Beware the Categorical Trap

Arriving at Ellis Island

Conservatives are disappointed and are searching for reasons for the disappointing electoral outcome. In whom or what are they disappointed?  A tempting approach is to adopt the inevitableness of changing demographics framework of the left.  The left regularly focus on the story of the marginalized—women, minorities, the young and the poor—gaining ascendancy or being victimized.  And certainly these four groups were active in this election and were important in delivering the presidency to Obama and perhaps the Senate to the Democrats. It would appear that it is the old white guys who held power previously that are now the victims! But that is delicious revenge for the left.  Because it is all about power; you old white guys have had your turn. Now it is our turn.

But there is nothing destiny deciding or inevitable about the impact of these four categories.  Particularly since the young don’t stay young; if anything, they inevitably grow up, some marry across racial lines, women give birth to male children as well as females and they love both because the children are their own, and, if all things work properly, there will be upward mobility for the poor.  Life doesn’t happen as smoothly as the four categories model would have us believe.

Conservatives must avoid falling into what we shall call the “categorical trap” of the left. It’s difficult to resist because the History, Sociology, and Literature departments at undergraduate schools really emphasize these categories when explaining and interpreting the world of the past, present, and the future.  And from Universities it spreads across the land into the newspaper rooms and the TV anchor desks.  But these four “social” categories haven’t been with us for thousands of years thus approaching a sort of immortality of what questions to ask and what answers you want.  The New Left created these categories in the 1960s with the emergence of the women’s movement and the youth movement etc.  Times have changed since then, but these four categories are still alive and well as THE explanatory and predictive variable.

But let’s use a different lens to interpret the election.  Why didn’t Asians—not exactly the class of the poor—vote Republican? Perhaps Romney turned them off. Latinos told us why they didn’t vote for Romney—immigration policy.  African Americans have voted Democrat over the last fifty years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  But between 1870 and 1964 they voted the party of Lincoln.  Things change rather than being inevitable.

Why did California go Democratic when from World War II through the 1980s it was a Republican stronghold for the Presidency with Californians Nixon and Reagan leading the way? Could it be that attachment to locality is as strong as attachment to the four categories? Carry California and you are twenty percent President.  Republican registration in California is now about 30% of the State electorate and so it is unlikely that Republicans will carry the Presidency in California. That’s over 50/270 electoral college votes. So it is tough to win a Presidential race when you start off with a 20% handicap. Add New York to the mix, and then you are at a 1/3 handicap.   For the last fifty years of the twentieth century it used to be a predictably close Presidential race if Republicans carried California and the Democrats carried New York. If either party carried both States, then the election was a landslide. In the twenty-first century, the Democrats have carried both States and yet we have had fairly close Presidential elections.  Is this due to the emergence of the four categories as dominant explainers and predictors?  I doubt it.  Things change and stay the same. Why then are Republicans in such bad electoral shape in California?  True, the “categorical trap” can explain some things, but it can’t explain all things.  Can we simply say that conservatism is dead in California due to the change in demographics and the emergence of social forces?  Has this to do with the four categories or does it have something to do with the failure of conservative political leadership?

Why didn’t the conservatives/Republicans carry the U. S. Senate?  Was it the spontaneous or organized rising up of single women? It also surely had something to do with the lack of statesmanship by a handful of old white men candidates.  Sometimes it is best to keep your private opinions private—a sort of don’t ask don’t tell approach—that is an important part of a good old conservative principle known as political prudence.  The young women didn’t just spontaneously rise up, or even rise up in a premeditated collective action against the “Establishment” on behalf of womens’ liberation.  No, they were provoked into action by stupid and embarrassing remarks by old white men that the media, correctly, didn’t give a pass on.  So the Senate was lost due to a failure of “political” leadership—conservatives abandoned a conservative category.  Why were these candidates chosen to enter the national stage if they thought that way about rape in the first place?  How stupid in principle and even further stupid in practice.

My hunch is that we would not be talking about conservatism in crisis if the Republicans had won the Senate. Why, for example, didn’t the four categories rise up and change the House?  Win the House and the Senate and the crisis goes away.  What are the pundits saying?  The four categories explain the outcome!  Which is as erroneous as were the remarks of Republican candidates.  It’s about the failure of “political leadership” rather than the victory of four “social categories.”

Let’s talk about the Presidency.  Obama was an incumbent and the incumbent since 1936 usually wins.  Only Carter and Bush the elder have lost and they lost to attractive political candidates—Reagan and Clinton—who took the agenda away from the incumbents and were media savvy.  Romney was not in the same political attractiveness league as Reagan and Clinton, but Obama most certainly was. So despite the unemployment rate hovering around 8%–not a good figure for an incumbent—Obama was able to persuade the American people that the high unemployment rate was the fault of Bush the younger and a gaff-filled Romney will take us back to the problem rather than forward to the solution.  True, the four social categories turned out for the President, but really they turned out for THIS President over against THAT Republican candidate. Most of all, it had to do with a failure of political leadership by Romney. His remark that 47% of the electorate was lost to him simply fell into the sociological categorical trap of the left.

The age of the old white man is SYSTEMICALLY over!  That is the message of INEVITABILITY we are hearing from the left.  We suggest that is an erroneous explanation and prediction. It overestimates the lasting power of social forces. Certainly the persuasiveness of the old white man will decline if they don’t behave in a way that reflects what James Madison called the “genius of the people,” and the spirit of the electorate.  The task of a leader is to lead by word and deed rather than to insult and abandon. Or to assume ahead of time that 47% of the people are unpersuadeable.  I can see members of the four social categories voting for a conservative for President if the right candidate and the right public policy came along.

So I suggest that the lens through which we should view this election is the failure of conservative political leadership rather than what I have called the four part social categorical trap.

Gordon Lloyd is professor of public policy at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy. The coauthor of three books on the American founding and sole author of a book on the political economy of the New Deal, he also has numerous articles, reviews, and opinion-editorials to his credit. His latest coauthored book, The Two Narratives of Political Economy, was published in 2010. He is the creator, with the help of the Ashbrook Center, of three highly regarded websites on the origin of the Constitution.

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  1. Ken Masugi says

    Gordon, one problem Republican senatorial candidates have is that they may come from gerrymandered House seats–where they might not need to campaign for minority votes. In California the Republicans are aided and hindered by the California Republican Assembly, which I gather, imposes a virtual Evangelical Christian litmus test on statewide Republican candidates. None of these problems requires any change in viewpoint; it does require rhetorical nuance. Immediate action for Republicans: Watch the new Lincoln movie and appreciate his prudence as well as his principle.

  2. c matt says

    Why were these candidates chosen to enter the national stage if they thought that way about rape in the first place? How stupid in principle and even further stupid in practice.

    Well, the principle is quite sound. A newly conceived life, regardless of how conceived, deserves protection. The explanation was horrendously executed. They think “that way” about rape – I assume you mean the “legitimate rape” comment – because the law thinks that way about it – some acts are classified as rape regardless of consent of the actors engaging in the conduct because it is statutorily defined as such – for example, a 16 year old and a 19 year old engaging in consenual intercourse. Perhaps you may want to consult with some of your colleagues over at Pep Law school.

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