What Cliven Bundy Taught the GOP

Knee-jerk support for the angriest Americans is the path to electoral disaster.

Embattled Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy, left, and his son Dave Bundy talk to a reporter on the corner of North Las Vegas Boulevard and East Stewart Avenue in downtown Las Vegas Monday, April 7, 2014.

Representing a cantankerous America.

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It is not easy remaining in a state of perpetual sputtering rage. It requires a low level of tolerance for any point of view that challenges your own and a certain lack of empathy or even curiosity about how others view the world and why. It helps to have an iron-clad certainty that your facts – and the way you interpret those facts – is all that matters. But it also requires a fundamental insecurity: the suspicion or awareness that others don’t agree with you, they never will and that they represent a threat.

You probably have already heard all you want or need to about Cliven Bundy, the notorious Nevada rancher who went off on some kind of free-verse critique about “the Negro” and whether slavery was such a bad deal.

Many conservative politicians had embraced the crusty old coot, thinking he embodied a colorful and cantankerous kind of America that we sometimes grow nostalgic for when we watch grainy old western movies. But once he opened his mouth on race and other social issues, and some of his well-armed sidekicks started talking like terrorists, you heard the deafening sound of Republican politicians like Sens. Rand Paul, Dean Heller and Ted Cruz heading for the hills.

[Read Rob Schlesinger on Cliven Bundy and free speech.]

There are a couple of lessons for politicians here.

Thinking of the High Dudgeon Contingent as electoral low-hanging-fruit carries big risks. Some of these guys are worse than blowhards; some aren’t kidding, and they can actually be dangerous. Some of them end up in places like the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas, or committing acts of domestic terrorism in places like Oklahoma City.

Out West, where the federal government owns the lion’s share of the land, and where federal land use policies can be overwhelming for cattlemen and other people who work the land, there are big issues that have been debated and litigated for years. But as soon as the guns come out and people start talking about how they don’t regard the federal government as legitimate, as though Lewis and Clark are still loading their canoes, the debate is lost.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Republicans cannot afford to tolerate high profile members and leaders who keep embracing the High Dudgeon Contingent of the party, expecting rage to trump demographics.

A Republican former colleague of mine did an analysis of the 2008 election results and came away with a conclusion GOP leaders need to focus on: If John McCain had run for president in 1976 with the same demographic performance he had in 2008, he would have won the White House handily. But the difference is that in 1976, 90 percent of the electorate was non-Hispanic whites. By 2008, African-Americans made up 13 percent of the electorate and non-white Hispanics accounted for 9 percent. And McCain lost those groups by big, big margins. Take note: This is John McCain, not Ted Cruz.

Unsurprisingly, this trend is continuing. A fascinating analysis by Pew Research came out earlier this month. It shows demographically where we have come from in 1960 and where we are heading by 2060. Instead of a pyramid with certain demographic characteristics dominating the population, we are now in a demographic rectangle. This means greater societal diversity with more equal distributions of age and ethnicity. And it also means big changes in how political power is organized, starting now and for the foreseeable future.

[Read blogger Ryan Alexander on why Cliven Bundy owes American taxpayers.]

The knee-jerk reaction of some conservative politicians to align themselves with the angriest among us is a strategy that’s bad for the reasoned discussion of serious issues – discussions that might actually yield solutions, or at least compromises in government policies. And it is terrible politics for the long-term. If Republicans don’t figure this out soon, it will be the GOP that could be relegated to minority status.