Lost Horizon

An alienated GOP hands the future to Al Gore.


Republicans sound different when they talk to their big donors. The party they describe isn't a party you hear from much these days. They say nothing about "culture wars" and lots about freedom. They praise entrepreneurship and free enterprise. They hardly even utter the word conservative.

And they choose their speakers accordingly. At a January conference for Team 100–donors who give the GOP at least $100,000 every four years and make five-figure contributions in between–Jeff Eisenach, the president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, told the audience about a survey Wired magazine had commissioned. "Digitally connected" citizens, he reported, are well educated, very affluent, white, and mostly male. They believe in free markets, go to church, and are optimistic about the future. While patriotic, they are skeptical of government's ability to solve problems.

In other words, Eisenach concluded, they should be Republicans. But they aren't. The GOP does fairly well among them, claiming about 40 percent. But about a quarter call themselves independents and fully a third are–horror of horrors! –Democrats. Charged with discussing "The High-Tech Community and the GOP Vote," he went on to dispense practical advice: Pay more attention to technology issues. Don't hide huge new taxes in telecom legislation. Spend more time schmoozing Silicon Valley.

It was an interesting talk, and something the audience needed to hear. Despite a methodology that overemphasized owning pagers and cell phones, the Wired survey did identify a real and important political subculture–informed, active, and largely up for grabs. The "connected" make up less than 10 percent of the population, but they are disproportionately influential. (And, if anything, Wired's methodology undercounted them.) From such swing voters come political realignments.

But Eisenach didn't get to the heart of the matter. He made the mistake political analysts and operatives almost always make on this subject. He confused a cultural identity with an economic interest. So he offered his audience a narrow agenda of business issues. He had nothing to say to the values that move such voters.

In a recent article in The Weekly Standard, conservative lawyer and PBS host-producer Hugh Hewitt repeated the error, adding a layer of pejorative language. As the articulate co-host of the leading public affairs show in Southern California, Hewitt is the face of the Republican intelligentsia for a good chunk of the nation's largest state–the state that controls a fifth of the electoral college. Like Bill Bennett or Bill Kristol on the national level, he therefore exercises a disproportionate influence on how his party is perceived. And like them, Hewitt has increasingly little use for the entrepreneurial crowd.

Each major party, he argues in the Standard, is made up of three subparties: For the Republicans, these are the "Party of Faith," the "Party of Wealth," and the "Party of Patriotism." Ignoring the GOP's suburban base altogether, Hewitt uses his typology mostly to argue that the party should kowtow to such Christian-right leaders as James Dobson and Gary Bauer. The article oozes contempt for the shallow, ignorant money grubbers who send the party six-figure checks. Hewitt writes of the Party of Wealth:

"From mutual-fund managers and some big-business types to small entrepreneurs and anti-tax activists, these folks believe in the bottom line. `If GDP increases, all is well,' is their credo. They write checks to campaign coffers, and they vacation out of state. Net worth is the key to their hearts and minds.

"There have been substantial defections from this group to the Democrats in recent years, especially from the higher income brackets, where laissez-faire lifestyle politics holds sway. Unfamiliar with the redistributionist zealotry of the old Left (or so rich they don't much care what slice the government takes), these newly wealthy technocrats tend to discount the importance of politics. Their discomfort with the Party of Faith propels them into the arms of their natural enemies."

There is indeed a traditional Republican "party of wealth," the old Rockefeller types, but they don't seem to be the people Hewitt has in mind. Instead, he scorns those Republicans who resonate to the American ideals of personal achievement and economic progress. Hewitt's Party of Wealth is but another imperfect way of identifying what Wired, with its own techno-emphasis, called the "connected." But instead of celebrating them, Hewitt finds them annoying and a bit stupid. They don't even know their own interests.

Americans care, of course, about their economic interests. But they care first about their identities. Consider the tax-paying, socially conservative Latinos who went Democratic in droves thanks to Pete Wilson's "They keep coming" campaign for Proposition 187. If voters feel personally attacked–because they are Latinos, or working women, or housewives, or evangelical Christians, or gays–they will bolt the party that serves their economic interests. Their "natural enemies" will start to look like their friends. And if they are courted, valued, and made to feel at home, they will reciprocate. Hence, as the saying goes, American Jews have the incomes of Episcopalians and the voting patterns of Puerto Ricans.

The people Wired identifies as the "connected" and Hewitt calls the "Party of Wealth" are in fact defined neither by their gadgets nor by their money. They have a cultural identity, a cluster of distinguishing values, and a worldview. When you ask Silicon Valley executives why they do what they do, they almost never mention money, and they certainly don't brag about their cell phones. They talk about "the ability to constantly learn new things," about "constant change, challenge, learning, growth," about "creating something significant."

Although they are most visible in Silicon Valley, you can find people with the same attitudes everywhere. Theirs is not the Party of Wealth but, in a broad cultural sense, what F.A. Hayek called "the party of life": They value learning and achievement. They accept trial-and-error experiments. They look forward to the future. They believe in creativity, enterprise, and progress.

Ronald Reagan spoke their language, which is why a remnant of Republican leaders (and a lot of big Republican donors) still imagine they belong in the GOP. A quintessential Californian, Reagan combined the state's Midwestern work ethic with its Western sense of possibility and self-fashioning. He imagined America as a city on a hill: "a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity." In less-poetic tones, another Midwesterner who made it big in the Golden State speaks for that lost Reaganite vision. In America, Rush Limbaugh tells anyone who will listen, "ordinary people can do extraordinary things."

You would think that the vision of Reagan and Limbaugh would be at home in the Republican Party. But you would be wrong. In mainstream Republican rhetoric, the city on a hill has been replaced by a swamp of iniquity, the God of blessing by the God of wrath. No wonder Bob Dole's 1996 convention speech promised to build a bridge to the past. Dole was pandering to the party's imagined base. All the present holds, he said, "is crime and drugs, illegitimacy, abortion, the abdication of duty, and the abandonment of children." Americans are horrible, evil people, and our civilization offers nothing of merit. Hewitt writes, "The country, in the eyes of the faithful, may be irretrievably diseased."

As the 1996 election returns suggest, this bitter alienation turns off a lot of Americans. The typical suburbanite does not see our culture as "irretrievably diseased" merely because it is not perfect. Telling voters that America is awful is the fastest way to electoral defeat. And that gloomy, repressive vision especially repels the party of life. It strikes at their core values, attacks their identity.

Nowadays, the GOP's agenda is set by people whose highest legislative priorities include finding some way to regulate the Internet, which they portray as nothing more than a sea of sin, and banning human cloning and related medical research. For the party of life, these are neither cheap, symbolic issues nor narrow, wonkish concerns. They are cultural touchstones, every bit as charged with identity as matters of race or gender. The Internet is, for millions of forward-looking Americans, what Israel is to Jews. When Dick Armey gives speeches about mad scientists and suggests that biomedical research defies God's will, he may win some points with Gary Bauer. But he is handing the future–and all it represents–to the Democratic Party.

Like Hewitt, I believe that the high-tech entrepreneurs who hang out with Al Gore are politically naive. They are giving their time and money to a man who wrote an endorsement blurb for Jeremy Rifkin's anti-biotech screed, Algeny, and whose career has been marked by an impulse to slap regulations on technologies old and new. They are implicitly endorsing a vision of the future as designed by Washington bureaucrats. The Democrats' zest for higher taxes is the least of their worries.

But identity trumps interest. Whatever he may have said in the past, nowadays Gore courts innovators, says they're important, affirms their values. Bill Clinton does the same. The Democrats may be lying, but the national Republican Party is hardly even trying. It is too busy advancing its own agenda of new regulations–and too busy appeasing activists who think Ralph Reed is a moderate squish. It is too busy heaping contempt on the people who are creating the future.

Yes, there are many fine Republican officeholders–people like Reps. Chris Cox (R-Calif.) and Rick White (R-Wash.) or Sens. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and Spence Abraham (R-Mich.)–who support opportunity and openness. But they are virtually invisible. Theirs is not the message of the national party, a message that is carried not only by official spokesmen but by the Bauers and Bennetts, Kristols and Dobsons–all the pundits and activists for whom the party is a vehicle to attack contemporary America. To the values of creativity, enterprise, and progress, the Republican Party says nothing, except occasionally, "Shut up, Newt."

Maybe the problem is all those Washington-based intellectuals whose professors taught them that civilization has been going downhill since the Renaissance. Maybe it's too many fund-raising dinners for Team 100, where party leaders address entrepreneurs as mere sources of big bucks. Maybe it's a reaction to Newt Gingrich's jargon-filled enthusiasms. Or maybe it really is the conviction that the upwardly mobile Republicans of the South care only about banning abortion, denouncing television, and censoring the Internet–and that the South is all of America.

Whatever is going on, the GOP has reclaimed its old status as "the stupid party," deaf to the language of achievement and hope. With the 2000 presidential race fast approaching, it has two years to get smart–to re-embrace the Reaganite ideal of a city on the hill and stop bashing America. It has two years to affirm the values of creativity, enterprise, and progress. If it doesn't, it will lose much more than another presidential election. It will lose its claim on the American Dream.