The future of the Republican Party: Identity crisis

Editor’s note: This is the second piece in a four-part series about the future of the Republican Party.

There is not a Democrat in the country, or in Maine, who isn’t smirking just a little bit right now.

On the heels of an election they believe vindicated not only their ideological agenda, but also their approach to government, the collective derision of the left is aimed squarely at a Republican Party, which they dismissively believe is unresponsive to the needs and wants of the voters.

Smug and rather obnoxious. But not entirely wrong.

Republicans are loathe to admit it, but they currently face an identity crisis, an existential confusion that threatens to resign them to perpetual minority for years.

The current situation is hardly a political death sentence, though, and can actually be reversed quickly.

When the Democratic Party lost in 1988 for the third consecutive election, the Democrats faced a similar soul searching. They had lost touch with blue-collar working Americans and were seemingly incapable of appealing to a majority of Americans.

In 1992 they responded by nominating Bill Clinton, a “third way” modernizer who sought to fuse traditional Democratic values with elements of the Republican economic agenda.

Overnight the entire character of the Democratic Party changed. He managed to convince those same skeptical blue-collar Americans that he was not hostile to their livelihood, as Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale had been, while building on the remaining foundational strengths of the center-left coalition.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom in political circles, though, this conversion had very little to do with policy or ideology. It was about identity.

Politics is, above all, about the ability of candidates and political parties to connect with and identify with the voters. Ideological bent matters, of course, but only insofar as it plays into connecting with voters.

The Republican Party’s problem is less about issues — though that is certainly part of the equation — and more about culturally identifying with those whose support they seek.

So what needs to change? Does the party need to moderate itself? Does it need to become more conservative? Attempt its version of third-way hybrid politics?

It is more basic than that. Once again, politics is about identity, not ideology. Republicans no longer identify with the majority of Americans, or Mainers, and that is what they need to fix.

More vital than the solutions being offered to the voters is even understanding the problems that affect them.

A lot of ink has been spilled diagnosing the GOP problem with the Latino community. Each and every commentary highlights opposition to immigration reform, hostility to immigrants broadly and a perceived lack of diversity within the party.

All miss the mark. The problem is more basic and strikes to the heart of identity politics.

Mexican immigrants, both legal and illegal, have concerns that Republicans simply don’t speak to. The community is, by and large, more impoverished than the rest of the country, more susceptible to inflationary health care costs and in more need of government services to fill the gaps created by those factors.

When was the last time you heard a Republican even use the word “poverty,” let alone offer a non-tax-based solution?

Republicans tragically misunderstand minority voters, often casting them as leeches, living off of the government dime out of convenience and laziness, rather than necessity.

And this is also why the Republican Party is failing to do well in a monolithically white, but relatively poor, state like Maine.

It isn’t taking seriously the problems faced by them and certainly isn’t offering solutions that these voters believe will make their lives better.

Too often, Republicans have foolishly believed that their problems with these groups will be solved by some version of political tokenism. Trouble with Hispanics? Run a Hispanic candidate. Problems with women? Run a woman.

But this never works because the same approach in different packaging is still the same approach. A person of any age, gender or color can not only understand the issues but can genuinely speak to them. Republicans simply have to begin to understand the voters they want to attract and talk about their problems. Luckily there are already several Republicans doing this now who you will hear from soon.

Talking affirmatively about subjects like poverty and healthcare doesn’t mean that the solutions offered by the Republicans have to in any way resemble Democratic solutions. Indeed, they can be deeply conservative.

They simply need to be genuine and authentic in their approach to it. Republicans do not need to become Democrats to survive. They simply need to understand what faces the people they mean to rule.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political operative. He serves as the Director of Digital Strategy for the Republican Governors Association, and has previously worked for Senator Susan Collins and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.