slave labor, was at stake.
Worldviews are usually reliant on mythologies. Over decades the Old South built a mythology around the twin pillars of paternalism and honor, both of which rested on the foundation of chattel slavery. Identity, manhood, community life, religion, and every other cultural measure of the South emanated from this mythology. Slaves were happy; planters were benevolent; family was celebrated; society was stable; tradition was honored; the South was blessed by a Christian God. It was a decidedly conservative mythology and, like all powerful mythologies, it drew upon truths as well as falsehoods. Utterly convinced of the superiority of their civilization, slaveholders dismissed all the signs that contradicted their worldview. (Why was it that hundreds of slaves fled the South, while none voluntarily returned?) Reality came in the form of a great Civil War when ranks of former slaves took up arms against slaveholders. The Union marched.
The Republican Party in the 21st century has its own peculiar worldview that stems from the mythology of 20th century right-wing America. Although this mythology draws far more from neoliberalism than conservatism, its resonance with the antebellum South is compelling: the free market brings liberty and happiness to those who work; the wealthy are benevolent job creators; heteronormative families are celebrated; society is stable (or could be if we protected our borders and deported illegal immigrants); tradition is honored (in red states); an exceptional America is blessed by a Christian God. Should we wonder at the eerie overlay of the old Confederacy and the current Republican South?
The point, then, is not how Republicans will rethink their policy positions going forward, but will they have the courage and capacity to re-imagine their worldview? Until Tuesday, Republicanism was a creed more than it was a set of legislative priorities. History was abused for the sake of ideology. The Founding Fathers were deified. Americans owed sacred fidelity to Constitutional scripture. The faithful professed their piety with an anti-tax pledge, anti-science dogma, and anti-data prejudice. The apostates were purged from the party. (For this reason, Frank Rich does not hold out much hope for real Republican change.)
Peggy Noonan unwittingly offered some of the best evidence of a self-contained, hermetically sealed Republican worldview on Monday, the day before the election. Her prediction: a Romney victory.
There is no denying the Republicans have the passion now, the enthusiasm. The Democrats do not. Independents are breaking for Romney. And there’s the thing about the yard signs. In Florida a few weeks ago I saw Romney signs, not Obama ones. From Ohio I hear the same. From tony Northwest Washington, D.C., I hear the same.
Is it possible this whole thing is playing out before our eyes and we’re not really noticing because we’re too busy looking at data on paper instead of what’s in front of us? Maybe that’s the real distortion of the polls this year: They left us discounting the world around us.
As a professor of mine used to say, you can’t make this shit up. Nor could anyone have foreseen Karl Rove’s now-legendary temper tantrum on Fox News on election night, but it makes a lot of sense in hindsight. Defeat usually doesn't make people freak out, but existential crises do. That, I think, is the significance of Obama’s victory.