Tag Archives: GOP base

An Epiphany? Or Indigestion?

I was on the treadmill at the gym, watching panelists on “Morning Joe” react to the daily stream of Trumpisms, when I had an epiphany of sorts. Or maybe it was just a bout of indigestion…

We are framing America’s worsening political divide all wrong. We aren’t having a debate between Left and Right, Conservatives and Liberals. We are having a culture war.

Think about it.

Republicans with whom I worked for many years–those in my age cohort–are appalled by what the party has become. They are no less conservative than they ever were, if you define conservative by reference to a genuine political ideology and policy preferences that are congruent with that ideology. They look at today’s GOP, and they don’t see anything approaching a coherent philosophy– or for that matter, any real engagement with reality, or with ideas of any sort.

That reaction isn’t limited to older, bewildered, garden-variety Republicans. It’s also common among  the pundits and think-tank scholars who once represented the intellectual core of a conservative GOP–Norman Ornstein, David Brooks, Jennifer Rubin, Charlie Sykes and numerous others. As Sykes–a radio commentator popular with the Right before he joined #nevertrump–recently wrote,

[Trump] tapped into something disturbing that we had ignored and perhaps nurtured—a shift from freedom to authoritarianism, from American “exceptionalism” to nativism and xenophobia. From his hard line on immigration and rebuttal of free trade to his strange fascination with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump represented a dramatic repudiation of the values that had once defined the movement.

Social scientists have characterized this shift in GOP orthodoxy as a move to the extreme Right. I think a recent column by David Brooks hints at a more accurate description. After analyzing arguments made by both sides in the gun control argument, he wrote the following (the emphases are mine).

The real reason the gun rights side is winning is postindustrialization. The gun issue has become an epiphenomenon of a much larger conflict over values and identity.

A century ago, the forces of industrialization swept over agricultural America, and monetary policy became the proxy fight in that larger conflict. Today, people in agricultural and industrial America legitimately feel that their way of life is being threatened by postindustrial society. The members of this resistance have seized on issues like guns, immigration, the flag as places to mobilize their counterassault. Guns are a proxy for larger issues.

Four in 10 American households own guns. As Hahrie Han, a political science professor, noted in The Times Wednesday, there are more gun clubs and gun shops in this country than McDonald’s. For many people, the gun is a way to protect against crime. But it is also an identity marker. It stands for freedom, self-reliance and the ability to control your own destiny. Gun rights are about living in a country where families are tough enough and responsible enough to stand up for themselves in a dangerous world.

The lines I have emphasized describe the people who form the base of today’s GOP. They are not “conservative” in the political philosophy sense of that word; instead, they are trying to “conserve” a world and a reality that is fast disappearing. The nativism and xenophobia that Sykes references are characteristic of people who feel themselves under siege and desperately want someone to blame.

The increasing hostility between the so-called GOP “establishment” and the party’s ever more rabid base is in part a disconnect between people who have relatively coherent and informed policy preferences and people who are frightened and angry and acting out. (I say “in part” because if you define the current GOP establishment as its elected officials, there’s sufficient intellectual dishonesty and outright corruption to justify a good deal of that hostility.)

If we mischaracterize our dangerous and chaotic political environment as a rational (albeit impassioned) debate between philosophies of the Left and Right, we will continue to fight the wrong battles. Thoughtful Conservatives and Liberals can and do find areas of agreement and work together in the public interest. Philosophical and policy differences are irrelevant, however, to beleaguered culture warriors who see modernity as an existential threat, and seek vindication of their worldview in an authority figure who personifies their belligerence and shares their contempt for reason, expertise, moderation and complexity.

We need to fight the right battle.

I wish I knew how.



The Party As Cult

Evidently, McConnell and the Senate GOP are still intent upon taking healthcare away from millions of Americans–despite the overwhelming unpopularity and utter immorality of that effort. If this current vote fails, they’ll fall back on their determined sabotage of the ACA and continue their refusal to work with Democrats to tweak and fix that measure’s flaws.

All because their “base” can’t abide the fact that a black President passed it.

On several occasions, I’ve remarked that today’s GOP bears less and less resemblance to the party I once worked for, and more and more resemblance to a cult. I used the term in its broadest and least precise sense–to indicate a walled-off reality–but I recently came across the following description of cult behavior, and it made me think that, at least for the so-called “base,” the comparison may have been more apt than I realized.

There seems to be a typical mindset within most destructive cults. This is often characterized by black and white thinking, a low tolerance of ambiguity and a relentlessly judgementa1 attitude. Members of such a group often think in “we, they” opposing terms regarding those outside their group. This mindset frequently produces feelings of superiority and/or spiritual elitism, claims of supposed “persecution” and unreasonable fears.

The description sent me on a Google search for information about the characteristics of cults. The so-called “unsafe” groups evidently share certain behaviors: affinity for authoritarianism, a lack of tolerance for critical inquiry and analysis (any criticism is labeled “persecution”), isolation and fear of the outside world, and loss of a sense of humor.

To be fair, any group of zealots–left or right–exhibits these characteristics. But the degree to which the Republican base falls within this description is striking. The penchant for authoritarian leadership, wholesale rejection of science and scholarship, isolation within an information “bubble,” excessive fear of terrorism, and the utter lack of a sense of humor (which requires a sense of proportion), are hard to miss.

We live in a time when the increasing complexity of the world around us requires a tolerance for ambiguity, a willingness to consider contending and unfamiliar perspectives and an ability to recognize the common humanity of people who do not look like us. Those are responses that many people simply cannot manage.

Political scientists analyzing the motivations of Trump voters in the wake of the 2016 election have identified “resentment”–especially but not exclusively racial resentment– as a primary characteristic.

That finding brings us back to the description of cult behaviors: black and white thinking (no pun intended), rejection of ambiguity and uncertainty, tribalism and claims of persecution (War on Christmas, anyone?).

The 64 Thousand Dollar question is: will this pass? Are these fearful and self-defeating attitudes mostly confined to older Americans who will die out, leaving the social and political landscape to a less panicked, less tribal and more intellectually nimble younger generation?

We can only hope.

The Electoral Climate

A researcher at Yale recently had an interesting article in the L.A. Times. In it, he suggested that “I’m not a scientist” disclaimers aren’t going to work with voters in 2016.

In the 2012 presidential campaign, global warming didn’t come up in any of the three debates between Mitt Romney and President Obama. That won’t be the case this campaign season, with wide swaths of America suffering through climate change-fueled record heat, rampant wildfires and historic droughts. Voters understand what’s happening, and they want the government to take action.

The question is, have Republicans gotten the message? Not quite.

In a poll conducted this spring by me and my colleagues at Yale and George Mason universities, 70% of Americans support placing strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions at existing coal-fired power plants. We also found that 75% of adults, including 63% of Republicans, support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. And yet Republicans have been making the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan their latest punching bag.

The reluctance of GOP candidates to acknowledge–let alone embrace–the widely accepted scientific consensus is undoubtedly due to their need to pander to the party’s primary voters, base voters who are the most doctrinaire and conservative and most likely to deny the reality of climate change, and to the special interests that disproportionately provide their campaign funds.

This is the same dilemma the national party faces almost across the board: the party’s increasingly rabid base strongly rejects positions that are widely held among American voters generally. In order to win the affections of the base–in order to secure the nomination–a candidate must take positions that effectively poison his/her chances in the general.

In another Yale/George Mason poll conducted last year, we found that, overall, Americans are two times more likely to vote for a candidate who strongly supports action to reduce global warming, and three times more likely to vote against a political candidate who strongly opposes action to reduce global warming. Only conservative Republicans are slightly more likely to vote for a candidate who strongly opposes action to reduce global warming.

And to add insult to injury, if the GOP hasn’t done enough to repel Latino voters, a recent poll by the New York Times, Stanford University and the nonpartisan think tank Resources for the Future found that 95% of Latinos think the federal government should take at least some action to tackle climate change.

The real irony is this: while the more traditional candidates (I was going to say “credible” but I think that’s probably stretching it) swallow hard and disclaim belief in evolution and climate change, the primary voters insisting on these anti-science stances  in return for their support are currently splitting their allegiances between an embarrassing and tasteless narcissist and a soft-spoken, albeit certifiably insane, theocrat–neither of whom has a clue what government is or how it operates.

Rooting for Santorum

As the interminable GOP Presidential contests proceeds, I’m rooting for Rick Santorum.

Now, I realize that statement requires some explanation.

With the probable exception of Ron Paul, all the other candidates can be counted on to moderate their current positions if and when they cinch the nomination—to pivot from the shameless pandering to the nut-job base that has characterized the primaries thus far—in an effort to woo the sane Republican and independent voters needed for success in a general election. Since the great majority of Americans don’t really focus on the Presidential campaign until a month or two before the election, candidates can usually distance themselves from much of their more intemperate primary rhetoric.

A Santorum primary victory, however, would provide voters with a candidate who is steadfast in his extremism. A Santorum candidacy would be a golden opportunity for the public to really see and understand the fundamentalist Christians who, for all intents and purposes, now control the GOP, and who have recently come together to endorse Santorum in a (probably futile) effort to derail Mitt Romney’s progress toward the nomination.

What do Santorum and his supporters believe? Well, there’s the obvious hatred of gays—a hatred that has often seemed more of an obsession with gay sex than a policy position. There are the well-known quotes comparing homosexuality to “man on dog sex,” the frequently repeated assertion that same-sex marriage will “destroy the fabric of society,” and the “slippery slope” argument that recognition of such marriages would necessarily be followed by legalization of polygamy and incest.

But it isn’t just gay sex. A cursory review of his quotations paints a picture of a man who—not to put too fine a point on it—doesn’t seem too comfortable in the 21st Century.  Consider a sampling of recent quotes:

  • “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country…It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” (October 18, 2011)
  • “In far too many families with young children, both parents are working, when, if they really took an honest look at the budget, they might find they don’t both need to…Here, we can thank the influence of radical feminism.” (From his 2005 book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good in which he decries working mothers).
  • “All the people who live in the West Bank are Israelis, they’re not Palestinians. There is no ‘Palestinian.’” (On the campaign trail in Iowa, Nov. 18, 2011). (Even the Israeli government doesn’t go this far!)
  • “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them someone else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” (Iowa again, Jan. 2, 2012).

There is a lot more along the same lines.

Santorum is a poster child for the small but noisy segment of American society that is still fighting science and the Enlightenment—a spokesperson for the contemporary Puritans who reject evolution along with the idea that liberty means the right to live your life in accordance with your own conscience and beliefs. They believe instead that liberty means “doing the right thing” as they interpret their bibles to define the “right thing.”

They believe it is government’s job to legislate their version of  “Godly” behavior.

You have to give Santorum credit: unlike the other candidates, when he’s been challenged about his controversial views, he hasn’t evaded or backtracked. These are his beliefs and he’s forthright about them. He doesn’t “do” complexity, or nuance, and he obviously doesn’t see shades of gray. His views about the past may be ahistorical and retrograde, but he doesn’t let distractions like facts or evidence—or humility—shake his certainty in his own righteousness.

He’s the perfect representation of today’s Republican base.

Now, I don’t think Rick Santorum is going to be the Republican nominee, but what if he were? What if the American public had to choose between that black “elitist” Barack Obama, with his fancy Harvard education, and this anti-woman, anti-gay Christian Zionist who believes global warming and evolution are myths, and black people are taking “someone else’s money”?

Given the number of crackpots we’ve elected to public office, I’ve lost a lot of my previous faith in the wisdom of the American public. But I have enough left to believe that—given a choice between the 14th Century and the 21st—Americans would overwhelming choose the latter.

Wouldn’t we??



Pants on Fire

The interminable GOP debates continue to offer entertainment, if not enlightenment. Michelle Bachmann continues to display total ignorance of the Middle East (as Pierre Atlas notes, she clearly has no clue that there are differences between the Shia and Sunni–but then, she has little comprehension of the US Constitution, either). And in the most recent debate, Mitt Romney claimed that Obama’s policies have been the most costly of any President–a clear “liar, liar, pants on fire” statement that may have played well to the debate audience, but is wildly untrue.

As a helpful graph in the New York Times makes clear, George W. Bush’s “policies” cost 5.07 trillion dollars. Obama’s, by contrast, have cost 1.44 trillion.

But what is more revealing by far is what that money bought. Bush waged wars he didn’t pay for–one of which was an unnecessary and ruinous war of choice. Obama’s spending was primarily on the stimulus–to prevent the economic depression that Bush’s policies would otherwise have ushered in–and health care reform. And if the health economists I know are correct, the initial costs of health care reform will eventually be recouped as the reforms force efficiencies and savings in our patchwork, bloated “system.”

Faced with the stark differences between the two administrations, I can understand why Romney might duck the issue entirely. But he is apparently unable to refrain from pandering–even at the expense of the truth.

Commentators continue to puzzle over the “anyone but Romney” attitude of the Republican base. It may have something to do with this pandering, which is painfully obvious. The current base wants authentically crazy, not just pretend.