The American right has transformed from conservative to reactionary to revanchist in an incredibly short period of time. Today’s Republican base voters feel a toxic mix of anger, frustration, and isolation. The general perception of America outside their communities is almost entirely negative. They are keenly aware of themselves as the last holdouts against a rising tide of racial pluralism and cultural tolerance. The forces at work are complex, but at the same they are the same enemies liberalism has always opposed – the forces of social order which presume that some people are ‘more equal’ than others. Today’s Republican party has been transformed from a political party to a fundamentalist movement with all that implies about in group and out group dynamics; organized around the ideas of Constitutional purity, American exceptionalism, and traditional culture, this political fundamentalism movement is motivated by fear, anger and loss.
On October 3, Democracy Corps published Inside the GOP, their findings from a series of focus group discussions with Republicans. They identified the GOP’s three key constituencies – evangelicals, Tea Partiers and moderates and held focus groups in various cities around the country. The memo as a whole makes for depressing reading – it describes a group of Americans who see themselves as socially, culturally and political isolated, a faithful remnant fighting to restore the America they understand and value against a devious and largely victorious enemy. The average member of the Republican base feels besieged, angry and frustrated. Their sense of isolation within contemporary culture cannot be overstated. Tellingly, the members of the focus groups reported that the focus group time was a unique experience of being around like-minded people:
The Evangelicals—who seem the most on the defensive when discussing popular culture, demographic trends, changes in the family, and what is happening in their states—wrote post-cards at the conclusion of the groups and commented what a relief it was to be with people who think like they do.
I’m not alone in the way I view things for the most part.
Republicans are not the same as they were 50 years ago and need to go back to their standards.
Not by myself in thought process. … Thought it was a great conversation and very in-formative. Thank you for the opportunity.
Good to be around like minded people. All of the people feel the country is in trouble due to the Democratic Party. Hope and pray that this will turn around.
While our methodology is for groups to be homogenous to encourage free discussion, we discovered here that the focus group became the opportunity to express opinions they feel on the defensive about in real life.
I was struck by this passage:
In Roanoke, participants remarked that it was refreshing and unusual to be in a room where everyone shared their beliefs—and gave them an opportunity to speak openly about guns, gay marriage, church, and their values. In Colorado Springs, participants remarked that Colorado used to be a conservative state and they could expect that their values and rights and would be protected. This seems to be slipping away.
And this passage:
They believe there is a dominant culture that has marginalized them ideologically, linguistically, and culturally. They believe that their views are unacceptable outside of their small circles of like-minded friends and family. They are also very conscious that they are viewed as rednecks by the liberal elite.
What does it mean to be marginalized ideologically and culturally? We hear that all the time. But linguistically? That’s striking. In the focus groups, when the facilitators probed into that idea it was expressed as not being allowed to have their own opinions. In Rise of the Network Society, Manuel Castells observed that “Cultures are made up of communication processes.” The network society has series of interconnected nodes, it is horizontal rather than vertical. The internet has greatly empowered political organizing and conservatives have used it incredibly effectively. But, the nature of the network society is antithetical to traditional sources of power and authority:
Every cultural expression, from the worst to the best, from the most elitist to the most popular, comes together in this digital universe that links up in a giant, non-historical hypertext, past, present, and future manifestations of the communicative mind. By so doing, they construct a new symbolic environment. They make virtuality our reality.
In blunt terms, these voters feel isolated, looked down upon, judged and dismissed. They perceive the Republican party as weak, having repeatedly given in to the Obama administration’s agenda. Forcing a government shutdown is a desperate strategy for a desperate party.
Republicans shutdown the government to defund or delay Obamacare. This goes to the heart of Republican base thinking about the essential political battle. They think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support. It starts with food stamps and unemployment benefits; expands further if you legalize the illegals; but insuring the uninsured dramatically grows those dependent on government. They believe this is an electoral strategy—not just a political ideology or economic philosophy. If Obamacare happens, the Republican Party may be lost, in their view.
Castells describes the rise of fundamentalism in our time as a process of excluding the excluders. When conservatives complain that their suffering intolerance at the hands of people who proclaim tolerance as a virtue, that’s what they’re doing – they’re excluding people who they experience as excluding them. The pluralistic, multi-racial, socially tolerant America that voted for Barack Obama feels like a hostile place to them. America’s cultural divide is inside their families as well. As documented by Cahn and Carbone in Red Families vs Blue Families, it is the red conservative families that are in crisis. One of my favorite passages from Red Families sums up the situation extremely well:
It is easy to see why red America perceives a crisis in morals. Yet, as blue America recognizes, simply prescribing more prayer-or a return to tradition-cannot solve the problem.
Characterizing the conservative outlook on the world, Cahn and Carbone wrote:
Conservatives were typified by “a yearning for in-group unity and strong leadership.” They were suspicious of other groups and experienced “a desire for clear, unbending moral and behavioral codes” that also included a belief in the importance of punishing anyone who violated these codes, “a fondness for systematization (procedural due process), a willingness to tolerate inequality (opposition to redistributive policies), and an inherently pessimistic view of human nature (life is `nasty, brutish, and short’).”
In the Democracy Corps memo, that worldview comes up again and again. None of these insights and arguments are terribly new. What is new is the way in which these cultural forces, attitudes and political systems are playing themselves out. The Republicans in the Democracy Corps groups, described Fox news as middle of the road while dismissing other news sources as hopelessly biased. Within their closed, carefully protected social spaces, conservatives are struggling to keep the faith. Stories on Fox News or Drudge or any of a number of conservative sites get emailed, linked and shared throughout the networked world of conservatives. Conservatives share the same information, the same language, the same myths, the same fears. For this reason, for example, almost every conservative can, at the drop of a hat, recite a tale of faithful Christians being somehow shamed or mistreated at the hands of mainstream.
The networked hothouse world of conservatives magnifies and distorts every incident of conservative outrage. The sense of cultural, political and linguistic isolation feedback into a state of perpetual hyper-sensitivity; every interaction takes on symbolic meanings. A store clerk innocently saying “happy holidays” becomes part of vast conspiracy to silence Christians.
The teabaggers in Congress are a final remnant fighting a desperate rear guard action to try to salvage America. The voters cheering them on are using everything in their power to support them. Again and again, the threat of “Obamacare” comes up in the Democracy Corps discussions; it has become symbolically important, far beyond it’s actual political and policy impact. For the Republican voters, the Affordable Care Act is perceived as the tipping point beyond which they cannot recover the America they believe existed.
In Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer describes an economic evolution in which 20th century social democracy and regulated capitalism are economy 3.0. The Thatcher and Reagan governments enacted what amounted to a rollback of 3.0 to economy 2.5. Today’s conservatives want to complete the rollback of 3.0 to 2.0 – that is the unregulated capitalism of the 19th century. By contrast, most the industrialized world is moving into economy 4.0 – which is forming rapidly as we speak.
Using the same model, if you envision the 19th century as politics 2.0 and the American empire of the 20th century as politics 3.0, moving into a multi-polar political world as politics 4.0, the American right is trying to drag the US back to 3.0. That’s what Iraq and Afghanistan were all about – sustaining American empire.
Envisioning American culture in the same model, you get 0.0 which is the Colonial period. 1.0 is the Revolutionary War through say the 1820s and the Cult of Republican Motherhood. 2.0 was American culture up through the Civil War. It stalled out in culture 2.5 when the South created its nation within a nation of Jim Crow racial segregation; yet, throughout the rest of the country we moved into culture 3.0, which was remarkably similar to the culture of today – the Progressive era was remarkably similar to our own era. High rates of immigration couples with the trend of native born Americans marrying late and having few children led to great cultural insecurity on the part of many Americans. The economy underwent massive transformations – from agrarian to urban and industrialized. On the social front, as for example, the 1920s were a remarkably socially tolerant and liberal era. The Great Depression and World War Two caused a move to culture 2.5; the post War era, with early marriage, larger families and more generally conservative cultural values was a temporary detour. During this time, the South caught up with the rest of the nation. The various movements of the 1960s brought America back to culture 3.0. In some ways, America of the 1970s were far more socially liberal than today. By the 1980s, age at first marriage began rising, the social movements of the 60s had permanently altered American culture – we were moving into American Culture 4.0. The emergence of the Christian right was an attempt to preserve the post War culture unchanged. Paradoxically, the economic policies favored by conservatives undermined the cultural values they most wanted to preserve. The culture wars of the 1980s, 90s and our 2000s, are an attempt by conservatives to drag American culture back from the brink of culture 4.0 into the grip of culture 2.5, what today’s conservative consider “traditional” culture.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the American right is almost as mad at itself as it at the rest of America. Today’s Republican party is the most conservative major party in the industrialized world. The Bush administration followed the conservative playbook in almost detail. And yet republican voters are angry at the Republican party. They see it as too weak, too accommodating, too willing to sacrifice its values in the name of political expedience. The Republican base isn’t immune to the social forces at work in our society; the tools they use to organize, to communicate with one another are transforming their lives. Religion, traditional values, the traditional social have become just one option among too many options; it’s not just America that is falling apart, its their lives that are falling apart. Cahn and Carbone pointed out that the liberal blue families have almost never been stronger - marriage rates are high, divorce rates are low, teen pregnancy is low. It is the conservative red families who are in crisis – divorce, teen pregnancy, and so on are tearing the red family apart. The world of the Republican voter is fragile and brittle, one blow from coming apart. They’re angry at themselves as well as the rest of us. In Republican Gomorrah, Max Blumenthal argues that the conservative culture of personal crisis is driving conservative politics in a frantic attempt to restore what has been lost:
When radical extremists sought to cleanse society of sin and evil, what they really desired was the cleansing of their souls.
The government shutdown, the absurd political theatre of teabaggers stapling tea bags to their hats and marching around American cities, the primal scream of “we’re the real Americans”, the joyous embrace of the irrational are all part and parcel of the desire for the cleansing of conservative souls. If it seems like the American right has gone crazy, it’s for good reason. They’re in the grip of a massive crisis for which there are no solutions. They are sounding their barbaric yawp, and they are going into the good without any gentleness.
It’s almost as if we need some serious national family systems therapy. Conservatives are the identified patients, but the rest of us are sick as well – we’re enablers, co-dependent, adult children of conservatives recreating unhealthy patterns again and again. For too long, Democrats have ignored the dysfunction in our own party because, frankly, the dysfunctions in the Republican party are so histrionic and theatrical we look healthy by comparison. The old line that Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line speaks some truth that suggests part of the problem. Despite decades of moving rightward in terms of policy, Democratic office holders attitudes are generally liberal; the mismatch between policy and values is a huge dysfunction and is mirrored by the Republicans embrace of ideological purity and continued pursuit of clearly failed policies.
Right now we have to limit the damage being done by the Republican side of national family. When we’re done, we need to find a way to engage in a deep, national discussion to overcome the socially, dynamically and generatively complex problems facing us.