This post was originally published in the Harvard Political Review.
I've been as Republican as a Republican can be. I grew up a Republican. I've voted for Republican candidates, interned for a Republican Congressman, and worked for a Republican presidential campaign. But I no longer count myself as a member of the GOP, and it's not because I'm afraid of what people at Harvard think. I am no longer a Republican because the Grand Old Party no longer accepts people of my ideology. I have been disowned. Before explaining how that came to be and why the GOP should be worried about it, a bit about who I am:
I was raised in Waco, Texas by hard working conservative parents. They owned a small used bookstore that barely kept us afloat. My siblings and I spent our afternoons there, helping with anything we could. All through childhood, I was instilled with the Republican ideals: those oft-invoked middle class values of hard work, freedom, and morality.
As a child, politics didn't seem like the back-and-forth I see it as today. Back then, politics was a constant battle against my family and my identity. I understood what it was like to "want" but never to "have." I had learned the value of sweat. The Republicans offered tax cuts and business friendliness. The Democrats wanted more taxes and regulation. The Republicans were people like my father, regular guys who believed in the American dream. The Democrats were Harvard elites who had never worked a day in their lives. To my young eyes, the distinction between the good guys and bad guys was simple.
As I've grown older, that line has blurred significantly. Gross oversimplification of the parties is unproductive. The issues are more subtle than I originally assumed. I became much more moderate as time went on because I studied the issues more closely. And luckily I was given a chance to revise my ideas of Harvard students first hand.
The complexity of the issues became much more obvious when I interned in Washington for a Republican Congressman from Texas. I got to see the nitty gritty of politics and policy creation. I credit that experience for making me a pragmatic person. I saw the detailed political calculation behind what at first seemed like ideological decisions. It made me less interested in politics and more interested in the process that leads to the legislative deals. I started to identify less and less with politicians that refused to compromise.
Then I looked into a politician that was getting headlines: former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. In "the Gov," as the young volunteers would call him, I saw a Republican who had done good things in a heavily Democratic state. He had no problem reaching across the aisle and compromising in order to get effective legislation passed. I hadn't seen that in President Obama. Unlike Newt Gingrich and other politicians further to the right, I'd loved that Governor Romney was a "Massachusetts Moderate." On most issues, Romney and Obama's policies didn't actually differ that much. What put me squarely in the Romney camp was my belief that Romney could get pragmatic legislation, like a sorely needed jobs bill, passed where Obama could not due to opposition in Congress. So after my internship in D.C. finished, I went to work for the Romney Campaign in the Boston headquarters.
My time at the campaign, while an amazing experience, was also a time of great disillusionment with the Republican Party. A discussion of how the campaign was run deserves complete study, so I will save that for another time. Most importantly, what I learned about the GOP while there was the extensive messaging problem the party has. Extreme positions became the only accepted messages. The Gov began to shift from "Massachusetts Moderate" to "Staunch Conservative." This seemed like the influence of the GOP, rather than the Romney I had admired.
The Republican Party once accepted all different forms of conservatives. It embraced both the Rockefeller Republicans and the Goldwater Republicans. In the recent years, the Tea Party has taken over the central messaging of the party and has forced out the more moderate factions. Moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe are reviled as traitors while the Santorums and Bachmanns of the world are seen as Republican standard bearers.
The party has also become more detached from the middle class, a change that has personally affected me. This one has been a long time coming, as is evidenced by the typical Republican stereotype of the rich fat cat. But for me, it only really hit home with the release of the video of Romney dismissing 47 percent of the U.S. population. With that, the Republican Party completely lost the middle class and the poor.
Those major problems, extremism and loss of the middle class, are the disease maligning the GOP. This disease has and will continue to cost them political success and popular appeal. There is no outright cure, but the party can fight the causes in order to stay healthy. There are four causes to the disease that would be easy to fight: the GOP's stances on immigration, women's issues, gay rights, and the 47 percent.
The first two, immigration and women's issues, can be fixed by changing party messaging. On immigration, the GOP is moving toward reformation of the system, but it needs to cut out the acerbic language. Currently the language of the GOP is harsh towards undocumented immigrants and their children. By turning the tables and adjusting the message to be about the positives of immigration and support of the children, the GOP will gain much more of the Hispanic population's vote, which historically can swing to either party, and certainly will in the future.
Women's issues are another messaging problem: the most extreme views are the loudest. Comments on rape and abortion by Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock are not the norm of the Republican party that I grew up with, but they do show a trend within the Republican Party of being on the wrong side of women's issues. The public views the Republicans as siding with rapists instead of rape victims, as having no sympathy for women seeking an abortion, and as being hostile towards the use of contraception. But most Republicans do not support rapists, most feel sympathy toward women who believe they need an abortion, and most do not want to target contraception. This is a messaging problem, because (once again) the extremists have defined the Republican narrative. Change that narrative, and start being for women instead of against them.
Gay rights is more than a messaging problem for the GOP. This is an issue that the party needs to adjust its views on, or else stay on the wrong side of history in this civil rights battle. The millennials overwhelmingly support gay marriage, and the next generation of voters will follow the same trend that every generation since the Silent Generation in the 1930s has shown and support it even more. If the GOP doesn't get on the right side of this issue it will lose a huge number of supporters, and more importantly they will completely lose the moral high ground. It would be destructive for the morality of the party and the country if, decades from now, Republicans have to look back at these pivotal years in the gay rights movement and feel ashamed at the incomprehensible actions of their fathers, as generations of kids felt after the segregation years.
By following those three paths, the GOP can pick up a big chunk of votes from the Hispanic population, women, and millennial voters. But it can do even better, and probably set itself up for a pretty long White House stay, if it finds the middle class again. I originally thought this was just a messaging problem that a minority of the party had caused -- a few guys who wanted big donations would help out their rich friends. Tax breaks for millionaires weren't helping my family, but I doubted the Republicans had forgotten us.
Then, my moderate hero, the only man I have ever campaigned for, the Gov, dismissed 47% of the country. He dismissed people like me. As a member of the campaign, I initially tried to defend the comment to my friends, but doing that only made me more disgusted. If the man I believed was going to be the harbinger of moderation in the Republican party could so flippantly admit he didn't care about almost 150 million Americans just like me, how could I have any hope for the Republican Party? They didn't lose me, they rejected me. Because of the changes in the GOP, I was forced to change party affiliation, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. The Republican Party will have to change if they want to be the party of the middle class. The GOP needs a paradigm shift when it comes to the middle class: stop helping millionaires and help the Average Joe again. Show normal Americans you're on their side by supporting things like reformation of the tax code to make the rich pay their fair share, and help lift some of the burden off the middle class. By proving they care more about regular families than rich donors, the Republicans can regain some of the middle class support they're losing.
Although I do not plan to rejoin the Republican Party, I do not believe the party is damned. The GOP needs to realize that it can't keep losing supporters and stay competitive. Right now the GOP is losing the middle class, Hispanics, women, and millennials like water through a sieve, and for good reason. By changing their messaging, they can stymie the flow and decrease the influence of extremism on the party. By changing their mindset on gay rights and on the half of all Americans that are underprivileged, the Republicans can gain the youth vote and reclaim the middle class. Conservatism and the party still have a chance to be relevant, but if they ignore their problems they will not, and should not, be leading the nation again in the foreseeable future.