I was in Boston over the weekend, at a gathering of high school students — including a lot of kids from the North Country — who were staging a model United Nations.
The gathering was enormous and it was breathtakingly diverse, a babble of languages, a crazy-quilt of ethnicities and skin colors.
The young people were talking about issues that are shaping the planet’s future, from water shortages to climate change to the vulnerability of civilians in war zones.
All of which got me thinking about the next chapter in American politics.
People have been predicting the demise — or at least, the long term irrelevance — of various political parties for a long time.
During the Bush years, Karl Rove famously forecast that Republicans would soon establish a new permanent majority.
The concept then was “realignment.” Conservatives would effectively end the leftward tidal movement of American history that began in the 1930s with the Great Depression and the New Deal.
Hugh Hewitt, the right-wing pundit and author, published a widely-reviewed bestseller in 2006 called “Painting the Map Red: The Fight to Create a Permanent Republican Majority.”
What followed a few months later, of course, was a Democratic resurgence that led to dramatic Republican setbacks in 2006 and 2008.
With the exception of the tea-party fueled victories of 2010, the last six years have been desolate ones for the GOP.
Even conservative successes — holding the House and gaining governor’s seats — have come with significant asterisks. Republicans tend to win smaller, less populous, less productive states than Democrats.
And overall in 2012, House Democrats won considerably more votes than Republicans. The GOP held its majority only because of aggressive and skillful gerrymandering.
So the question now is this: are the Republicans in as bad a shape as they appear? Or is this another temporary wrinkle, similar to the ones Democrats were facing in 2004?
I’m leaning toward the former: I think the GOP is in serious danger of permanently defining its brand in ways that will alienate not just Hispanic, African American and Asian voters, but also young urban white professionals.
Democrats, meanwhile, are cheerfully tapping into the complex, vibrant ferment that is the New America.
Those kids at the model UN conference were turned-on, smart, productive and ambitious. They will be the makers, the job creators, the innovators.
And according to the best demographic and political data available to us, the chances are they will vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
In a way, this is by design. Republicans willed it so.
The GOP has, for the better part of forty years, anchored itself as the traditionalist party, identified by loyalty to a strict constructionist view of the US Constitution, by fealty to a broadly Judeo-Christian ethic, a traditionalist view of family, and by direct appeals to a largely white racial voting block.
The GOP has also branded itself as a rural institution, adopting the language, cultural aesthetic and conservative social values that are stronger in America’s small towns and in the South. It has also been the party that positioned itself as the defender of gun rights and gun ownership.
The problem is that all of those markers represent a loyalty to the past, to what you might call the status quo ante.
As we’ve noted before, all the core Republican demographics — whites, rural people, church-going Christians, gun-owners — are declining as a percentage of voters, while all the core Democratic demographics are exploding.
These aren’t mere abstractions.
Democrats already hold deep systemic advantages in American politics, particularly in presidential races, which appear certain to grow by 2016. States that were once red are turning purple. States that were purple are trending blue.
Conservatives clearly aren’t sure what to do about these facts.
Just last week, William Kristol, founder of the Weekly Standard, wrote an essay lauding the GOP for being a institution that throws itself on the railroad tracks of change and social evolution.
He quoted William F. Buckley Jr., who once said that conservatives should “stand athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
The problem is that, increasingly, the fastest-growing groups of Americans see Republican positions not as cautious and conservative and rooted in bedrock American values, but as morally indefensible, alienating and, not to mince words, creepy.
When Republicans talk about electrifying the border fence and describe undocumented immigrants as a scourge, that may play well with the base, or with Fox News viewers, but it alienates just about everyone else.
When they talk about “legitimate” rape and argue against the availability of contraception, it falls into a hardening pattern that is, in a word, unsettling.
When conservative groups oppose even modest gun control measures like background checks and limits on the ownership of military-grade weapons, that sends a visceral message, not merely a political one.
When right-wing media outlets broadcast dog-whistle racialist arguments — talking about “Chicago-style politics,” drumming up fears about ACORN and the Black Panthers and stolen elections — that just doesn’t play well outside of white enclaves.
Perhaps most importantly (and I think the GOP still doesn’t grasp how big this is), a fast-dwindling number of Americans want to align themselves with a party that hates gay people, even in the “love the sinner, hate the sin” kind of way conservatives espouse.
The fact that Republicans are now considering holding up an immigration bill because they want gay immigrants to be treated differently than straight immigrants is, in political terms, self-defining.
Bluntly, the danger for the GOP is that for a generation of young people the conservative movement is branding itself as a toxic movement of angry old finger-waggers.
Already in 2012, Barack Obama won by landslide margins with voters under the age of 40. Mitt Romney only won by similar, big-number margins with voters over the age of 65.
It goes without saying that conservatives desperately need the current crop of Democrat-voting young people to evolve (fairly rapidly) into the next generation of grown-up, mortgage-holding, married and economy-worrying Republicans.
They need these voters to see the GOP as the logical “home” for voters who care about jobs, the deficit, and defense.
But if conservatives stand their ground as the movement that thinks gay people are aberrational and continues to talk in bizarre ways about human sexuality, and in fear-driven ways about Hispanics and African Americans, that’s just never going to happen.
I don’t think Republicans have very long to sort this out.
When Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he was aware and honest with himself that “the risks are great and we might lose the South.”
The GOP, in standing its ground on traditionalist issues should be equally honest with itself about the potential for losing an entire generation of young Americans.