On the surface, Republicans are already doing a good job of beginning to change their party.
Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana gave a speech to the Republican National Committee calling on Republicans to stop being the stupid party, to stop insulting the intelligence of the American people.
Rep. Paul Ryan gave a fine speech to the National Review Institute calling for prudence instead of spasmodic protest. The new senator for Texas, Ted Cruz, gave a speech to the same gathering saying the Republicans should be focusing on the least fortunate 47 percent of Americans.
But, so far, there have been more calls for change than actual evidence of change. In his speech, for example, Jindal spanked his party for its stale cliches but then repeated the same Republican themes that have earned his party its 33 percent approval ratings: Government bad. Entrepreneurs good.
In this reinvention process, Republicans seem to have spent no time talking to people who didn't already vote for them.
Change is hard because people don't only think on the surface level. Deep down people have mental maps of reality — embedded sets of assumptions, narratives and terms that organize thinking. Since Barry Goldwater, the central Republican narrative has been what you might call the Encroachment Story: The core problem of American life is that voracious government has been steadily encroaching upon individuals and local communities. The core American conflict, in this view, is between Big Government and Personal Freedom.
While losing the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, the flaws of this mentality have become apparent.
First, if opposing government is your primary objective, it's hard to have a positive governing program.
As Bill Kristol pointed out at the National Review event, the GOP fiercely opposed the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law but never offered an alternative. The party opposed Obamacare but never offered a replacement. John Podhoretz of Commentary added that as soon as Republicans start talking about what kind of regulations and programs that government should promote, they get accused by colleagues of being Big Government conservatives.
The next problem with this mentality is that it makes it hard for Republicans to analyze social and economic problems that don't flow directly from big government. For example, we are now at the end of the era in which a rising tide lifts all boats.
Republicans like Mitt Romney can talk about improving the overall business climate with lower taxes and lighter regulation, but regular voters sense that that won't necessarily help them because wages no longer keep pace with productivity gains.
Americans are still skeptical of Washington. If you shove a big government program down their throats they will recoil. But many of their immediate problems flow from globalization, the turmoil of technological change and social decay, and they're looking for a bit of help. Moreover, given all the anti-government rhetoric, they will never trust these Republicans to reform cherished programs like Social Security and Medicare. You can't be for entitlement reform and today's GOP, because politically the two will never go together.
Can current Republicans change their underlying mentality to adapt to these realities? Intellectual history says no. People almost never change their underlying narratives or unconscious frameworks. Moreover, in the South and rural West, where most Republicans are from, the Encroachment Story has deep historic and psychological roots. Anti-Washington, anti-urban sentiment has characterized those cultures for decades.