Thursday, June 25, 2015

The GOP's Helpy Selfie

My old debate friend turned Republican pollster rising star Kristen Soltis Anderson has a new book out: The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America (and How Republicans Can Keep Up). Soltis' speciality as a pollster is trying to connect the GOP with younger voters (Soltis is only a few years older than me), and this looks to be her book-length manifesto on the subject. I haven't read it, but according to her Facebook I can get a decent idea of her proposals from this review. And if that's anything to judge by (and of course, the standard disclaimer here is that some or all of these objections may be addressed in the book itself), the GOP may have problems in the coming years.

It would be unfair to Kristen to say that her proposals for attracting millennial votes is for the GOP to become more liberal. Most of the issues she identifies have unclear or mixed ideological valences (gay marriage is the notable and conceded exception). The problem, though, is that in many of the cases Anderson identifies it is far from certain that Republicans will be more likely to jump aboard her policy prescriptions than Democrats. Many of them, as the reviewer notes, "feel like sensible ideas that many politicians, not just Republicans, can get behind." That's a problem, since presumably to win over currently left-leaning voters they need to differentiate themselves from Democrats. For example, Soltis cites pervasive overregulation as an area where Republicans can win the allegiance of urban voters. A good example might be the recent Texas bill which removes licensing requirements for traditional African hairbraiders. That law was shepherded through the legislature by a Republican and signed by a Republican Governor. But it also passed the Texas House unanimously -- it doesn't differentiate Republicans and Democrats. Matt Yglesias, for example, has long made the progressive case for reducing licensing requirements as an anti-poverty measure. There's a perfectly cohesive conservative rationale for adopting Soltis' proposal here, but then, that's a perfectly cohesive liberal one too.

The other problem I see relates to the cultural bonds that, under my understanding of political psychology, do far more to channel our policy opinions than does any sort of comprehensive abstract political theory. Far more than any unified worldview, being liberal or conservative is often about liking certain types of people (and favoring laws which aid them) and disliking other types of people (and trying to contain or suppress them). For example, conservatives like farmers ("backbone of America"), rural and white suburban/exurban residents ("real Americans"), gun owners ("patriots"), and business owners ("captains of industry"). They dislike racial minorities ("the real racists"), immigrants ("taking our jobs!"), urban dwellers ("latte-sipping elitists"), and the poor ("takers"). Liberals run close to the reverse: they like racial minorities ("heirs to MLK"), immigrants ("pursuing the American dream"), urban dwellers ("urbane, sophisticated"), and the poor ("hard-working Americans"). They dislike rural folk ("hicks"), gun owners ("NRA nuts"), and big business owners ("robber barons"). If we take a topic like "deregulation", it isn't really the case that Republicans favor it and Democrats oppose it. Republicans are happy to regulate the hell out of food stamps, for example. Democrats favor other sorts of regulations (those which fall primarily on the heads of big businesses or gun owners). Ditto government intervention in the economy - conservatives are perfectly happy to do so to give preference to income earned through capital gains versus that earned through labor, or to subsidize corporations that they have favorable feelings towards.

The problem for Kristen's analysis is that these cultural affinities (or disaffinities) seem to run in the wrong direction for many of her proposals. I think Republicans can absolutely get behind Uber, but what are their feelings towards increased mass transit? There's a visceral aversion there, that really isn't accounted for based on policy. Likewise for going "soft on crime", particularly when tho community in question consists of poorer African-Americans. It's not that they can't adopt these positions, it just will require a lot more cognitive effort than I think it would take for liberals (who are more predisposed to favor these policies).

Basically, if I were a liberal strategist seeking to counter Kristen's book, my advice would be simple: don't be an idiot. You can try to regulate Uber's employment practices (urban folk like Subway and Target too, but we like them to pay their workers respectable wages), but don't ban it outright. Be attentive to the changing tides on crime and be willing to decriminalize low-level drug offenses and reduce overpolicing and "war on the poor" policies. Invest in walkable urban areas and mass transit options. These are all doable objectives; there is no reason why Democrats should ever find themselves out-flanked by Republicans on these issues.

Now to be sure, I hope that Republicans take Kristen's advice -- not because it is bad advice, but because most of her ideas sound like good ideas that will make America better, and I'd rather more people support them rather than fewer. But as a strategy for winning over millennials, I'm not convinced -- not because they're bad ideas, but because they're ideas that won't make the GOP a distinctively better choice than the Democratic party.

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