Recently, radio host Ed Schultz had Republican direct mail guru Richard Vigurie as a guest on his program. While Vigurie has moved outside the conservative mainstream with his opposition to the Iraq war, he's really only a few millimeters from the center. The Republican party has become extremely narrow in its scope and that mainstream is about as wide as a pencil line -- it's not extremely hard to be outside it. On every other issue, Vigurie sounds typical and on the issue of returning the GOP to power, he sounds typically wrong. Like everyone else on that side of the aisle, he argues that Republicans have to return to their "roots." They need to be about low taxes and free markets and return to fiscal discipline. None of this really caught my attention -- it's like wallpaper in the conservative room. The argument is made so often that you don't even notice it anymore.
But then he said something that showed the reasoning behind that argument. Reagan won twice using that message and Bush sr. won once, Vigurie argued, so we know the message works.
Now maybe Richard Vigurie doesn't have a calendar, but he doesn't seem to notice that it's been more than 16 years since Bush sr. won. Whatever it was that he thinks Dubya wasn't saying -- and, for the life of me, I can't figure out what that was -- that his dad and Reagan won with it isn't all that convincing an argument. Republicans seem to believe that they can stop history, that if they find that perfect message and build that perfect society, history will stop and we'll live in a free market Utopia forever -- Karl Rove's "permanent Republican majority."
But, as I've pointed out recently, society evolves. As conservatives look to the past for their big winning message, they don't seem to notice that society moves forward. We're a species destined to live in the future, not the past. Nowhere is this failure to recognize reality more obvious than in social conservatism -- i.e., the religious right.
A new study shows that the number of people who list their religion as "none" has shot through the roof.
New research shows young Americans are dramatically less likely to go to church -- or to participate in any form of organized religion -- than their parents and grandparents.
"It's a huge change," says Harvard University professor Robert Putnam, who conducted the research.
Historically, the percentage of Americans who said they had no religious affiliation (pollsters refer to this group as the "nones") has been very small -- hovering between 5 percent and 10 percent. However, Putnam says the percentage of "nones" has now skyrocketed to between 30 percent and 40 percent among younger Americans.
Putnam calls this a "stunning development." He gave reporters a first glimpse of his data Tuesday at a conference on religion organized by the Pew Forum on Faith in Public Life.
According to the report, "This trend started in the 1990s and continues through today. It includes people in both Generation X and Y." So what does this have with the decline in the Republican party and the failure of conservative messaging?
"Many of them are people who would otherwise be in church," Putnam says. "They have the same attitidues and values as people who are in church, but they grew up in a period in which being religious meant being politically conservative, especially on social issues." For them, religious and political conservatism means "intolerance and rigidity and doctrinaire political views."
"That is the future of America," he says. "Their views and their habits religiously are going to persist and have a huge effect on the future." Republicans will have to change drastically to become attractive to these people. Put bluntly, they're going to have to lose their pro-hate positions.
But the problem there is that they've gone so far down this wrong road for so long that religious nastiness has become part of the Republican DNA. They've become so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that they confuse bigotry for morality. And their anger at the infidels and sinful shows up as the stupidest goddam statements you could possibly make. Observe:
A North Carolina congresswoman says she made a poor choice of words when she called the infamous murder of a gay Wyoming student a "hoax" to justify passing hate crimes bills.
Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx said during debate in the House that the 1998 death of Matthew Shepard shouldn't be used to justify a hate crimes bill because it wasn't a hate crime. Foxx said Shepard was killed during a robbery.
"We know that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery. It wasn't because he was gay," Foxx said during debate. "The bill was named for him, the hate-crimes bill was named for him, but it's really a hoax that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills."
Foxx later apologized for a "poor choice of words," not for the statement itself. She seems to believe that two thugs who would beat a man to death because he's gay would never steal his wallet while they're at it. In her zeal to shoot down a hate crimes bill that would include gays and lesbians in its protections, her first impulse is to deny that such hate crimes even exist. The unspoken implication is that such hatred is justified.
In a similar, but much less offensive, remark, Republican Sen. John Thune warned President Obama yesterday not to nominate a gay for the Supreme Court. "I know the administration is being pushed, but I think it would be a bridge too far right now," he said. "It seems to me this first pick is going to be a kind of important one, and my hope is that he'll play it a little more down the middle. A lot of people would react very negatively."
Writes Washington Monthly's Steve Benen, "Thune, as a practical matter, is establishing a litmus test -- qualifications and merit are important, but homosexuality, regardless of any other factor, is more important. Why? Because Thune says so."
Democrats aren't off the hook here. States are legalizing same-sex marriage at a rate that must be alarming the religious right. If that rate continues, this issue will reach the federal level, thanks to Bill Clinton's mistake of signing the Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law. That law bars the federal government from recognizing "same-sex relationships as marriages for any purpose, even if concluded or recognized by one of the states." This law will be repealed -- it's practically inevitable -- and Democrats will have to end their current strategy of paying out plenty of rope for the GOP to hang themselves with. They're going to have to pick a side.
As Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic explains, this could wind up in Barack Obama's lap. As more and more states legalize marriage equality, those marriages will be "entirely unrecognized by the federal government... and the thousand or so privileges accorded to married couples by the United States will remain unavailable to them. This can either be a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon your point of view, but for the campaign version of Barack Obama, it is unfair. He promised, as a candidate, to push for federal recognition of same-sex couples even as he personally reiterated his opposition to gay marriage."
The numbers show that Democrats cannot lose by doing the right thing here. The messages of hate from the right and their traditional base are already turning people away in droves. As these issues of equality are forced onto the national stage, Republicans will lose even more voters as the rhetoric gets more fevered, more hateful, and -- frankly -- more stupid. Democrats can either stand on the right side of history and accept these new voters or watch as they just go away, disenchanted with politics, to join that great big pool of non-voters out there.
The Republican message may be anachronistic, but the Democratic message must be forward-looking and progressive. We should be willing to lose battles in favor of doing the right thing, so there's no reason for Democrats to shy away from a fight in which they can't do anything but win.
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