It may indeed, be a “different reality” that the base inhabits than the rest of us. But it is a reality that will probably spell the salvation of the Republican party.
That’s what I’m getting from the results of this fascinating series of focus groups carried out by Democracy Corps, James Carville’s think tank-polling outfit.
I suppose I should once again point out (if I don’t include this, my righty critics would be disappointed) that not everything that comes from the left is a partisan lie. Only those who see the world through the prism of excessive ideology believe that. I will say that anything one reads from the right or left should be evaluated on its merits, accepting or rejecting information based on its relative truth and honesty. Any other approach to processing information is useless, or worse - deliberately self-deluding.
Now that I have the usual disclaimer out of the way, just what does Democracy Corps mean when they talk about a “different reality” inhabited by the conservative base?
The Republican base voters are not part of the continuum leading to the center of the electorate: they truly stand apart. For additional perspective, Democracy Corps conducted a parallel set of groups in suburban Cleveland. These groups, comprised of older, white, non-college independents and weak partisans, represent some of the most conservative swing voters in the electorate, and they demonstrated a wholly different worldview from Republican base voters by dismissing the fear of “socialism” and evaluating Obama in very different terms. Most importantly, regardless of their personal feelings toward Obama or how they voted in 2008, they very much want to see him succeed because they believe the country desperately needs the change he promised in his campaign. Though we kept discussion points constant between the two sets of groups, on virtually every point of discussion around President Obama and the major issues facing our country, these two audiences simply saw the world in fundamentally different ways – underscoring the extreme disconnect of the conservative Republican base voters.
Just to show that I am not a complete moron, I think Carville et. al are overstating the enthusiasm that independents have for Obama’s agenda. But that doesn’t make their entire analysis untrue. Polls reflect a desire by a substantial majority that Obama “succeed.” They may be opposed to Obamacare, but still wish to see reform. They may oppose cap and trade, but wish to see a coherent energy policy.
The base doesn’t want to see anything done by Obama that would give him a success. Their worldview is so twisted by partisanship and ideology that the real disconnect occurs in viewing what the president is trying to do:
First and foremost, these conservative Republican voters believe Obama is deliberately and ruthlessly advancing a ‘secret agenda’ to bankrupt our country and dramatically expand government control over all aspects of our daily lives. They view this effort in sweeping terms, and cast a successful Obama presidency as the destruction of the United States as it was conceived by our founders and developed over the past 200 years.
This concern combines with a profound sense of collective identity. In our conversations, it was striking how these voters constantly characterized themselves as part of a group of individuals who share a set of beliefs, a unique knowledge, and a commitment of opposition to Obama that sets them apart from the majority of the country. They readily identify themselves as a minority in this country – a minority whose values are mocked and attacked by a liberal media and class of elites. They also believe they possess a level of knowledge and understanding when it comes to politics and current events, one gained from a rejection of the mainstream media and an embrace of conservative media and pundits such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, which sets them apart even more. Further, they believe this position leaves them with a responsibility to spread the word, to educate those who do not share their insights, and to take back the country that they love. Their faith in this country and its ideals leave them confident that their numbers will grow, and that they will ultimately defeat Barack Obama and the shadowy forces driving his hidden agenda.
Anyone who is familiar at all with commenters on the internet and especially, the words and thoughts expressed by Beck and Limbaugh knows that this is 100% true. The thing is, some of what they believe is correct; the mocking of their beliefs and values by elites and liberals is not imagined. Of course, part of the problem is that these beliefs and values are squeezed through a paranoid worldview which is so far beyond reality that it becomes easy to slight them.
But what do conservative, less ideological independents believe?
Looking at the current political debate, it was evident in our focus group discussions that the divide between conservative Republicans and even the most conservative-leaning independents remains very, very wide. Independents like those in our suburban Cleveland groups harbor doubts about Obama’s health care reform but are desperate to see some version of health care reform pass this year; the conservative Republicans view any health care reform as a victory for Obama and are militantly opposed. Asked about the issues of greatest importance to them in choosing a candidate for Congress, health care ranked sixth among the Republicans, below issues such as tax cuts, immigration, and a candidate’s personal values and faith; but for the independents, health care was number one.
The language they use further reflects this divide. Conservative Republicans fully embrace the ‘socialism’ attacks on Obama and believe it is the best, most accurate way to describe him and his agenda. Independents largely dismiss these attacks as partisan rhetoric detracting from a legitimate debate about what many of them do see as excessive government control and spending.
There simply is no way to connect the conservative base with those who see the world in much less partisan, and real terms. Readers of this site know that I have tried to point this out - usually in none-too-gentle terms. But the base dismisses my criticism out of hand. They believe their poisonous worldview will not harm the GOP at the polls and that anyone who doesn’t think in such paranoid terms is not a conservative anyway.
One surprise for my lefty friends; race has little or nothing to do with the hard right’s opposition to Obama:
In the wake of Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst during the president’s joint session health care address and other strident personal and political attacks against President Obama, many in the media and Democratic circles advanced an explanation that this virulent opposition is rooted in racism and reactions to President Obama as an African American president. With this possibility in mind, we allowed for extended open-ended discussion on Obama (including visuals of him speaking) among voters – older, non-college, white, and conservative – who were most race conscious and score highest on scales measuring racial prejudice. Race was barely raised, certainly not what was bothering them about President Obama.
In fact, some of these voters talked about feeling some pride at his election.
They were conscious of the charge that opposition to Obama is racially motivated and that bothered conservative Republicans and independents alike. They basically could not let it go and returned to this issue again and again throughout our conversations across myriad topics
What then, to make of this disconnect between hard core Obama-hating conservatives and less ideological independent conservatives?
It is heartening that the independent righties are open to valid, substantive critiques of Obama’s agenda. They would almost certainly be open to a candidate who eschewed far right rhetoric about Obama’s agenda and concentrated on promoting positive ideas to address their concerns. As we’ve seen in recent polls, indies are abandoning Obama in large numbers - at least for now. They are upset with his radical spending, and the specifics of health care reform as well as other issues being advanced by the White House.
Of course, the right may give these independents nowhere to go in 2010 and 2012 unless the GOP can show that they are capable of governing rather than simply obstructing. I think independents are sophisticated enough to understand why the GOP cannot go along with Obamacare in its proposed form. But Republicans must present alternatives that are realistic and achievable if they hope to make the kinds of gains necessary to challenge for leadership.
Peggy Noonan has a brilliant column in today’s Wall Street Journal that speaks to the reality the rest of the country lives in:
In the days of the New Deal, in the 1930s, government growth was virgin territory. It was like pushing west through a continent that seemed new and empty. There was plenty of room to move. The federal government was still small and relatively lean, the income tax was still new. America pushed on, creating what it created: federal programs, departments and initiatives, Social Security. In the mid-1960s, with the Great Society, more or less the same thing. Government hadn’t claimed new territory in a generation, and it pushed on—creating Medicare, Medicaid, new domestic programs of all kinds, the expansion of welfare and the safety net.
Now the national terrain is thick with federal programs, and with state, county, city and town entities and programs, from coast to coast. It’s not virgin territory anymore, it’s crowded. We are a nation fully settled by government. We are well into the age of the welfare state, the age of government. We know its weight, heft and demands, know its costs both in terms of money and autonomy, even as we know it has made many of our lives more secure, and helped many to feel encouragement.
But we know the price now. This is the historical context. The White House often seems disappointed that the big center, the voters in the middle of the spectrum, aren’t all that excited about following them on their bold new journey. But it’s a world America has been to. It isn’t new to us. And we don’t have too many illusions about it.
I don’t make this clear enough in my critiques of the base; I sympathize with their desire to vastly shrink the size of government. I think, as they do, that there should be a greater emphasis on federalism, that conservative leadership is needed to get the federal budget under control and that some kind of cost-benefit analysis of federal programs should be undertaken in earnest.
But I don’t think their vision of what government should be is realistic or even desirable. Noonan has articulated a reality that is simply denied by many on the right. A “terrain” that is “thick with federal programs” and includes state and local governmental entities cannot be dismantled without huge dislocations, pain, and catastrophic results.
If one returns to the “original intent” of the Constitution - a document written when the US was a coastal nation of 7 million people - in order to create a “small” government, the result would be devastation. It is better that “original principles” be applied to our current structure in order to rationally address the idea of “smaller” government. Adherence to such principles would logically lead to more federalism, less intrusive government, and a salutary effect on values like self-reliance and membership in a truly “voluntary community.”
I am aware of what Hayek believed that any accommodation with the state was simply delaying the inevitable as far as citizens becoming “serfs.” And I am cognizant of the political argument that sees embracing the welfare state created by the New Deal and the Great Society as merely aping the Democrats and not offering the voter a choice at all.
There may be something to both of those criticisms. But there has to be something better than the skewed reality that most of the base inhabits - many of whom having no trouble with taking a great leap backward and supporting some kind of idealized Jeffersonian government with yeoman farmers and heroic entrepreneurs thriving in a near “state of nature” government. This is what happens when you see government as the enemy. Beyond national defense and a few favored programs, there wouldn’t be any government to speak of at all.
The obvious spin put on some of the conclusions from the Democracy Corps focus groups doesn’t affect their obvious conclusion; there is a great divide in how many in the conservative base see the world and how the rest of us view it. It may mean that it will drag the GOP back toward espousing conservative principles. That might mean the salvation of the party.
But it if also means espousing the paranoid fantasies and bitter partisanship advanced by the hard right, it will spell eventual disaster for the party and make conservatism itself irrelevant in the national conversation.