The American right isn’t burdened by such Hamlet-like indecision about its own ideological rationale. It does, however, have plenty of its own problems—like the female, black, and Hispanic voters it has alienated and without whom the GOP cannot win national elections. But one shouldn’t underestimate the ability of the conservative movement to adapt to new marketplace circumstances even as it holds to its bedrock beliefs. That’s one reason why the right has survived past allegiances with the Ku Klux Klan, the McCarthy witch hunts, the John Birch Society, and all the rest. As McGirr suggests in Suburban Warriors, this adaptability has included such strategies as “abandoning older essentialist racial ideas (as well as anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism)” after World War II and even repackaging old-time religion in user-friendly megachurch trappings consistent with the therapeutic ethos and consumer culture of mainstream daytime television.
For all its adaptability, it’s highly unlikely that the GOP can recapture the African-American voters it cast aside when it went from being the Party of Lincoln to the last refuge of white-supremacist Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond in the Goldwater era. All these years after Jim Crow, the GOP is still scheming to disenfranchise black voters. But it’s entirely conceivable that a future Republican nominee, unlike the cowardly Romney, will pick a Sister Souljah fight when a lout like Rush Limbaugh maligns women as sluts. Even this year a few prominent Republicans—if only out of cynical election-year self-preservation—disowned Todd Akin and “legitimate rape” (or did so until the circus moved on and they could slither back into his fold). Eventually, the GOP might even figure out that it’s not in either its ideological or political interests to insist in perpetuity that government intrude on women’s reproductive rights and thwart equal civil rights (marital and otherwise) for gays. (Barry Goldwater, for one, knew this.) Such a shift might entice young libertarian voters, who care little about the Democrats’ entitlement trump cards of Social Security and Medicare, to give the Republicans a second look.
Latinos, America’s fastest-growing minority, are the most obvious obstacle to the right’s political future. Romney’s embrace of the most extreme immigration arsenal, from vowing to veto the Dream Act to endorsing a Mexican border fence, has assured that Obama will win the Latino vote by a landslide—and possibly the election along with it. And yet the GOP could overcome this burden over the long term. It was as recently as 2004 that George W. Bush drew nearly 40 percent of the Latino vote while trying (without success) to prod his party toward a kinder immigration policy. A new generation of Republican presidential contenders who want to win—and not just Marco Rubio—will put the highest priority on trying to save the GOP from its rapidly approaching demographic apocalypse.
Such a comeback won’t happen easily, or overnight, or without a major purge of the nativists within conservative ranks. But if history has taught us anything over the past half-century, it’s that the American right’s death wish is a figment of the liberal imagination. For Obama’s supporters, even a 2012 victory is likely to prove but a temporary high.