Rovism and Its Discontents

Karl Rove on the GOP's future:

“There are two or three societal trends that are driving us in an increasingly deep center-right posture,” he said. “One of them is the power of the computer chip. Do you know how many people’s principal source of income is eBay? Seven hundred thousand.” He went on, “So the power of the computer has made it possible for people to gain greater control over their lives. It’s given people a greater chance to run their own business, become a sole proprietor or an entrepreneur. As a result, it has made us more market-oriented, and that equals making you more center-right in your politics.” As for spirituality, Rove said, “As baby boomers age and as they’re succeeded by the post-baby-boom generation, within both of those generations there’s something going on spiritually—people saying it’s not all about materialism, it’s not all about the pursuit of material things. If you look at the traditional mainstream denominations, they’re flat, but what’s growing inside those denominations, and what’s growing outside those denominations, is churches that are filling this spiritual need, that are replacing sterility with something vibrant, something that speaks to the heart of the individual, that gives a sense of purpose.”

So Republicans will keep winning because Americans are becoming more entrepreneurial and "market-oriented" and because they're increasingly "saying it's not all about materaliasm, it's not all about the pursuit of material things"? It's hard to imagine a balder description of the essential contradiction at the heart of the GOP coalition, and yet Rove seems unaware that there's anything contradictory here at all.

To be fair to the beleaguered "Architect," the nature of American religion - particularly the extent to which many American Christians aren't Christians at all, but "Moralistic Therapeutic Deists" - makes the contradiction easier to sustain than it would be in other contexts. And the mere existence of the current Republican Party demonstrates that this sort of God-and-Mammon fusionism can bear more weight than many of its critics have suggested over the years.

But just because it's philosophically sustainable doesn't mean that its appeal is destined to steadily grow, lifting the GOP's political fortunes along with it. Rove is famous for being a closer-than-close observer of American politics, but it seems to me that he made up his mind about the forest a long time ago, and spends all his time looking at the trees. It's certainly true, to take up his first point, that vibrant new denominations are springing up in early twenty-first America, and that they tend to be more conservative than the fading liberal churches they replace - but this cycle has been going on in the United States for hundreds of years, and it's often more a matter of the religious portion of the population shuffling from one faith to another (from Congregationalism to Methodism in the early 19th century, say, or from Methodism to the Assemblies of God today) than of the country's overall religiosity increasing. Conservative hopes of a Fourth Great Awakening, so far as I can tell, have proven premature: There's very little evidence, pace Rove, that Americans are growing more religious overall, and some evidence in the opposite direction. If a long-term GOP majority is to be built on an increasingly-religious America, then it may not be built at all.

As for the claim that Americans are ever-more entrepreneurial, thanks to the empowerment provided by the internet and other wonders of the material world, and thus more favorably-disposed to the party of free markets - well, this is very clearly true of some Americans, but it's by no means obvious that the Information Age's winners are natural Republicans (as opposed to, say, natural Clintonites or Spitzerians), and neither is it clear that the unfortunate externalities of skill-based technological change (growing social immobility, for instance) won't transform the Information Age's losers into disgruntled Lou Dobbs Democrats, rather than the Sam's Club Republicans whose votes were crucial to the fleeting Bush majority. I see very little evidence that Rove has taken these possibilities into account, and they seem to me at least as likely vision of the future as his bright assumption that History is going the GOP's way, and will be for years and years to come.