The GOP divided: a lesson for Tories

If American news outlets are anything to go by, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Republicans spend more time at each others’ throats than opposing the Democrats.

In its latest incarnation, the feud has manifested itself as a war of words between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, with Christie describing Paul’s and other libertarian-leaning Republicans’ attitudes toward controversial government surveillance programmes as ‘dangerous’. Paul hit back, saying that it was ‘more dangerous to forget that we have a Bill of Rights.’

This spat is the latest in a long line of internal Republican brawls, with issues such as drones, immigration reform and Obamacare, among others, providing the battlegrounds. Although the factions are numerous and the line up may change, when an issue comes before the GOP, the party tends to split into two broad camps.

There’s the establishment old guard, which usually includes Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham as well as Christie, who tend to err on the side of more security, more foreign intervention and more co-operation with the Obama administration.

Opposing them are the broad Tea Party and libertarian Republican faction, which tends to include Senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, as well as representatives such as Justin Amash and Thomas Massie, who seek to use the leverage the Republicans enjoy in the House while also using the Senate to fight for less government, less taxes and less spending.

Cruz and Lee’s campaign to use the House to defund Obamacare, as well as Paul’s legendary 13-hour filibuster on drones, are prime examples of their favoured tactics. It appears these feuds are, however, a symptom of something bigger. In coming to terms with two consecutive presidential election defeats, the party has a difficult choice to make. If the GOP is to continue to be a national party, it has to evolve. The question is how.

The Republican party has two options. It can either pander to its traditional voter base and become more entrenched in its conservatism, or it can embrace a more liberal outlook. The choice is difficult in the sense that it is hard to judge which option, especially in the short term, would pay the highest political dividends.

Option one would secure the support of traditional Republican voters, chiefly social conservatives, and would most likely consist of the party heading on its current trajectory in terms of policy positions, such as the opposition to gay marriage, whilst also continuing the party’s hawkish foreign policy rhetoric. The risk here is that it has been this recipe that has turned voters from outside the Republican camp off of the party, and it also risks eventually alienating some of the GOP’s more radical members.

Option two involves embracing greater degrees of not only economic but personal freedom. It also involves reaching out not only to younger people but to ever-growing minority communities who currently view the party with suspicion. The risk taking this option presents however is the alienation of a huge swathe of the GOP’s socially conservative voter base, at least in the short term.

Unfortunately for the Republican party, it can’t please everyone. Eventually, one group with have to be favoured and the other sidelined. The need to make a decision, however, is becoming increasingly urgent. Demographic changes are not only increasingly condemning the GOP of today to wander through the political wilderness in states such as California but they are also making traditional Republican strongholds such as Texas appear shakier after every census, with minority populations growing rapidly.

Given the way these changes manifest themselves not only in terms of votes but also in the electoral college, the longer the GOP waits to reform itself the tougher each presidential election will become to fight. As we gaze across the Atlantic at the Republican party from our British vantage point, the question that immediately comes to mind is this – what implications does this have for the Conservative party here?

The answer is the same ones it has for the Republican party. The Conservative party, too, will be forced to make a similar choice. In some areas, it appears that the battle lines are already been drawn, with David Cameron barely able to open his mouth without causing uproar from one part of the party or another.

His stance on gay marriage caused a huge backlash from his more conservative-minded back benches, as well as their traditionally-minded Tory constituents, while his latest proposals on pornography have generated equal disquiet from more liberally minded and typically younger members of the party.

The reason this affects the Conservative party just as much as it will affect the Republicans is because the problem is not of the two parties’ making. We are living in a time in which the tectonic plates of the political landscape are shifting, with younger voters generally favouring not only more personal freedom but also greater degrees of economic freedom, thanks to growing up with technology such as the internet, which has so far managed to escape the snare of government.

Up until now, largely since the end of the Second World War and particularly since the Thatcher and Reagan governments, the two broad political camps that have dominated mainstream politics have been one side favouring social freedom and economic intervention, while the other favoured social conservatism and economic freedom.

Now, however, it is possible that a realignment could be about to take place, with those who support social and economic freedom forming one camp while opposed to them will be those who support government intervention in our personal and economic lives.

If this realignment takes place, then the Conservatives and the Republicans will find themselves increasingly straddling both camps. However, both must eventually choose one of them. In the long term, it would appear that choosing the social and economic freedom camp would be the best strategy.

In the short term however, it is hard to overlook the fact that making that choice will entail paying a hefty political price.