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Matthew Stokes: A GOP generation gap

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

Two weeks ago, the New York Times columnist David Brooks did the hard work of digging through data to demonstrate that the Republican Party is facing a serious generational problem. Brooks notes that predictions of demographic decline for political parties is an old story, and one that is often proven wrong by unforeseen events and trends.  This time feels different to Brooks, who argues the coming change is “…is based on concrete, lived experience that is never going to go away.”  The world of young voters is markedly different from that of Baby Boomer politicians.  Consequently, Generation X and its millennial siblings are no longer responding to political arguments the way voters once did.  The despair and angst that marks much of Republican rhetoric the last two elections is not resonating with young voters. It seems that what young voters want is something markedly more hopeful and optimistic.

Republicans are optimistic, but only a certain sense.  Their expressions of optimism are mostly based on a particular outlook on God and country.  To those who share the same approach to religion, patriotism, and civic life, the GOP is a welcome home.  On the other hand, Donald Trump cast a vision of America that was decidedly bleak; his inaugural address was particularly dark.  Trump’s appeal worked well enough for one election. Many Americans agreed that there were many national problems that needed to be addressed.  That sort of despair cannot sustain a political party, however, and Brooks’ broader point is a good one; the Republican Party must find a way to counter Democratic arguments that set out an optimistic vision of the American future.  Put another way, what do Republicans say to those Americans who found the Obama years to be a hopeful time?

Voters want to know that the future is hopeful.  The appeal of America’s best politicians in the last several decades, namely Presidents Reagan and Obama, was a clear vision of America.  The visions, and the role they cast for the federal government, were decidedly different, but they were clear and positive all the same. At the national level – with the party firmly in support of President Trump – it’s hard to find much in the way of positivity.  Instead, the message is almost entirely one of fear and anxiety. Again, that’s understandable. The situation at our southern border is an absolute mess, but the general tone from the White House all the way down to Senate hopeful is “they’re coming and they’re going to change our country for the worse.”  Nearly everyone agrees that the country’s health care system is in disarray, but GOP hopefuls are doing very little lay out a plan of action for improving the situation.

One of the points that Brooks fleshes out is the idea that younger voters live in a more diverse world of peers and cohorts.  This highlights a distinction between the two parties – Democratic voters tend to be more cosmopolitan in some element of their life – education, work, friends – even if their life resembles a pretty normal suburban existence in other respects.  Republicans have become increasingly isolated among older, rural voters as they have lost influence with a younger, vibrant electorate.

Given the demographics in Alabama, it is tempting to brush off these arguments.  That would be a mistake. Imagine that the immigrant communities around the state in towns like Russellville, Albertville, and north Shelby County continue to assimilate without putting too much pressure on existing structures and institutions.  These folks buy houses and start businesses. Their kids graduate high school and go on to college. There are a lot of voters who, like myself, want to see tighter immigration policies. Even they would have a hard time taking seriously doom and gloom politicians as their immigrant neighbors slowly and surely assimilate into the normal ebb and flow of life in Alabama.

I’ve said little about the Democratic Party, and that’s on purpose.  Despite a load of problems in today’s GOP, starting with the confusion in the current administration, the best solutions for America’s future will come from a center-right party.  I want to see the national Republican Party sharpen its rough edges and prepare to lead in the future. In any case, it is the GOP that is facing demographic disaster, so our focus should naturally turn in that direction.

When I was coming of age in the 1990s, it was common to read essays and memoirs of young liberal Democrats who became some sort of Republican – sometimes conservative, sometimes less so – when they grew up, got married, and sent their kids to the local public school.  The Republican Party of Reagan and the 94 Revolution was rife with ideas, and disenchanted liberals found optimism and solutions among the tassel loafers and navy blazers of this iteration of the GOP. Republican politicians could understandably rest easy knowing that in due time, voters would come around.

Things today look less promising.  Instead of offering positive ideas about their own country and their politics, Republicans have dug deep in their own trenches, content to spend their days tossing rhetorical bombs at their Democratic opponents.  A brief look at the Twitter feeds of GOP leaders shows a lot of confidence in President Trump but little confidence in ideas that can transcend any one leader while making America a better place. As Brooks closes his column, the ideas of the American creed that once animated the center-right are still more than sufficient to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.  

As always, the power ultimately lies with voters.  In the budding Democratic presidential primary, optimism is doing well so far, with uplifting candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg drawing a significant amount of early support.  Barring any unseen developments, it is reasonable to think that Democrats will ultimately nominate a candidate with a positive outlook on America’s future. In spite of everything, I have to believe that is still the smarter play for Republicans, as well.  As we move towards 2020, and Alabamians focus on a key Senate race, candidates should make their pitch on a cheerful outlook that will allow voters to live in peace and quiet while strengthening America’s social and political bonds with another, and with our allies around the world.  Voters should not be satisfied with the candidate who paints the bleakest, scariest picture, or the one who pledges the greatest fealty to the current president. Instead, they should elevate the candidate who shows the greatest faith in America, her people, her laws, her institutions, and her allies.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.

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