Divide and Conquer

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s divisive message for winning the White House.


Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks to guests at the Iowa Freedom Summit on Jan. 24, 2015, in Des Moines.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

By the somewhat tamer standards of the Midwest, Scott Walker’s speech to the Iowa Freedom Summit last Saturday was a smorgasbord of red meat. In just 20 minutes, the Wisconsin governor shed the persona that brought him to the stage—the stern but affable accountant—and re-emerged as a conservative warrior who defeated the unions, defunded the abortionists, and beat back the liberals to win three statewide elections for governor.

His message, in short, was that he was effective, unwavering, and uncompromising. There was no need for outreach or a “big tent.” With the right conservative message, Republicans could win elections—and win them in blue states—on their own.

You could call this the Walker Way—victory through polarization. As my colleague Alec MacGillis described last year in the New Republic, it’s how the former county executive became governor, survived a recall attempt, and won re-election. And if Walker can capture the nomination, it’s how he might win the White House, too.

Before heading there however, we should step back and look where the GOP stands in national politics.

Even with its midterm success last November, the Republican Party still has two challenges to meet before 2016. First, it has to learn to speak to fears over income inequality without committing to a specific agenda and limiting its course of action once in office. And second, it has to find some way to deal with the party’s pitiful showing with minority voters in the last presidential race. No, Republicans don’t need to win Latinos, Asians, or black Americans (the latter is probably impossible), but a better margin makes the White House an easier reach.

One path to both ends is to either move your policies away from the usual orthodoxy of upper-income tax cuts and deregulation, or at least graft a new branch to your existing agenda, set toward middle- and low-income Americans. Cut taxes for the rich and make a new refundable child tax credit; deregulate the financial industry and expand the Earned Income Tax Credit; slash welfare spending and help families migrate from high poverty neighborhoods.

Take these policies (and the right rhetoric) to communities that don’t normally vote Republican, and you might make inroads. You can call this the reformist approach.

The other path is to question the challenges altogether. Do Republicans need to address inequality? Presidential elections turn on macroconditions more than anything else, and the fundamentals of 2016—like economic growth and the president’s approval rating—slightly favor the Republican Party. A fresher message wouldn’t hurt, but it might be stretching the case to say it’s a challenge for the party. The same is true for expanding the coalition. It’s an exaggeration to say Republicans need to win more minorities, since at present it’s still possible for the GOP to win the White House on the strength of white voters.

After the 2012 presidential election, the conventional wisdom was that Republicans needed to win over a greater percentage of nonwhite voters. But at Real Clear Politics, senior election analyst Sean Trende argued the opposite. For him, “the most salient demographic change from 2008 to 2012 was the drop in white voters,” and specifically, “downscale, Northern, rural whites.” It’s unlikely that these voters were liberal, and if they were in the electorate, there’s a good chance they would have broken for Romney in large numbers.

More importantly, Trende argues that the floor for Democrats’ share of the white vote is lower—and the Republican ceiling higher—than is commonly understood. If that’s true, then the GOP has an alternative strategy to broadening the base—it can deepen its support with its existing coalition. Or as he writes:

Democrats liked to mock the GOP as the “Party of White People” after the 2012 elections. But from a purely electoral perspective, that’s not a terrible thing to be. Even with present population projections, there are likely to be a lot of non-Hispanic whites in this country for a very long time. Relatively slight changes among their voting habits can forestall massive changes among the non-white population for a very long while. The very white baby boom generation is just hitting retirement age, and younger whites, while unsurprisingly more Democratic than the baby boomers … still voted for Romney overall.

Trende doesn’t think we’ll see this future of hyper-racial polarization, with whites giving a supermajority of their votes to Republicans and minorities maintaining their presently high support and participation. If anything, few politicians on either side have any interest in this outcome. Democrats want to win more white voters, and a critical number of Republicans want to improve with minorities.

But elections force action, and if the minority electorate looks like it did in 2012—with high black participation and strong Latino preference for Democrats—Republicans will have to either push back or, as Trende argues, try to run the table with white voters and win as a fully homogenous political party.

Which brings us back to Scott Walker. Unlike Mitt Romney—who was merely adopted by the world of racially polarized politics—Walker was born in it and molded by it. As MacGillis notes, Walker’s home turf of metropolitan Milwaukee is home to “profound racial inequality, extreme political segregation, [and] a parallel-universe news media,” trends that predate Walker, “but have enabled his ascent.”

If any candidate could run a rigid campaign of polarization—aimed at winning as many white voters as possible—it’s Walker. His language is already there. In his Iowa speech, he touted voter-identification laws and portrayed disadvantage as a pure product of personal failure. “In America the opportunity is equal for each and every one of us but … the ultimate outcome is up to each and every one of us individually.”

Walker, in other words, represents the other path: The chance to win without broadening your base or changing your priorities. Victory, but at the price of greater racial polarization. It’s a seductive vision—and an inherently divisive one.