Response to My Lonely Counterpart

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Madeline Gillen, University of Notre Dame

The GOP is not a supermodel.  And it shouldn’t aspire to be one.

In her recent op-ed “Advice from a Lonely College Republican,” Sarah Westwood describes the Republican party as “a supermodel who has been doing photo shoots under fluorescent bulbs without any makeup.”  “Fix the lighting, dab on some foundation and highlight her good side, and she can take the most attractive picture,” she recommends.  But we don’t need more cosmetics or false lighting; we need to shed light on false premises and false promises while recovering a deep appreciation for the human side of politics.

Westwood’s criticisms of the GOP stem from her opinion that the Democratic party possesses the moral high ground because of its stance on social issues like abortion and gay marriage.  In this analysis, Republican electoral defeats are inevitable until the party abandons views held only by old fogeys.  After all, Westwood writes, “As a member of this all-important demographic, I know that neither I nor (almost) anybody else coming of age today supports the Republican social agenda.”

I don’t doubt that Westwood knows few people her age that support the Republican platform on social issues, but young people might not quite constitute the “all-important demographic.”  The youth vote constituted 19 percent of the electorate in 2012 (11 percent of the total being 18-24 year olds).  The Evangelicals Westwood despises were 26 percent of the electorate, 78 percent of which voted for Romney.  Of regular (once a week) church-goers, who constitute 42 percent of the electorate, 59 percent voted for Romney.  Furthermore, 32 states have passed laws restricting abortion within the last two years.

Number crunching aside, I disagree with Westwood’s premise.  Social issues were the primary reason I voted for Romney and Ryan in this election, and the issues themselves aren’t what ails the Republican party.

I understand the impulse to define the 2012 election as the central election of our time: President Obama’s reelection certainly holds critical implications for the future of our nation’s economy, healthcare system, and heritage of religious freedom, just to name a few vital issues in play.  But the end of the Republican party hasn’t arrived any more than the end of the Democratic party arrived with the election of Ronald Reagan.

There is no reason to believe that the GOP must reject the core principles that lead many values voters like me, who are genuinely concerned about the dignity of the individual and the common good of our great country, to support its candidates—even lackluster ones like Romney.

Social issues often take precedence in elections for good reason: they reveal politicians’ worldviews and the context in which they make a broad range of decisions on behalf of the American people.  The GOP needs to communicate a moral vision of human flourishing and the primacy of human dignity that provides the foundations for its positions on social issues.

Balanced budgets, critical as they are, don’t sell well, and ultimately voters were convinced that Obama was the candidate who cared.  Politics are always ultimately about people.

As a Catholic, I don’t feel completely comfortable in the Republican party. While I recognize that many of my fellow college age peers are not Catholic, I believe that many share my view that in voting Republican, we are choosing a party that is engaged on too few fronts.

The GOP needs to acknowledge that young Republican voters who care about abortion and want to defend traditional marriage also care about the impoverished, illegal immigrants, and prisoners on death row.  We want the GOP to capture and communicate a radical personalism.

The GOP needs to engage better with Americans who sincerely want to help the poor and think devoting a sizable portion of the federal budget to programs that aid the poor and marginal is the best way to do this.  The GOP also needs to engage Americans who want to help single mothers and believe free contraception and abortion are the most important “economic” tools to do so.

The Democratic party excels at appealing to the high ideals of voters and our desire for a nation where all persons are treated with dignity.  The Republican party values this goal just as much – it just has a different method of ensuring that individuals enjoy the freedom and economic opportunity they desire.  The GOP needs to do a better job making the case that their programs are the best way to realize these goals—and a better job shedding light on why and how the Democratic program has cosmetic appeal but conceals an ugly reality of dependence, waste, abuse, and corruption.

I may not be quite comfortable with Westwood’s equating me and other College Republicans with the hippies of the 1960’s, but I have no qualms about being labeled as an idealist.  The GOP must convince young people that our party cares as much as we do.

When we begin to focus unduly on our make-up and the lighting in which we stand, we start to lose sight of the human person.  Let the Democratic party be the photoshopped party: we can take the true high ground by being the personal party.

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