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The Real Threat to the GOP

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There is a real, looming danger for the Republican Party -- and it goes well beyond the Party's failure to use the latest digital or analytic tools.

The dilemma facing the Republican Party today can be traced to the massive social changes that erupted in the 1960's. The civil rights movement, women's rights, and ultimately the gay rights struggle all spawned a backlash among many traditional elements of society. Sometimes it was called the "culture war."

The GOP used the "Southern Strategy" to harness the fears of many white southern voters and to transform the Democratic "solid South" into a sea of red.

The "Moral Majority," anti-abortion movement and religious right all tapped into that backlash. Anti-immigrant groups were born and some pastors railed against homosexuals. Even groups like the NRA used the sense that traditional values were under attack as a means of mobilizing voters to oppose efforts to curb gun violence. Appeals for "smaller government" often had their real roots in attacks on the Federal Government's enforcement of civil rights laws, and "welfare" for African Americans.

For a number of decades the GOP establishment successfully used these social issues to attract voters whose economic interests were really aligned with the progressive policies of Democrats. Social issues became "wedge issues" that split apart the potential Democratic base.

Author Tom Frank, in his classic book What's the Matter with Kansas, explored in detail how that process worked in one Midwestern state.

In fact, back in the 1980's someone said that the Democratic Party was a coalition of rich people who hated the Moral Majority and poor people who hated Mutual of Omaha, and the Republican Party was a coalition of rich people who hated the AFL-CIO and poor people who hated the ACLU.

Here's the problem for the Republican Party -- from the standpoint of national public opinion the culture war is over -- and they lost, particularly among young people.

Now I realize that there are still major active rear guard actions being fought in states across the nation aimed at limiting contraception and abortion rights, restricting the rights of African Americans to vote, forcing immigrants to "self deport", and restricting gay marriage. But these struggles are, in fact, "rear guard" actions.

According to the Washington Post poll, in 2006 opponents of gay marriage outnumbered supporters almost two to one -- 58 percent to 36 percent. Now the numbers are reversed, 58 percent for and 36 percent against. Among voters 18 to 29 years of age support soars to 81 percent.

For most people in the Millennial Generation it simply makes no sense that race, gender or sexual orientation should play any role in limiting the rights or opportunities of their friends and neighbors -- it just doesn't compute.

And that's the conundrum facing the Republican Party. Today when it uses social issues to appeal to white working voters, or to socially conservative African American and Hispanic voters, it drives away young voters and socially tolerant voters of all ages in droves.

But on the other hand, without these issues, the GOP is left trying to defend an economic policy that benefits a narrow sliver of the voting population. Let's be honest, Republican economic policy really only benefits the wealthiest two percent of Americans -- and the votes of the wealthiest 2 percent will not get you very far in an election campaign. Hard to sell the majority of voters if all you talk about is tax breaks for the wealthy, tax loopholes for corporations that send jobs overseas, busting unions to lower wages for workers and cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

That's not to say the Republicans aren't in a position to win many races. The GOP's biggest appeal in the last election had little to do with its economic "policy" -- or support for its positions in general. In fact cutting Social Security, privatizing Medicare, cutting funding for education and most other Republican policy goals are downright unpopular. But many voters whose own economic situations have not improved for decades were perfectly ready to vote for a change. You add those to the many voters who still respond to conservative social issues, you get quite a number of votes -- just not enough to win a national election.

So the GOP is stuck having to choose between appealing to the demographic wave of more socially tolerant voters one the one hand, and its continued need to use social issues as its principal defense against populist Democratic attacks that Republican candidates are mostly concerned with defending the interests of the wealthy and big corporations.

That conflict is what we see being played out in the battle between the current conservative "base" of the party and the party "establishment." In fact, for decades the Republican Party has been controlled by the Party's wealthy donors, most of whom view social issues as a convenient way to mobilize support among the ordinary Americans who don't benefit one iota from their economic agenda.

Some of them now rue the day that they funded the Tea Party Movement that they thought would be instrumental in defeating ObamaCare and mobilizing conservative voters, but has gone "rogue."

Karl Rove, and others who represent the party establishment, believe correctly that when people like GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin make offensive remarks about rape, it damages the entire Republican brand.

The recent GOP report on rebranding and reorganizing the Party reflects that point of view.

But here's the problem. Let's be honest, Mitt Romney's own comments about the "47 percent" were even more damaging to Romney's election prospects. And they were a true reflection of the core beliefs and goals of the GOP establishment itself.

Without the social policy "wedge issues" that the GOP has used for decades to distract the attention of working class voters from the Republican Party establishment's core economic interests, the GOP risks being defined forever by that iconic "47 percent" moment -- and many like it to come.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. He is a partner in Democracy Partners and a Senior Strategist for Americans United for Change. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.