Separated by only a week, both Hostess Brands and the Republican Party raised the white flag of defeat. Hostess’ flagship snack Twinkies and GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney were, at least for now, finished. According to each, labor disenfranchisement played a role: Hostess blamed a bakers’ strike and Republicans pointed to autoworkers’ inability to embrace Romney’sLet Detroit Go Bankrupt editorial (NY Times, October 18, 2008. In fact, Hostess current owners, two hedge funds and private equity firm Ripplewood Holdings, followed Romney’s Bain Capital (and GOP strategy focused on the privileged 1%) of loading up on debt, trampling worker rights, and unselfconsciously rewarding themselves. However, Grand Old Twinkie and Grand Old Party woes run much deeper than irksome workers and an empathetic vacuum.
Both the tubular cake and straight-laced Romney clung to a nostalgic past no longer compatible to a changing America. The tiny 1.5 ounce Twinkie with its whopping 150 calories, 14 grams of sugar, and assortment of artificial ingredients, found itself floundering in a world where First Lady Michelle Obama and soda-bashing NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among others, successfully championed nutrition. Similarly, Romney discovered that his older white male constituency was a shrinking minority. Notably Latinos, African-Americans, and women became a powerful voice and they preferred the taste of progressive over regressive politics. Both Twinkie and Romney had formulas that—while popular a decade ago, stretching back to Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best—were ill-conceived for the current Glee and Ellen DeGeneres demographic. In the words of conservative columnist David Frum (The Dailey Beast, Nov. 11), “The Republican Party is becoming increasingly estranged from modern America.”
Even tarnished brand names have value, however. Hostess will find a buyer for Twinkie. Already the list of potential suitors reportedly includes Mexican Baker Grupo Bimbo, Flowers Foods Inc., and private equity firm C. Dean Metropoulous & Co. (where they might reload with debt, eschew unions, and self-pay lucrative dividends and crazy-pill management fees). In all likelihood, any buyer will seek to broaden the market for such an iconic product through reformulation and repositioning. Maybe remove a few unpronounceable chemicals and add a little fiber along with a vitamin or two.
The GOP has a similar choice. Unfortunately, because there is a well-documented party schism, theirs isn’t quite as simple as a unilateral corporate mandate. One side, championed by 2016 presidential hopefuls Governors Bobby Jindal (Louisiana) and Chris Christie (New Jersey), has recently criticized Romney’s comments on “voters who want stuff.” They tepidly discuss policies that include immigration reform, a balanced approach to deficit reduction (“revenue raising”), and the removal of what Tina Fey termed, “Grey faced-men with two-dollar haircuts,” in women’s health issues (Speech at Center for Reproductive Rights, Oct. 24).
The other wing of the GOP, conspicuously led by the Tea Party, swears Romney lost because hewasn’t conservative enough. They claim the party needs to be more vociferous in attacking a woman’s rights to choose and advocating the reduction in entitlements (including unemployment benefits and student loans) while pushing to repeal Affirmative Action and deny illegals any path to citizenship. Because these policies energized President Obama’s base and led to his reelection, the Tea Party recipe is arguably equivalent to Twinkies’ new owners deciding to addmore saturated fat, cellulose gum, and calories while—on the way to diabetic coma— claiming nutritional value because consuming fifty cakes achieves 100% of one’s daily iron requirement. Some people may endorse these decisions, but not enough for brand survival.
Whether Twinkies line the grocery shelves or dies a tooth-decaying death matters little in the long-run (after all, there are infinite obesity-enhancing substitutes). Not so much a vibrant GOP. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel taught that societies reach higher insight (synthesis) through debate (the juxtaposition of thesis and antithesis). Such is the essence and importance of our two-party system and, ideally, healthy political evolution.
Today the GOP risks irrelevance if it splinters into these two warring factions or continues to embrace Tea Party policies that do not stimulate intelligent discourse or recognize demographic reality. If that happens, nobody—not conservatives or progressives—benefit. Our nation thrives on healthy food-for-thought. Hopefully the GOP finds a recipe to once again become grand or, at least, viable. Without this two-party check and balance, history suggests that unfettered power corrupts, no matter the political affiliation. Final advice to my Republican friends: take a deep breath—hold your nose if you must—and move left; it might just preserve your relevance.