Why Are Republicans Like This?

That America is polarized to the point of paralysis is, by now, a melancholy given. But the recent doings of the GOP have led many to wonder if their erstwhile countrymen have decamped to a stranger realm.
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Republican presidential candidate, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson addresses supporters at Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, Mich., , Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Republican presidential candidate, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson addresses supporters at Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, Mich., , Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

That America is polarized to the point of paralysis is, by now, a melancholy given. But the recent doings of the GOP have led many to wonder if their erstwhile countrymen have decamped to a stranger realm. It's the societal equivalent of that queasy moment when you learn that the nice cousin you haven't seen for a while -- the guy you talked sports with and who was kind to your kids -- has begun hearing voices.

Though bits partake of the seriocomic, this social fracture is far too grave for cocktail party condescension. It is deeply disturbing that a majority of Republicans believe that our president is a Muslim, or that a healthy plurality think him a native of Kenya; unsettling that, as a matter of geography and association, many of us have never met such folks. But we hear from them through opinion polls which arrive like signals from the beyond.

These transmissions suggest a pool of citizens for whom experience in governance, or even political coherence, count for little. One favored candidate is a narcissistic carnival barker whose promise of "greatness" rests on nothing but himself. The other compares Obamacare to slavery and opines that an armed Jewish populace could have staved off Hitler; what many hear as crack-smoking insanity wins the overwhelming approbation of Iowa primary voters. So when an Alabama Congressman calls for impeaching Hillary Clinton on Inauguration Day, it's just one more beep from the ozone.

But these words echo in our all too real world. The vaccination phobia stoked by Trump and Carson has serious implications for public health, as well as our respect for science. Whatever happened in Benghazi, a boundless loathing for Hillary Clinton transformed Trey Gowdy and his colleagues into a grotesque reflection of the enemy they conjured, distorted by their own unreason. That a majority of Republican voters prefer shutting down the government to compromise creates the risk of catastrophic consequences, and suggests a troublesome obliviousness to the separation of powers. For them, it seems, the 70 or so votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act are not feckless kabuki theater, but fuel a metastasizing fury that the law is still in place. And so the magical thinking that consumed John Boehner has turned the House into a fever swamp where reason goes to die.

So how did we become a country where Americans fear fellow citizens they no longer comprehend?

I had my first intimation two decades ago when, researching political novels, I spent some time around the party's donor classes. While they cared deeply about lowering taxes, few thought much about the social passions which roiled the GOP's new base: abortion, guns and evangelical religion. Indeed, there was more than a whiff of the seigniorial -- our daughters can always get an abortion, so it's safe to let these useful provincials dream on.

But one cannot sleep forever, and awakenings can often be transformative. The transformation of the GOP is driven by a confluence of causes -- some societal, others political, in which Republican efforts to slant the electoral process became a Frankenstein monster which turned upon its authors. The result is a sociological perfect storm which threatens to consume our body politic, a whirlwind of passions which, in many ways, are as mystifying to more traditional Republicans as they are to the rest of us.

To be sure, progressives have their share of delusions, myths and biases. But it is inescapable that an increasing number of Republican primary voters live in a hothouse of intellectual alienation where anger and disinformation thrive.

Start with how anyone receives their information: friends; community; group affiliation; choice of media; and, of course, the rhetoric of their elected representatives. What emerges for the GOP is a petri dish of intellectual insularity -- a party whose presidential candidates now urge that, in debate, they should only be questioned by their own.

For openers, the GOP's adoption of religiously-inspired social conservatism changed the base of the party, as well as the face it presents to the electorate as a whole. The most committed Republicans, Mormons, favor the GOP by 48 percentage points; white evangelicals by but two points less. No surprise that the majority of Republicans nationwide now shun the theory of evolution; what startles is that this number has increased sharply in just four years -- even as the percentage of Americans holding such beliefs has remained static, and the rising number of voters without religious affiliation are trending Democratic. This suggests a closed intellectual system among a significant part of the party's primary electorate, and explains the uncomfortable spectacle of presidential candidates ducking questions on Darwin (see e.g. Marco Rubio) or who, like Dr. Carson, reject the theory outright.

This narrowing of information among an active component of the Republican base is illustrated by the rapidly growing homeschool movement. In the past decade, the number of homeschooled children has increased by over 60 percent. Though parental motivations vary , surveys suggest that the vast majority of home-schooling parents are conservative evangelicals who feel anxiety about secular learning and want to pass on their strict religious beliefs to their children. Thus the textbooks most commonly used by homeschoolers reject Darwin in favor of biblical creationism. One popular text warns that a "Christian worldview... is the only correct view of reality; anyone who rejects it will not only fail to reach heaven but also fail to see the world as it truly is."

This one-party monopoly of those who disdain the teachings of science has very real implications for public policy, whether the subject be vaccination or climate change. But the failure of evangelicals to realize their most cherished social initiatives -- bans on abortion or gay marriage -- also makes them susceptible to broader messages of resentment. Hence the efforts of right-wing candidates to make them feel besieged, targets of a war on religion waged by the denizens of Washington. Thus the call to defund Planned Parenthood, even if it takes shutting down the government, pays dividends among evangelicals for opportunists like Ted Cruz, while pushing them further to the margins of the populace as a whole.

A growing and somewhat overlapping base of support among white Southerners and the less educated -- and hence the most economically threatened -- also feeds an aversion to laws protecting minorities or granting illegal immigrants some form of legal status. Here, too, the battle over gun violence has polarizing resonance. Most Americans see mass shootings as needless slaughter; gun rights zealots imagine a government bent on confiscating their means of self-defense. The adamant minority for whom the Second Amendment is a cardinal issue are overwhelmingly Republican. For them Ben Carson's unrelenting stance, so appalling to so many -- "I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away" -- is an article of faith.

Inevitably, this social divide nourishes another modern phenomenon: the selection of media to reinforce one's existing view of reality. A recent Pew Research study nails this. Disproportionately, conservatives cluster around a single like-minded news source -- in most cases, Fox. They distrust most other sources of information; are more likely to hear political opinions which match their own, and choose friends whose views conform to theirs. This feeds a much deeper hostility to those whose opinions differ -- a fact rendered unforgettable by a random hour spent with the paranoid and snarling maestros of conservative talk radio.

Far from being inexplicable, the candidacy of Dr. Carson almost perfectly encapsulates this deep suspicion and estrangement. His support is strongest among evangelicals who resent secular society -- in particular homeschoolers, among whom his books are frequent staples -- and extreme opponents of any measure to limit gun violence. However quietly delivered, his rhetoric seethes with anger and defensiveness toward a list of enemies who, in his telling, beleaguer America and its most righteous citizens: liberals, the media, the federal government -- and, of course, any purveyor of "political correctness" who notes his tenuous relationship to rationality, biographical accuracy or even, at times, to linear thought. He is, in sum, the perfect avatar for those who feel outrage against a society which, as they perceive it, is dominated by their version of "the other."

This growth of fear and loathing is accelerated by demographic shifts in which, over time, like-minded Americans have clustered with each other, liberals and conservatives alike. As I often remind my liberal friends, as Martha's Vineyard goes, so goes Cambridge, Berkeley, and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Without a vehicle for shared experience -- the draft or national service -- there are fewer ways for diverse Americans to know and understand each other. But there is also an explicitly political cause: relentless Republican gerrymandering.

In the last two decades Republican state legislatures have systematically rigged congressional districts to cement a House majority. In 1992, 103 districts had a margin of victory in presidential years within five percentage points; by 2012, that number had shrunk by roughly two-thirds , to 35. In the vast majority of Republican districts incumbents can now lose only to an insurgent from the right. In short, the Tea Party.

This is where the monster turned on the GOP itself, sending to the House a hard core of janissaries hostile to its leaders and to governance as we know it -- at once free to blow up the legislative process without risking electoral defeat, yet so politically illiterate that they imagine demolishing a president armed with veto power. Thus they castigate the cowardice of their leaders in failing to stop the Obama-led apocalypse, assuring their constituents that all it would take to turn the president into a constitutional eunuch is more legislators with spine.

But here the law of unintended consequences takes another vicious turn -- Republican gerrymandering has assured safe seats for sufficient Democrats to sustain a presidential veto. The GOP's only hope of revolution, electing a Republican president, is rendered that much harder by the fact that an increasing number of Americans find them off-putting in style and substance. Even systematic voter suppression may not be enough.

To this stew of division and dysfunction add one more sour ingredient -- soft money. Citizens United unleashed unlimited right wing cash for political ads of a particularly noxious kind. Surveys consistently show that attack ads by one candidate against another often backfire. But negative ads launched by vaguely-named super PACs can be devastatingly effective -- not just in defeating the candidate , but in persuading voters that our politics and politicians and, indeed, our government are so odious as to deserve only cynicism and contempt.

And yet, though the masters of paid political slander may see them as mere lab rats, voters feel an undercurrent of suspicion, a sense that the game is rigged in favor of those who finance these incitements.This is exacerbated by the fact that soft money tilts the system away from the concerns of ordinary people toward those of wealthy donors -- tax cuts, or climate change denial. As the chasm between the parties widens, so does the rift within the GOP: Main Street versus the financial classes; insurgents versus the establishment. Paul Ryan will be struggling to preside over a schizoid world, where the resurrection of the Export-Import Bank provokes not just divisiveness, but rage.

For progressives, it may be strange to think that millions of your fellow citizens hate who they think you are -- not just misguided, but enemies of all they hold dear. But be honest. You may be coming to hate them, too -- at least a little. This zero-sum landscape is where we are going, and it's not where any American should want to be.

Nonetheless, here we are. In the very long run, some things may help: state-based reforms for redistricting and open elections; a Supreme Court prepared to overturn Citizens United; some form of universal national service. As people, we should promote a civic atmosphere of civility and understanding. But, for now, those who fear the distemper of the right have but one recourse: elect a president. When politics becomes a cage match between strangers, it's a matter of survival.

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