Tag Archives: GOP base

“A Path I’m Not Willing To Take”

By this time, any American even minimally interested in politics is aware of the speech made a week or so ago by Senator Jeff Flake. Flake took to the Senate floor to announce that he would not be running for re-election, because in the party of Trump, such a campaign would require him to go down “a path I’m not willing to take.”

Vox reported on the speech and its reception.

“Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified,” he said, referencing President Trump. “And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy.”

Flake’s remarks were met with a standing ovation from those in the room, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Bob Corker (R-TN), who have both made their fair share of biting comments about the president.

The Huffington Post was among the numerous outlets reporting on Flake’s denunciation of “Trumpism.”

“It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end,” he said.

In a stunning takedown of President Donald Trump, Flake pleaded with his colleagues to “respect each other again in an atmosphere of shared facts and shared values” and called the president’s behavior “outrageous” and “dangerous to democracy.”

“I will not be complicit or silent,” Flake said. “When the next generation asks us, ‘Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up?’ What are we going to say?”

It was a great speech. But–as many others have pointed out–it wasn’t accompanied by meaningful action. Flake has obediently voted for virtually all of the measures supported by Trump and Ryan, and worse still, he isn’t going to stay and fight.

The other two Republican Senators who have spoken out–Bob Corker and John McCain–are also leaving the Senate. It raises the question why Republicans who plan to run for re-election (many of whom we know to be equally appalled by Trump) aren’t speaking publicly.

I think we know the answer to that question. It’s what is known as a lack of cojones–not to mention integrity– when contemplating the current GOP “base.” The number of Americans who identify as Republicans keeps shrinking, but those who remain include most of the voters who still support Trump. The radicalization of the party’s base has gone so far, it has eclipsed even Senators whose own opinions lie on the far edge of sanity.

A superficially unrelated article, also from Vox, provides a window into the “thought process” (a generous description) of that base.

“We’ve had this view that the voters were with us on conservatism — philosophical, economic conservatism,” said conservative intellectual Avik Roy in an interview with Zack Beauchamp. “In reality, the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.”

The article looked at a phenomenon called “rolling coal.” The New York Times reported  on it in 2016; it’s the name given to the practice of modifying a truck’s diesel engine “so that it spews thick, toxic black smoke in order to … well, to be obnoxious.”

Entire dissertations could be written about rolling coal. Even more than Trump’s ascension, it seems to perfectly capture a moment in time, an inarticulate yawp of protest from angry white men. They feel disdained and overlooked and they will blow thick black smoke in your face until you pay attention….

What FOX and talk radio have been teaching the right for decades is that native-born, working- and middle-class whites are locked in a zero-sum struggle with rising Others — minorities, immigrants, gays, coastal elitists, hippie environmentalists, etc. — and that the major institutions of the country have been coopted and are working on behalf of the Others.

There’s much more in the article, and I encourage you to click through and read it, but its relevance to the silence of so many GOP elected officials is in its description of the hostility of a significant percentage of today’s Republican base. These are voters who don’t care about policy, or civility, or traditional Republican positions. They can’t define conservatism.  They just want to stick it to those “others.” In the immortal words from Network, they’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore.

And they frighten–and cow– Senators and Representatives for whom job security is more important than the country, the public good or self-respect.

 

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??