In geological terms, the West Coast of the United States is something like a jigsaw puzzle, a stressed arrangement of smaller pieces under constant tension, a crisscrossing complex of fractures that has lethal potential for millions. For civic leaders, it offers a decision of elegant simplicity: prepare or perish.
The Left Coast’s political landscape is just as treacherous as the terrestrial one, particularly (as this year’s poor performances will attest) for Republicans trying to solve its complex puzzle of eclectic voters. Gains made by the GOP in other parts of the country in this year’s midterms may lead some to believe that the road to the White House runs across solid ground, but the path to victory still passes through the West where coalitions are broken and Republicans hopes are too often dashed.
Although ample ideological affinity exists between Republicans and West Coast independents on a wide range of fiscal, security and social issues (the results on ballot measures for drug legalization and increased taxation were a clear affirmation of conservative values), liberal Democrats continue winning elections.
Yet, Republicans on the West Coast had the same factors going for them as their colleagues running successful campaigns in East Coast states as reliably blue as Pennsylvania.
National issues impacting congressional races – as contained in the nightly dose of white noise from the chatterati on cable news that strongly influences swing voters – remained fixed on the economy, the economic ramifications of policy, and national security, areas in which Republicans represented well.
Hot button social issues may have been front and center in individual congressional and senatorial races, but failed to erupt into a larger conversation thus giving Republicans a break from fighting the traditional three-front battle against media spin, socially liberal special interest groups and their own tendency toward internecine disintegration.
If one can ever say any given election has been tailored for building broad coalitions, 2010 was that kind of year. The lack of nationalized wedge issues was complemented by the calendar. In a midterm election, the most reliable engine for creating controversy – the media circus that is a presidential race – was missing.
Without a dogfight for the Oval Office to act as a lightning rod for every special interest group’s social agenda, a resolute federation of Tea Party independents, establishment Republicans, and conservatives – both fiscal and social – could exist in something sort of like harmony, if harmony were actually a state of mutual agreement to remain silent and get along.
Nevertheless, Republicans went down in droves.
Why did the GOP wave stall before reaching the Pacific Coast? The answer may lie within a stigmatized Republican brand, or stigmatized at least in how it is perceived among independent voters who largely decide elections.
Like a one-legged man trying to participate in a game of Twister®, it is the punishment candidates know they will receive for pivoting on key issues of conscience that may be an invisible factor in these Republican defeats. This issue most responsible for the GOP’s West Coast disconnect could be same-sex marriage, a question on which social conservatives rule the roost, and a scarecrow of sorts warding off otherwise conservative and moderate swing voters.
Swing voters don’t buy political territory, they lease, and always on a short-term contract. In the West, when independents shop for a piece of partisan property, the perception of Republican attitudes toward gays and lesbians hangs like a condemnation notice nailed to the door, particularly in critical West Coast states where polls continue to show majority support for permitting same-sex couples to legally marry or where the practice has already been legalized.
Even within the GOP, a passive attitude of tolerance toward legalizing same-sex marriage remains distinct from continuing to oppose a more radical homosexual agenda. Attempts to normalize or promote the lifestyle among school-age children and the creation of “special” rights are not part of the bargain for those Republicans who have a moderated view of same-sex couples. These shades of grey tend to be ignored against a looming image of the Republican Party as a group that has an irrational, dehumanizing hatred for gays and lesbians. As a result, the broad-brushing of Republicans persists as a highly potent wedge used by Democrats to peel away independent voters.
West Coast Republicans do not have to resign themselves to a lifetime living in tax-and-spend purgatory with representation that truly represents no one. Just as the West Coast has learned to build homes and cities to withstand the tremendous seismic forces lurking in its collective future, so must the Republican Party adapt to survive enormous stress. Political strategists must bridge the same challenge surmounted by structural engineers, to force themselves to unchain from dogma, to ignore what knowledge they regarded as best in order to search for that which was better.
Smart minds in engineering detached from canonical inflexibility and revolted against doctrine that held that rigidity equaled strength, replacing it with an understanding that designed flexibility allows buildings to absorb complex and unpredictable stresses, averting all-out collapse. It is a concept that applies well to social and political institutions. In order for the Republican Party to achieve its full potential in a changing society, it must evolve while still remaining rooted in solid principled ground, and not simply for the sake of political convenience.
Allowing minor political experimentation might not only be a strategic boon to West Coast Republican congressional candidates, it has the potential to unlock the electoral votes from the region, one-quarter of those needed for a presidential victory. A West Coast strategy could be an ace in the hole desperately needed.
There is significant philosophical breathing space on the issue of same-sex marriage, and it should be the goal of the Republican Party to actively protect that space for candidates who wish to survey it. In doing so, the GOP may also restore for subsequent generation the critical (but fading) distinction that exists between a godless society, a society whose laws are formed by the intersection of core religious and secular values, and a society whose laws originate in religious texts.
(In an age when the greatest threat to Western free society comes from Islam, a religion which ascribes to itself political power over all social relationships and public affairs, acknowledging the unique freedom that exists only when government remains secular may become even more important than preventing two men from being recognized as a wedded couple.)
The justification made for legislating or adjudicating a moral position against same-sex marriage might seem to make sense. It is argued that the values of a society should be reflected in its laws, and as the vast majority of Americans come from a Judeo-Christian tradition thus should our laws be formed. The simple logic camouflages problematic thinking on several levels.
On the religious basis for opposing same-sex marriage, any reconciliation of how biblical interpreters assign priority to different scorned relationships or behaviors is awkward. If the Bible condemns homosexuals, rendering them invalid to enter marriage, then why does homosexuality not appear in the Ten Commandments? Certainly the Top Ten should take priority if we adhere first to Judeo-Christian traditions, yet there is only a fringe minority who advocate re-criminalizing adultery, and even fewer who would enact laws to punish children for dishonoring their parents – just two of the clearly-worded edicts handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai.
America, however, was founded as a secular republic, not a religious democracy. The Founding Fathers went through extreme contortions to strike a balance between religious belief and morality in our law. They recognized a difference between morality that is imposed on oneself and morality that is imposed on others, and believed that only the most universal moral codes (and those that infringed the least on individual liberty) should be imposed on the whole of society by its government.
But even more chilling than sidestepping the philosophical safeguards preserved within the Constitution are the ramifications for a democratic society. If America was to allow its laws to originate solely from religious sources, without any external philosophical argument for their necessity, adding the rationale that the views represented a majority of Americans, the unintended consequences could be extreme.
Social conservatives who are acutely aware of the danger to the Western democracy posed by Sharia law may still fail to recognize that inventing a tradition of making the religious beliefs of a majority the sole basis for creating American law is negligent in the extreme. Can we guarantee demographic and cultural conditions in the future, changes that may occur beyond the horizon of what we can predict? If religion is given an unchecked pathway into the law so long as it is carried along by a majority, the last defense against any aggressive subversion of our Western values is too barbaric to contemplate.
[Cross-posted by author from Red County.]