The week’s news cycle has been a non-stop roller coaster ride, with major stories piling on top of each other for coverage. It got so far out of hand that there was an actual election for the United States Senate and hardly anyone noticed.
Why? Well partly (unfortunately) because of Paula Deen. But we had a major speech on climate change from President Obama, the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act and declaring racism over (Thanks guys!), the epic #StandWithWendy filibuster stretching late into the night followed by the stunning #SitDownWendy conservative backlash that should have been obvious, but had jaws bouncing off the floor around the world, and two more Supreme Court decisions striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and bringing the end of Proposition 8 . Most months don’t have that much excitement, must less the first half of the week.
It’s been an amazing run, one that’s set to continue with a major vote on immigration reform and who know what else before the week is over. But to begin making sense of what it all means, it might be useful to reflect on some recent history close to home.
Back in the 1990’s, California’s current progressivism was barely a gleam in our collective eye. But San Diego intervened and Governor Pete Wilson got things rolling with the anti-immigrant Prop 187 in 1994. Two years later, it was Prop 209 (also supported by Wilson) targeting affirmative action programs. That one-two punch, along with ongoing antagonism towards organized labor, locked in a powerful coalition of what the California GOP refused to be, and with apologies to Arnold Schwarzenegger, California hasn’t really looked back since as the state Republican party has faded from impotent to incompetent to irrelevant, most recently culminating in Democrats winning ⅔ majorities in the legislature. A dramatic swing for a state that only went Democratic once in Presidential elections from 1952 to 1988.
Now we’ve begun to see that history repeating itself on the national stage. As one example, less than 48 hours after the Voting Rights Act was kneecapped by the Supreme Court, six of the nine states that had been previously constrained were moving forward with voting restrictions.
So what happens now? The GOP has done a fantastic job defining what it isn’t (minority, immigrant, woman, worker), and as all the people who aren’t the GOP lose concrete basic rights and freedoms, the whole game changes. Voter ID laws provide a simple, concrete way for progressives to organize communities who just had their rights seized by conservatives. Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP, is already showing how this works in efforts from the last presidential election :
“We rose to the challenge of defeating voter suppression efforts in at least 15 states and registering in 433,951 new voters, almost four times as many as we did in 2008. And we were able to do that despite the situation in places like Florida, where voter registration was made more difficult.”
Likewise, when you have the women of Texas storming the Capitol and shouting loud enough to prove that women have ways of shutting certain things down, and the response is “Sit Down Wendy” and Rick Perry saying Rick Perry things, the same lines get drawn and the same opportunities are created. Not to capitalize on gaffes (we’re well past that), but to drive home the unmistakable reality as modern conservatism abandons all pretense.
The list continues of course. The War on Workers in the Midwest, in California and across the country is still raging. But we’ve seen campaigns in Ohio to defeat Issue 2 and in California to defeat Proposition 32 serve as galvanizing organizing forces with implications in many other races. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans, led by supposed moderate Lindsey Graham, have responded by openly, proudly blocking any appointments to the National Labor Relations Board with the expressed purpose of preventing it from enforcing the right to organize.
What’s the cumulative effect? It is, of course, too early to say. But when California opened online voter registration shortly before the 2012 election, the system registered more than half a million voters. Those voters were disproportionately young, and disproportionately Democratic. And recent focus group polling found the words that young people associate with the Republican Party are ‘Racist,’ ‘Rigid,’ ‘Closed-Minded’ and ‘Old-Fashioned.’ On immigration specifically? “The report concludes that young Latino voters think the GOP ‘couldn’t care less’ about them.” That was earlier this month.
Amid the million-and-one editorials and ten-point plans to save the Republican Party, there’s some vague evidence that the GOP understands the problems they’re facing. A handful of Congressional Republicans are working to fix the VRA in spite of the mad dash into voter restrictions. The GOP acknowledged its recent struggles with women and minorities and got together to discuss it not long ago … at a slave plantation. And Republicans in Congress are nominally working on comprehensive immigration reform even though it includes, say, refusing those immigrants health care. But this doesn’t really get to the point.
The brand of the Republican Party is slowly, steadily being destroyed. It’s easy to call it a marketing problem because it’s easier to treat it like a marketing problem. That’s why you have the outreach retreats at slave plantations and Carl DeMaio blaming bad branding for losing control of the San Diego Mayor’s office for the first time in decades. But the reason it has durable movement-building power is because it isn’t just a marketing problem. It’s that the modern GOP finds itself driven by ideology that can’t be marketed.
There are a few out there like (apparently) Carl DeMaio, who respond to this by just pretending none of it exists. But increasingly this leaves two possibilities for those who are trying to re-package the party off the road to oblivion. Either they just don’t grasp what’s happening, or they’re trying to trick people about what’s happening. Neither option is particularly palatable, and both are different sorts of insulting.
The California Republican Party’s descent into irrelevance wasn’t about marketing. It was about the systematic alienation of voters one block at a time. The current national Republican Party is proving once again that California is a national leader, following the exact same model of alienation. What remains to be seen is whether those voters can be reached, organized, and mobilized over the long term. The news this week suggests we can.