TCS Daily

Forgotten Republicans

By Matt Glassman - November 8, 2004 12:00 AM

Coupled with gains in both the Senate and House, President Bush's re-election victory was indicative of both the electoral strength of the current Republican Party and the disarray of John Kerry's Democratic Party. Less clear is how President Bush will shape the future of the Republican Party and conservatism in America over the next four years. For while all is well with the GOP as an electoral machine, ideological divisions -- partially spurred by Bush's first term -- are growing among those on the right.

The two-party system tends to mask internal partisan discontent during campaigns. But as President Bush continues down the path of his unique style of conservatism, he may encounter growing cracks in his base of support. An ideological battle in the GOP is looming, and it is perhaps not the expected battle between the social conservatives and moderates that has been boiling for several decades. Increasingly, it is the small-town, northeast brand of traditional Republicanism -- or should we say conservatism -- that is being set at odds with the Bush administration.

Nowhere is this clearer than in upstate, New York. In the final weeks before the election, it was hardly surprising that Augusta (pop. 1,966) and other small upstate New York towns were forgotten by the parties, the media, and the national candidates. In fact, it's a stretch to say they were forgotten -- as in most recent presidential elections, New York was barely noticed in the first place. With its tidal wave of Democratic partisans, it was written off as electoral votes for Kerry at the outset of the campaign.

However, upstate New York is home to more Republicans than almost any other comparably sized geographic area of the United States. While their proximity to overwhelming contingents of Democrats makes it easy for national politicians to ignore them in the quadrennial elections, their sheer numbers -- millions of them -- make them central to the basic construction of the Grand Old Party. Now that the election is over, national approval ratings will supplant the iron law of the Electoral College, and upstate voters will reassume equal footing with the Midwest swing voters of the campaign season. The quiet slumber of their opinions may become a tremendous roar for or against the president in the coming years. Their strong support for the President -- dispensable during the campaign -- is crucial to his success in his second term and his future legacy.

Ominously, ambivalence about President Bush in small-town upstate New York was high this fall. Many pundits characterized the relationship between Kerry and his Democratic base as "lukewarm," arguing that many, if not most, were attached to him out of strategic choice, not because they particularly saw anything positive in the man. Less noticed was the same phenomenon in the Republican Party. Few analysts labeled the Republican base as anything but unabashedly pro-Bush. This is a mistake. The dourness of most upstate Republicans this fall was owed at least as much to ideological worries about a Bush victory as it is to fears of a Kerry triumph.

These Republicans would perhaps demographically surprise most media and academic observers -- they are neither rich nor religious. Their income is, at every stratified level, below the equivalent national average. While they are regular churchgoers, few base their politics on single-issue social values. Nor are these Republicans the moderates so often portrayed in the media as "Northeast Republicans." The moderate nature of many northeast Republican politicians and members of Congress (Governor Pataki of New York for instance) is owed more to the composite nature of the electorate -- large numbers of Democrats, Republicans, and independents -- than to a preponderance of actual moderate constituents. Surely, there are fiscal conservatives in New York who are social moderates, but that description mischaracterizes the vast majority of upstate New Yorkers in both parties. Upstate Republicans are clear conservatives in their values, positions, and partisanship.

Ideologically, the Bush administration is drifting from these people on two fronts: the shift to a neo-conservative foreign policy and the retreat from fiscal sanity in Washington. Each of these policies runs directly counter to the prevailing political ideology upstate. It's not a complicated ideology -- your basic "keep the government out of my life" conservatism. Low taxes and few services, low-key involvement abroad, and no "big brother" encroachments on personal freedom, broadly construed. The government that governs least is best. A strong feeling of disconnectedness from the federal government reinforces this. Save for the mailman, residents of Augusta rarely see a shred of government in their town beyond the local. A state police car driving through will often result in quips like "here come the feds," indicative of the rarity of even state authority in some sectors upstate.

As such, the small town conservatives of Augusta, NY are not fans of global empire. Their reaction to 9/11 was to look inward, not outward. Shortly after 9/11, I engaged a number of residents on this topic at the town bar, which also doubles as local hotel. Their immediate reaction was clear, concise, and unequivocal: 9/11 required a foreign policy shift toward isolationism. Not pure 19th century isolationism, mind you, but at least a general scaling back of America's role in the world. When I suggested the alternative, a neo-conservative ideology of American power, democratic regime change, and global advancement, they laughed.

Placed in their cultural worldview, my theory was ridiculous; their understanding of democracy credits its success here to American exceptionalism and gives them little sense or hope that democratic regime change in hostile lands is feasible. Simultaneously, the ghastly barbarism of 9/11 reinforced their view that survival in an utterly crazy world is best achieved by hunkering down and protecting your flank. Surely they wanted to bring justice to the terrorists, but wars against states were reserved for after Pearl Harbors, not after guilt by association.

The war in Iraq has confirmed all of this to the upstate Republicans. The messy details and constant setbacks of the occupation resonate in Augusta with an "I told you so" that is unmistakably gruff, but also solemn in a way the same words from partisan Democrats are not. With rural areas of the United States receiving a vastly disproportionate number of body bags, upstate residents identify more closely with the soldiers than many people, and are quick to wonder how soon before it's someone from their rural town. The number of "get the U.S. out of the U.N" signs on Route 12b in Augusta has increased from one to three in the past year, symptomatic of both frustration with other countries as exhibited by the President and an underlying isolationist discontentment directed squarely at him.

Second only to reservations about the war, upstate Republicans are very nervous about the President's spending habits. Part of this is ignorance; for instance, opposition to No Child Left Behind was partially based on a perception among some that the local schools have always been paid for by local money. But mostly it isn't even about specific programs. It's a general feeling that the President and his friends have abandoned their principles and are in a race with the Democrats to hand out gifts in exchange for votes, gifts unlikely to land in upstate New York.

"Tax cuts," of course, is the magic phrase for upstate Republicans. The Bush tax cut of 2001 was universally applauded in Augusta and other small upstate towns. These towns typically donate more in taxes to the federal and state governments than they receive back in spending. Their unshakable belief is that the federal government can do no right -- or at least no right that is efficient -- in the realm of discretionary spending. Right behind that, however, is a balanced-budget mentality borne out of common sense -- if the government doesn't need to tax in order to spend, how will the voters "feel it" enough to stop them? -- and a half-hearted smile that knows someone down the road will be paying, probably them.

In the context of a campaign, of course, none of these ideological divisions matters. Kerry was certain to win New York. Bush was sure to win the votes of the small-town Republicans. But a vote is not a divisible commodity; it can only express the sum feelings of an individual across a multitude of policies, and the upstaters would never leave the GOP's electoral coalition.

Other measures of presidential performance and power, however, are quite easily divisible. Opinion polls and approval ratings can be parsed, and individual policies can be supported or not. The bonds of partisanship will hold upstate Republicans to the party for the sake of elections, but they may not stop the same Republicans from demurring on policy and approval surveys that are so important to presidents in the modern age. If the foreign policy aspirations of the President crumble, it will not be at the hands of conservative opinion, not the Democrats. A growing cadre of traditional conservatives and foreign policy realists -- Chuck Hagel for instance -- stand waiting in the wings, ready to reassert their authority in the party.

The Bush campaign's lack of attention to some of its core voters was electorally understandable. It is the lack of attention to the concerns of those core voters over the last four years and possibly the next four that is troubling. It is doubtful that upstate Republicans will be sorry to see Bush go in 2008; whether they will make a fight of it between now and then will go a long way to determining the future of the GOP. How Bush responds to this challenge will go equally far in shaping both his 2nd term and future legacy.

Matt Glassman grew up a Republican in upstate New York. He is currently a graduate student in Political Science at Yale University. He is not related to TCS Founder James K. Glassman


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