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Joe Conason: Why ‘Hip’ Young Republicans Can’t Change Their Party (or Themselves)

Savvy Republicans know that something is deeply wrong with the GOP — frequently mocked these days by Republicans themselves as “the stupid party” — which has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Some have noticed as well that their congressional majority is so widely despised — its main achievement being historically low public approval ratings — as to be sustainable only by gerrymandering. During the last election cycle, those fearsome Republican super PACs, funded by the overlords of Wall Street and Las Vegas, spent hundreds of millions of dollars — with no discernible impact on an alienated electorate.

The result is a burgeoning self-improvement movement on the right, generating introspective articles and interviews in which Republicans ask: “What is wrong with us? How can we change? What must we do to avoid partisan extinction?”

But like many troubled people grappling with serious life issues, they aren’t truly ready for change. They want to maintain the status quo while giving lip service to reform — and changing as little as possible beyond the superficial. They would do anything to project a fresher image, more attractive and effective, without confronting their deeper problems.

The deceptions involved in this process are perfectly exposed in Robert Draper’s fascinating excursion among the urbane young Republicans whose frustration he skillfully reported in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. His account is well worth reading, if only to observe these self-consciously “hip” conservatives confronting the reality of last November — and failing utterly to comprehend its meaning.

Early in Draper’s article, a GOP technology consultant notes that the youth vote for President Barack Obama grew by 1.25 million in 2012 over 2008 (precisely the opposite of what most pundits and pollsters predicted). But he doesn’t seem to realize that the youth gap cannot be remedied by stronger social media or updated voter files.

The young Republicans bitterly mock the Mitt Romney campaign’s technological ineptitude, and complain more broadly about the party’s repellent reputation among young voters, minorities, gays, immigrants, women and everyone sympathetic to them. They largely seem to believe that if the Republican National Committee would hire people like them — and if Rush Limbaugh and Todd Akin would simply shut the eff up — then the party could expand beyond its narrow, aging, white and religiously conservative base.

As they hasten to assure Draper, these dissidents would adopt a friendlier attitude toward those who are different and are even eager to engineer a few minor platform alterations to accommodate immigrants or gays.

But why would they make such concessions to decency? Not out of any sense of justice or shame. They are not interested in social justice and they only feel ashamed of losing. Rather than honestly confronting the harm done by pandering to bigotry and division, they’d prefer to paper it over with a smiley face and move on.

By proclaiming that their defeats are due mainly to technological inferiority or bad messaging, the young Republicans ignore the underlying source of popular disdain for their party. It is true that their technology was feeble, their candidate and consultants were incompetent, and their messaging was often repellent. But the self-styled hipsters of the right are in fact not much different from the Tea Party octogenarians in their hostility to government investment, social insurance, health care, education and industry — and both are in conflict with the evolving attitudes of young Americans across all demographic lines.

The disgruntled figures who spoke with Draper represent almost nobody in the GOP, compared with the legions commanded by Limbaugh and the religious right. But if their fantasy could be made real, what shape would it take? A tech-savvy, gay-friendly, 21st-century Calvin Coolidge? A composite of Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and Rand Paul? Good luck with that.

Joe Conason is editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JConason, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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