I doubt John Boehner has read much feminist theory, but it’s never too late for him to start. He and other GOP leaders, not to mention the Republicans who want to run for president in 2016, might want to familiarize themselves with the concept of the double bind. They are in the middle of one, and it will be difficult for them to escape.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote the classic treatment of the subject in her 1995 book, Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership. A trap confronts successful women, Jamieson argued. They can’t display mastery in the workplace without sacrificing their sense of femininity. On the other hand, they can’t emphasize the feminine without being condemned as bimbos.
Hobson’s choice; Catch-22; double bind—all of these expressions describe situations in which you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Situations of the sort Republicans are in. In the months since the November election, a bipartisan chorus, including many conservative intellectuals, has urged GOP officials to adopt new domestic policies to attract support from groups that have been trending Democratic. At the same time, though, the chorus expects the GOP to maintain its base of support from the coalition that won 51 percent of the House popular vote in 2010 and 48 percent in 2012.
Here’s the problem. The domestic proposals that have the greatest chance of making the Republican party attractive to the “coalition of the ascendant”—immigrants, members of the millennial generation, single white women—involve far more government intervention in the economy than the GOP coalition—married white people, Wall Street, the Tea Party—will allow. And we haven’t even mentioned changing the GOP approach to social issues, which would drive the Republican base of religious conservatives out of the party. Pursuing such proposals would break the coalition that puts Republicans close to a majority.
On the other hand, sticking with the policies that glue this so-close-to-a-majority coalition together would foreclose the possibility of expanding the GOP vote. And it would limit the vote Republicans pull from disaffected voters who used to support the GOP but have turned away for various reasons.
There’s more. Trying to appeal to the coalition of the ascendant and the Reagan coalition simultaneously would give the party a severe case of political schizophrenia. The GOP would bewilder its historic base of support while disappointing newcomers, leading to confusion, disillusionment, apathy, and perhaps (ultimately) dissolution.
The Republicans, like feminists, can’t have it all. They are trapped in the double bind.
Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, who worked for President George W. Bush, have a cover story in Commentary on how to revive the Republican party. Their proposals are well intentioned, cogent, and in some ways persuasive. When they get into the nitty-gritty of specifics, though, they bump up against the double bind.
For example, Gerson and Wehner propose “ending corporate welfare as we know it”; “supporting the breakup of the big banks”; and “thoroughgoing reform of the federal role in education, focusing on public and private choice.” Timothy Carney of the Washington Examiner made similar arguments shortly after the election, when he called for a “new Republican populism” that “can promise to level the field by getting the bureaucrats and politicians out of it” and by cutting regulations and ending bailouts.
Sounds great. But a word of caution: There is little evidence these policies would be any more popular than traditional Republican ones. And one reason there is so little evidence is that there is no serious advocate for these ideas within the ranks of Republican officeholders. Why is there no advocate for these ideas? Because major elements of the Republican party oppose them.
For 30 years, the Republican party has stood for low taxes, a strong national defense, and traditional understandings of moral questions. The base of the party can be divided into groups that care particularly about each of these items. There are the libertarians and businessmen and Wall Street Masters of the Universe, who put a priority on low taxes, especially on income and capital, fewer regulations, and free trade. There are the defense hawks, who lobby for big Pentagon budgets and confrontational approaches to global security problems. There are the religious conservatives, who are pro-life and against same-sex marriage.