Arnold Schwarzenegger: Politics of division will wreck the GOP

I became a proud Republican before I even understood English.

I immigrated to the United States in the heat of the 1968 presidential campaign, when the choice – as I heard it through a friend’s translation – was simple. Hubert Humphrey, with his talk of government programs, sounded too much like an Austrian politician. Richard Nixon talked about freedom, getting the government off our backs and giving the people room to grow. I was hooked.

The moment I became a citizen in 1983, I registered Republican, and I’ve never thought about checking any other box. I am proud to be a member of the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. From the Civil War to the Cold War, their moral vision led this nation to our greatest triumphs.

As an American, I’m incredibly concerned about what happened in Indiana this week and the threat of similar laws being passed in other states. As a Republican, I’m furious.

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Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, spoke to all Americans earlier this week about this issue, and he should be applauded.

Now I’d like to speak to some of my fellow Republicans. I know plenty of Republicans who are sensible and driven to solve problems for America. They believe in Reagan’s vision of a big tent where everyone is welcome. This message isn’t for them.

It is for Republicans who choose the politics of division over policies that improve the lives of all of us. It is for Republicans who have decided to neglect the next generation of voters. It is for Republicans who are fighting for laws that fly in the face of equality and freedom.

If we want our party to grow and last, we must be focused on real solutions to problems Americans are facing.

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We could start with infrastructure. Traffic costs our drivers over $100 billion annually. Airport delays cost another $22 billion. Or we could get to work on education. If graduation rates don’t increase, we will have a shortage of 5 million workers by 2020 – not because we lack the manpower, but because the jobs will require education that our students aren’t receiving. We could clean up our air: MIT researchers found that pollution kills more than 200,000 Americans every year – more than traffic accidents, homicides, suicides and our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. There are so many real problems that need solving.

But distracting, divisive laws like the one Indiana initially passed aren’t just bad for the country, they’re also bad for our party.

In California, the GOP has seen the danger of focusing on the wrong issues. In 2007, Republicans made up nearly 35 percent of our registered voters. By 2009, our share dropped to 31 percent, and today, it is a measly 28 percent. That sharp drop started just after the divisive battle over Proposition 8. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but there is no question that our party is losing touch with our voters, especially with the younger ones who are growing the registration rolls.

I know what you’re thinking: “You Californians are eccentric. My state is different. That’s not going to happen here.”

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You’re wrong. All you have to do is look at the response to Indiana’s law on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or pretty much wherever young people congregate and discuss what is important to them.

Both sides of the Indiana debate used Twitter to voice their support, and the result couldn’t be clearer. According to Zignal Labs, as of Wednesday night, #StandWithIndiana had been tweeted 5,571 times. Meanwhile, #BoycottIndiana was tweeted 430,728 times.

Take a quick look at Reddit’s r/news top stories for the week – there have been more than 15,000 comments on this issue, overwhelmingly in opposition to the Indiana law.

Polls show that laws like this are not supported by independents, women, minorities or Americans between 18 and 29. Nor are they supported by big business, as evidenced by NASCAR, the NBA and Wal-Mart’s public, vocal opposition.

Those businesses are doing the right thing, but they have also done the math. As a party, we need to take a similarly realistic look. Indiana’s politicians clearly didn’t expect the response the law received, but it is heartening to see that they’ve taken steps in the right direction, just as it is reassuring to see that Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas listened to the outrage over Indiana and decided to veto a similar law. But I want to be absolutely certain that all of my fellow Republicans everywhere got the message. What happened in Indiana should be a teachable moment for us.

If the Republican Party wants the next generation of voters to listen to our ideas and solutions to real problems, we must be an inclusive and open party, not a party of divisions. We must be the party of limited government, not the party that legislates love. We must be the party that stands for equality and against discrimination in any form.

We must be the party that originally attracted this young Austrian immigrant.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is a former governor of California. This column was published April 3 by The Washington Post and distributed by The Washington Post-Bloomberg News Service.