Is GOP Losing the Libertarian West?
Ryan Sager argues that the Republican party is in danger of losing its majority status in national elections by courting Southeastern Evangelicals too much while alienating Western Libertarians.
In fact, it’s looking more and more likely that the eight states of the Southwest and the broader interior West — Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — are on their way to becoming the next great swing region in American politics. As the Republican Party tilts on its South-West axis, increasingly favoring southern values (religion, morality, tradition) over western ones (freedom, independence, privacy), the Democrats have been presented with a tremendous opportunity. If the Republican Party doesn’t want to lose its hold over all of the West, as it lost hold of once-reliable California more than a decade ago, its leaders are going to have to rethink their embrace of big-government, big-religion conservatism.
Why? The interior West is not the South — not by demography and not by ideology.
First, take religion. Generally, as progressive Paul Waldman points out in his new book, Being Right Is Not Enough, Republican strongholds have lots of evangelicals, Democratic strongholds have very few, and swing states are in between. By this rule of thumb, the Southwest fits neatly into the “swing” category. But so does the interior Northwest, which is typically considered more socially conservative and more solidly Republican. Evangelicals make up between 29 percent and 33 percent of the population in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — figures much closer to California’s 28 percent or Maine’s 26 percent than to Virginia’s 41 percent or Texas’s 51 percent.
To give a small sample of the results recounted in my book: Almost twice as many people in the interior West say that religion is “not that important to me” as say the same in the South (30 percent versus 17 percent); both the Pacific Coast and the Northeast also hover at around 30 percent on that question. On gay rights, only 39 percent of southerners think homosexuality “should be accepted by society,” while 53 percent in the interior West support tolerance of gays. (That figure bumps up to 60 percent on the Pacific Coast and in the Northeast.) Similarly, 53 percent of southerners think public-school libraries should ban “books that contain dangerous ideas,” versus 44 percent in the interior West.
In other words, while the interior West is just as fiscally conservative as the South, it is clearly more socially libertarian. (Other hints on this front include medical marijuana laws out West, resolutions against the Patriot Act passed by legislatures out West and a rebellion against the No Child Left Behind Act by Colorado and Utah.) And as the Republican Party embraces the big government it once fought against, and increasingly stakes its political fortunes on cultural hot-buttons such as gay marriage and flag burning, libertarian-minded voters are up for grabs.
He expands on this idea in a much longer piece, “Purple Mountains,” in the current Atlantic Monthly (available only to subscribers).
Dan Drezner is “only 50% convinced,” although he doesn’t specify which 50%. I’m probably closer to 75% convinced, mostly because libertarian minded Westerners tend to be strong national security proponents and I’m not persuaded they will find the Democratic alternative palatable.
Still, there’s not much doubt that the GOP has redefined its base almost exclusively on social conservative lines in recent years. That we no longer call Barry Goldwater’s progeny “conservatives” is rather telling.