For a while now I’ve arrived at a way of understanding GOP politicians and their supporters–a way I expect many will consider proof of bias and/or irrationality. I want to describe the lens I use to understand the GOP, and lay out the reasons for this–including the reasons a more, seemingly reasonable approach doesn’t seem to work.
Let me begin by first discussing and describing the reasons people adopt specific political positions. Normally, they do so because they believe such a position is good for the country, and, relatedly, they oppose a position because they believe it is bad for the country. “Good/bad” in this sense generally refers to things like improving economic conditions, improving education, increasing the access and affordability to health care and housing, etc. To determine good or bad policies, most people rely on their values and and political principles. Of course, self-interest is also a key factor. That is, people support or oppose a policy to the degree to which it helps or hurts their personal interests. My guess is that personal interest is the biggest factor for most people.
While this may be true, political parties and politicians should rely more on what they believe is in the best interests of the country. Certainly, self-interest, in the form of power and wealth shouldn’t be the primary basis for their positions. Generally, if a party or politician supports a policy simply because it increases or protects power and wealth, that would undermine the argument for such a policy. Therefore, while self-interest is a legitimate reason for supporting a policy, it can’t be the only one–not if broad support is the goal.
For most of my adult life, I have assumed that Democrats and Republicans consistently chose their policy positions based on a genuine interest in the welfare of the country. Again, the quest for power always plays a role–and sometimes may supersede the country’s interests–but I didn’t doubt that the country’s interests were consistently a key driver.
Since Trump became President, I no longer feel that way about the GOP.
Normally, I would want to lay out a thorough argument for this position, but I’m impatient to describe the lens I use to understand the current GOP, so I’m only going to provide a brief explanation. In a nutshell, the GOP, in supporting Trump, have revealed that they don’t, or never did, value most of the political principles they’ve espoused–as Trump has violated, sometimes egregiously, them. At this point, I don’t know what Trump could have done that would have caused the GOP to oppose him. (Low taxes seems to be the one exception, although Trump never violated this principle.) Additionally, my sense is that the GOP really doesn’t seem serious or interested in solving major problems.
To keep and maintain power, they seem to have employed the following strategy. First, when Democrats are in power, obstruct and stonewall, so very little gets done. Doing so will deny any success that Democrats can use to win votes, without losing votes for the GOP. (Many voters seem to blame both parties when little is done in Congress–but they also don’t blame incumbents very often.) Second, go all in on the “culture wars.” I will have a lot to say about the culture wars–indeed, the political lens I use relates to my current understanding of this. I’ll go into that in the next post.
4 thoughts on “The Political Lens I Use to Understand the Current GOP”
Before elaborating on the culture wars, I want to mention that I’m in a rush because I’m eager to demonstrate the way this political lens can interpret and “translate” recent and even older news items.
With that said, here are my thoughts on my current understanding of the culture wars–specifically, the perspective of culture warriors on the Right. For most of my adult life, I thought these individuals cared deeply about cultural issues, particularly those involving morality, because they believed these issues were vital for a good society. Or, maybe more accurately, they believed that an erosion of morals and traditional values will lead to the downfall of the nation. Whether one agrees that moral and cultural issues are this vital, I think the position is valid and defensible.
However, I have a hard time believing this is what the culture wars are about, given the way the GOP and Conservatives enabled and capitulated to Trump.
So what are the culture wars about? In short, I believe the culture war are expressions of the grievance and anger of traditionally high-status groups in the U.S.–specifically, whites, Christians, males, and heterosexuals. Large enough numbers from these groups resent the increased presence and influence of traditionally lower-status groups–such as, people of color, non-Christians, women, and LGBTQs. The changes, both in the present and the imminent future have agitated and even angered some who belong in the higher-status groups.
But these individuals have no real outlet to air these grievances. There are no national conversations where these feelings can be dealt with–not without being labeled as racism or bigotry. In lieu of such an outlet, these individuals turn to politics via the culture wars for an outlet. For these people, specific culture war topics–for example, Critical Race Theory–become ways to express their resentments.
I’m actually starting to think this was always the case–going back decades to issues like school prayer and flag burning–but Trump, by employing rhetoric that intensified fears and resentments, directing them to lower status groups, made the situation much worse, especially since the GOP and Conservative media either refused to push back and actively abetted Trump.
I should add that Democrats and the media also became targets for the anger. They embrace, or at least are very open to, the changes that people in these higher-status groups struggle with. Additionally, some Democrats and media and academic elites will vilify the latter.
When the culture war dominates politics on the Right–even at the expense of effective policies that would benefit many on the Right–this suggests that the politics has become an expression of fear and anger….Or, let me put in another way: this is a very plausible explanation to me.
In my view, a society where higher-status groups are losing, or perceiving to lose, this status would face a really significant, even existential, problem. I think the U.S. is in that situation, and I think that’s really what the culture wars are about.
I’m not sure if this is an adequate explanation and didn’t provide enough arguments and evidence for such a position, but I’m impatient to apply the lens to recent and old news.
On facts and conspiracy theories
If politics is a way to express emotions, then facts and sound arguments become unimportant. Rhetoric or actions, whether based on falsehoods or even nutty conspiracy theories, resonate if they effectively capture and validate these emotions.
This reminds me of some of the Ukrainian propaganda in the Russian invasion. There was a tweet about a Ukrainian fighter pilot, dubbed the “ghost fighter” or something to that effect. I thought it was cool and inspiring, but I believed it was untrue. (The photo came from a video game.) The veracity of the story is still critical to me, but on some level I could see it wasn’t as important, especially for the Ukrainians, as it served a function of boosting morale.
I can see how something similar is happening with the GOP and it’s Trumpist base. As long as the rhetoric and political action express and affirm grievance and anger. If the GOP angers Democrats and the elites on the Left, even better. Actual policies that improve the material existence of the Trumpist base seems of secondary importance.
By the way, I don’t think this makes Trump supporters dumb and worthy of ridicule. If my theory is correct, I would sympathize with those struggling with the social and cultural changes.
Not all Conservatives are like this
It’s important to note that not all Conservatives are like this. Some genuinely engage in the culture wars out of genuine conviction in political principles and religious beliefs. My sense is that this is a relatively small group. And among them, there may be quite a big number who find Trumpism repugnant and anathema.
Varying degrees of fear and anger
Not all of these Conservatives struggle to the same degree; they don’t all experience the feelings with the same level of intensity. Below, I’ll provide a rough sketch of the possible levels or stages they may be at.
. Individuals can deal easily with the levels of anxiety and resentment–without some way to express them. Trumpist rhetoric and policies may resonate with them to an extent, but not enough to overlook other flaws.
Individuals want an outlet for their feelings. An avenue to express these feelings, without being vilified or denigated, would likely be enough to ameliorate these feelings. However, without such an avenue, these feelings can intensify. Politicians who provide rhetoric and actions that capture and affirm these feelings–merely in a symbolic way–can fill a need and can attract such individuals. For example, when Trump says, “build the wall and Mexico will pay for it.” These individual may not care if either occur. The passionate rhetoric alone makes them feel good–in a therapeutic way–and that’s sufficient. They may start to become more tolerant of racist and bigoted rhetoric, in a way that may have surprise them.
Similar to the previous level, except these individual may be more politically active (not just voting, but organizing, campaigning, etc.). Additionally, they may not settle for merely symbolic rhetoric and actions. That is, they want policies that halt and maybe even turn back the social and cultural changes–returning them to a America where their high status, as well as the low-status of other groups, were secure and stable. Some may even begin to start adopting racist and bigoted ideology. The primary difference between this level and the previous one: The former is satisfied with MAGA as simply a slogan, while the latter actually wants to bring it about.
. Similar to the previous group except this group embraces racist and bigoted ideology. Some would even turn to violence and sedition to achieve their MAGA aims.
The levels aren’t rigid. Individuals can move between the levels.
Some items I saw recently:
According to the article, “evangelical Christian activists” gave Walker a “resounding applause” and “half-full room… went wild.” Here’s why this is relevant:
If my theory is incorrect, this kind of news should peel off a significant numbers of evangelical Christians voters, but the article gives the opposite impression (although maybe there are far more evangelical voters who did not attend the conference and who would not vote for Walker.)
This suggest to me the primacy of grievance and polarization. They have to keep whipping these feelings up–because of these feelings subside, the GOP will politically be in trouble.
Interview from theAtlantic with Theda Skocpol, a researcher of the Tea Party discusses the links with the “Stop the Steal” movement.
I’m posting this here because she’s articulates the ideas I’ve been trying to in this and other threads. For example,
Yes. “Stop the Steal” is metaphor or a shorthand for more complex feelings–ones that can’t be safely discussed. (And my instincts say we should make it safe to discuss–as a way to defuse it.)
She touches on the way this issue involves more than race, too.
Yes–with that last part you could also include the rise in status of the LGBTQ community. Also, she mentions Christianity.
Here’s the thing: We never discuss and examine this notion in the public sphere–mainly because many would vilify it and then demonize those who ascribe to these views. But in doing this, we never expose the very serious problems with this vision–and more specifically and more importantly, the people who ascribe to this vision may never have to confront them.
Two things specifically: first, the incompatibility with the American belief that all people are created equal–that being American is not based on race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation?
Second, the way blatant violation of the Golden Rule–specifically, advocating policies and governance in a way they would not other groups to implement against them.
And if they have embrace these flaws, then this something all Americans should know, and then vote accordingly. I’m quite confident a large majority would reject such a position, and I think the numbers who support it would shrink.
But I’m concerned that what I’m talking about won’t be giving a full, public airing, and I feel like this puts the country at great risk. (Sorry, if I’m repeating myself.)