This op-ed was written in association with The Op-Ed Project.
First came the Tea Party, and all that it implies. Then there were several supremely misguided nominations for the highest and second-highest offices in the land. Now there are Romney's parting words about Obama's "gifts" to the blue base. The Republican brand has taken a beating following two presidential elections' worth of rejection and four years of gaffes, but failure can be a potent prompter for self-improvement.
There are times when reality slaps us in the face, when we have to re-examine what we believe and come to terms with the fact that it may no longer be true, if it ever was. Fortunately for Republicans, some are already voicing a hopeful, if belated, willingness to correct the course and steer the party into the 21st century. Within hours of Mitt Romney conceding the election to President Obama, Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich delivered his own sort of concession. "Those of us who are Republican activists and some of the supposedly best analysts on our side in the conservative movement were just wrong," Gingrich said to CNN's Soledad O'Brien. "We have to think about what does that teach us."
As the election postmortem continues, a clear picture of the root problem is emerging. The world may be changing faster than our ability to adapt to it is. Our climate certainly is. The intensity and destruction of Hurricane Sandy succeeded in doing something politicians haven't done since 2009: put climate change back into public discourse. As it turns out, arguing against sustainability -- and other "fringe" issues important to the majority of Americans -- is a losing strategy. Recent events prove that human denial is threatening not just the environment, but also the Republican Party.
Turning the ship around cannot happen without plugging some structural leaks in the vessel. In terms of sheer numbers, the formula that Republicans have relied on for 40 years no longer guarantees a majority of votes. In 1992, the white electorate was 87 percent; today whites make up 72 percent of the overall electorate. In future elections, the percentage will decline even further. "Rove's core strategy of base-centric GOP politics is a failure," said one senior Republican consultant quoted in The Washington Post. "There are not enough white men for the Rove view to work anymore. His time is past."
Flawed strategy is a significant part of the equation, but then there is the candidate himself. If the medium is the message, it should come as no surprise that the message didn't resonate. "I'm concerned about America," Romney said in his concession speech. "I believe that the principles upon which this nation was founded are the only sure guide to a resurgent economy and to renewed greatness." I'm concerned, too. In fact, few people would argue against principles of self-determination, fiscal responsibility, and genuine religious conviction. The election results simply reveal how many object to intolerant, un-nuanced expressions of these principles.
In our emerging social media environment, words meant for one audience spread virally, lingering long after a candidate pivots away from pandering to the base in the primary or speaking to a select audience. For example, when speaking to a church audience, Republican congressman Paul Broun, who sits on the science committee of the House of Representatives, dismissed evolution, the Big Bang theory and embryology as "lies straight from the pit of hell." You can't use extremist and theocratic language one quarter and then suddenly become a convincing moderate the next. Voters aren't that stupid.
Faced with an unprecedented mix of complex challenges, simply "framing the debate" with rigid ideology is not only insufficient, it's irresponsible. Even evangelicals, once considered a sure bet for Republican votes, increasingly favor a more active response to climate change and more compassionate policies toward citizenship. Candidates across the board would do well to quit the spin and get real because voters are highly attuned to inauthenticity.
To forge a more resilient Republican Party with the capacity to win over independents, a good next move is to embrace 21st century traits such as collaboration, consensus, sustainability, and diversity. As Gingrich confessed, "You need a policy of inclusion, not a policy of outreach. The difference between outreach and inclusion is outreach is when five white guys have a meeting and call you. Inclusion is when you're in the meeting." Republicans truly interested in adapting should note that "inclusion" also means considering policy recommendations based on scientific evidence, public health concerns, and a recognition that the U.S. must advance, if not lead, in renewables and energy efficiency, even as it scales up production of traditional forms of domestic energy.
The systemic changes required to America's climate, tax and immigration policies can only come from multi-sector collaboration, public-private partnerships, educated citizens, and adaptable leaders. The lack of willingness to acknowledge the scope, complexity and severity of the problems lies at the heart of the Republican Party's failure to innovate. However, if admitting you have a problem is the first step toward recovery, then Republicans willing to rethink their priorities will be taking their first steps toward restoring some grandeur to the Grand Old Party.