Voters seek to distance themselves from an increasingly embarrassing G.O.P. brand — and Republicans should be worried
In the United States, a powerhouse influencer in all things entertainment, finance, advertising, and art, image is everything. Here, we define ourselves by our associations and the company we keep.
Considering the importance Americans place on branding and cultural navigation, just what does it mean to define as “Republican” in today’s America?
With the G.O.P. now controlling both the executive and legislative branches, policy that had once subsisted as a triumph in messaging alone has translated into political reality — and the electorate’s response is, to put it gently, “problematic.” The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the Republicans’ hallmark legislative achievement, is exceedingly unpopular — and, with an exploding deficit left in its wake, the “fiscally conservative” brand has been summarily dispensed to the trash bin.
So that leaves what may be our most important reasoning behind choosing our political party affiliation — and it is a crucial one, in that it appeals to both our most primal and our most societal: our identity.
In Bill Bishop’s great book “The Big Sort,” Yale political scientist Donald Green posits that political parties are like “social events,” in that “You look in at both [parties], and then you ask yourself some questions: Which one is filled with people you most closely identify with?… Which group most closely reflects your own sense of group self-conception?”
The Democrats’ 2017 Super Tuesday blowout sent a chilling message to Republicans, particularly in its sound rejection from the appearance-obsessed suburbs. A record high of 41 percent of Virginia voters identified as Democrats in exit polling, while only 3 in 10 identified as Republicans — and it feels like Greene’s “identity” theory has come home to roost.
Americans struggling for a place of belonging within our two-party system have been opening the proverbial Republican Party door to find it no longer brimming with well-groomed, accomplished high-fliers, but with frothing, shirtless bigots. 2017 saw Americans strike a “Do I know you?” attitude and ghost the Republican Party — and it is an ominous sign of what’s to come.
My friend who lives in the suburbs of New York is a great example — a good lady, public school teacher, and mom to two young kids who has aspirations to one day retire to the upper middle class. While not particularly political, she had defined herself as a “traditional republican” — largely due to having been raised within the party, and having been predisposed to a vague belief in “small government.” Now, when she looks for similarly good, hardworking, like-minded people among the Republican ranks, what she sees is a sea of torch-wielding neo-Nazis — and it represents not so much a divergence from her political beliefs, but, perhaps more damningly, “not who I want to be.” She has since quietly excused herself from the party.
For her, and many others whose partisan proclivities have relied less on acute attention to lawmakers’ votes and more on a feeling of tradition and tribalism, there no longer seems to be a comfortable space to inhabit within the Right. What was once a painted picture of the preeminently well-heeled is now perceived (fairly or not) as bigoted trash — and, frankly, choosing to align with the latter is nothing short of just plain unseemly.
With its complicity in the rise of Trumpism, the G.O.P. has ushered in a fatal identity problem. Because when voters respond to your calls with, “New phone, who dis?” — you’re sunk.