The Paranoid Style, Redux

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Democracy Corps’ report on the GOP base is worth some serious pondering. What it claims to show is that the conservatives who constitute two-thirds of self-identified Republicans live in a mental world separate from the one you and I and fairly conservative Independents inhabit. What’s that world like?

It’s different from what has become the conventional understanding of conservative culture-war ideology Yes, these folks are pro-religion, but they see the public realm not so much as opposed to their own evangelical Christianity as hostile to a caricature of “Judeo-Christian values” they believe were present at the country’s founding. They are not obsessed with abortion and same-sex marriage. And they are not–and this the report is at pains to emphasize–concerned with race, other than resenting being called racists for criticizing the president.

What animates them is good old American rightest fears of being beset by powerful and malignant outside forces that want to take away their liberties. Obama is, in their view, the agent of these forces–identified with elites dominating the government and, to some extent, immigrant outsiders. It’s Obama’s eliteness and foreignness, more than his race, that seems to give them the willies. This is the 21st-century version of anti-government nativism, and takes us back to the days of Birchite anti-Communism. In place of fluoridated water, we’ve now got a poisonous flu vaccine. (The first American anti-vaccine populist scare was ginned up against the powers-that-be in Boston in 1721, ironically enough by James Franklin and his brother Benjamin–as a way of getting at the clerical establishment presided over by Increase Mather and his son Cotton. From Franklin to Beck, o my!) In short, we’ve returned to Richard Hofstadter’s paranoid style in American politics.

How seriously should we take a couple of “Republican base” focus groups in Georgia (set against a control group of a couple of focus groups of moderate-to-conservative Independents held in Cleveland)? Certainly a grain of salt is required. The implication, however, is that the Republican Party, now lacking a true moderate wing (albeit with some pragmatic pols), has essentially placed itself beyond the pale of reasonable public policy-making–at least domestically. Internal GOP dynamics are such that no significant domestic policy initiative can depend on Republican support in Congress. Efforts to compromise with the other side on the part of the administration and its Democratic allies should only be  undertaken to persuade Independent voters that they’re making a good-faith effort to do so, and to hold enough Democrats in conservative parts of the country to get the bills passed.