Lessons from the Failure of the California GOP

It is now no secret that the California Republican Party got its clock cleaned in the midterm election. Caught asleep at the wheel as state Democrats stacked the electoral deck systematically to empower low information voters and rely on now-legal “vote harvesting,” the state GOP created for itself a perfect storm of electoral apathy, anemia, and a gross lack of creativity. Yet, recent comments from outgoing party chairman Jim Brulte revealed the fatal flaw in the GOP’s playbook.

Asked about the party’s future prospects, Brulte noted, “Candidates, not parties, are responsible for messaging.” Excuse me? That’s exactly what political parties are meant to do.

As early as debates between the Federalists and anti-Federalists, political parties formed as a means of coordinating and communicating throughout the Republic. Although George Washington warned against the “baneful effects of the spirit of party generally,” parties have been necessary to coordinate coalitions to confront issues ranging from slavery to social spending, and from protectionism to prohibition. Many may lament the lack of a viable third party; however, there are very real mathematical reasons to explain why we have two. Once that is understood, it will become clear why Brulte’s thinking about candidates rather than the party being responsible for messaging is blinkered and can only further sink the California GOP in continued and perpetual failure.

Political science has one hard law. Discovered by Maurice Duverger in the 1950s, Duverger’s Law notes that the design of a country’s electoral system will determine the number of its viable political parties. In an electoral system that rewards the first past the post, with one available seat per district (such as the one that exists in the United States), the country will always have two political parties.

Such a system has its benefits and drawbacks. For instance, it is less representative of any given voter’s actual political views. Whereas countries with proportional representation will have multiple parties and offer voters more specificity in representing their views, in America our parties are more coalitions than purely ideological affairs. Such accurate representation as is available in other countries, however, comes at the cost of not being able to punish the ruling government in power. In order to form a majority in the national parliament or legislature, multiple parties will then have to form a coalition with each other in order to rule. This has a moderating effect that would not otherwise exist, but also makes it much more difficult to remove an unwanted coalition from power.

In a system such as ours, with its one seat per district, one party of two will win an election. This simplicity allows voters easily to determine which party to punish by voting for the alternative.

In America, such moderation as there will be in the two parties, has already occurred in their formation. In terms of messaging, this system leads to generalities during election season. Slogans then become important in order to convey a broad message that must also be powerful enough to motivate voters to punish the opposing party. Such messaging need not be negative, though our system is conducive to negative messaging. The Democrats’ strategy of branding the GOP as a party of “old white men” the “party of the rich” is an example of such messaging. Individual candidates simply do not have the resources or the time to coordinate a cohesive message on their own.

It is no wonder, then, that the California GOP has fared so poorly. In following Brutle’s thinking, the GOP essentially has left candidates to their own devices, and in turn has followed a strategy of putting up rudderless political rogues against a determined and coherent political machine. This is rank political amateurism.

It is no secret that the California GOP has a messaging problem. The party has made few inroads with minorities, Millennial voters, and urbanites. Republican ineptitude deserves much of the blame for the party’s failure that Democratic genius deserves credit.

Like California in general, the California GOP seemingly has abandoned a number of cultural and political fronts that cannot safely be ignored. Entire subjects of public consideration have been abandoned to the tender ideological mercies of the Democrats. It’s hardly a wonder that California’s public schools are little more than laboratories to nurse ideas hostile to the country’s founding principles. In response Republicans offer nothing but the vaguest resistance having to do merely with funding.

The high-tech industry and the media, both of which are critical to any messaging from either party or candidate, is similarly hostile to conservative ideas. Political terrain such as inner cities are places where few, if any Republican candidates put in any effort. States such as California are too big to surrender. These are areas where the party, not candidates, needs to get to work in messaging and doing outreach.

Classic conservatives may balk at the idea of blurring the line between the spheres of culture and politics. The Left, however, has shown us the folly of the separation of politics and culture. The Left,  at its core, is a sociopolitical movement and it understands that there is no meaningful distinction between politics and culture.

The strength of the Left in its various political manifestations around the world lies in its coherent, consistent, and aggressive messaging. Even in its most extreme cases, such as the Communist Party in China or the Soviet Union, “The Party” built itself as a seamless social movement and political organization. As the Democratic Party moves further leftward, and shows no qualms about retrofitting election laws to shut out opposition and instill single-party authoritarianism, the GOP had better learn this lesson, and quickly.

Over the course of a few decades, the Democrats have not only mastered messaging by party, but have done the GOP’s work for it in branding Republicans as racist, sexist, and a number of other of political epithets and slurs. Instead of aggressively countering such messaging, Republicans have too often ignored it in favor of focusing on individual candidate qualities and campaigns.

Going back to Duverger’s Law, when a Republican candidate knocks on a door to solicit votes, the prospective voter does not need to spend time contemplating the candidate’s message if he or she already knows which of the two parties to punish. Brulte is just wrong. The party is damn well responsible for messaging and in California it is responsible for the party’s failure to message.

The Republican Party must get out of its old modes of thinking and act before single party authoritarianism becomes a reality.

The candidate-centric approach may appear elegant, sophisticated, and virtuous to those seeking purity in politics, but it will not help Republicans win elections. Instead of following an outdated strategy of promoting the virtues of individual candidates, the GOP would do well to look at conservative party messaging in other countries. This is certainly a break from the past, but for the health of the Republic’s future, the GOP needs to adapt.

Donald Trump’s surprise election may already have illustrated a way forward. Trump’s message of American nationalism resonated deeply with a number of voters who traditionally voted Democrat, including minorities. Now, imagine for a moment a President Trump from a parallel universe who did not individually mock his opponents and critics, but instead directed his ire at the Democratic Party brand and messaging.

Or imagine if the parallel Trump directed his messaging as the de facto head of the GOP at the Left? The GOP must begin learning from what Trump has done right and stop spending so much time criticizing what he has done wrong in order to begin planning for the post-Trump future. In planning that future, Republicans need to think and act like a coherent and aggressive organization in its messaging. If the GOP does not think in terms of party instead of candidates, socialism is on its way to an election near you.

Photo Credit: Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

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