I argued last week that the modern Republican Party is essentially a corporate lobby aiming to increase wealth concentration at the top. A quick overview of the GOP’s priorities underscores the point:
1. Give Wall Street an even freer rein
2. Make the Bush tax cuts permanent and further decrease the top rates
3. Slash government spending to new historic lows, despite a rapidly aging population
4. Eliminate key health, safety, and environmental regulations
5. Privatize Medicare and Social Security
6. Disarm, disable, and essentially cripple unions
The GOP’s platform of course includes other issues, and they serve—importantly—as distractions. Republicans could never win national elections based on their real priorities, so they’re forced to use other appeals to try to cobble together a majority coalition. Therein lays the genius of the GOP as a political machine.
It is obvious why the wealthy disproportionately vote Republican, but the rich are not a huge group in absolute numbers in America. The GOP therefore relies on three other groups.
First are those who simply vote the party line while paying little attention to candidates or platforms. Even though the GOP has changed radically in the past decades, they remain reliable Republican voters every election. (There are plenty of Democratic party-line voters, too; the difference is that the Democratic Party hasn’t changed nearly as much.)
The second major group within the GOP base is compromised of religious extremists who willingly trade their economic self-interest for the GOP’s concerted attacks on women’s rights, gays, and the separation of church and state. I have always argued (contrary to Thomas Franks’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?) that GOP evangelists are not so much voting against their economic self-interests; rationally and legitimately, they’re putting their own interests behind their religious beliefs. No matter how twisted their views, there’s something strangely admirable about a person’s willingness to put their moral principles ahead of their personal economic self-interest.
The final major group making up the GOP coalition includes those largely motivated by fear, resentment, and anger at the changes they see all around them, e.g., the country’s constantly increasing ethnic diversity, greater acceptance of homosexuality and other changes in sexual mores, lifestyle changes brought on by women’s liberation, even scientific challenges like global warming that threaten long-held beliefs. These people are scared and alienated; they find themselves in a world they no longer understand, and feel that they are “losing their country”.
Republicans have mastered the art of appealing to this demographic by playing on peoples’ worst impulses: their fears of “the other,” and the consequent need to prepare for the worst (hence the huge attachment to guns and gun culture). The Democratic message of economic security, hope, and opportunity should make this demographic most amenable to change. To voters yearning for stability, legislation like the healthcare law should be extremely attractive.
The problem is that fear of loss is a more powerful motivator than possible gain, and the GOP has always pushed that button—telling voters that Obamacare would take away their freedom and make them dependent on faceless government bureaucrats. Similarly, Republicans have chosen to whip up resentment against public sector workers (who for the most part still have generous pensions and healthcare benefits) rather than fight for good benefits for all workers.
This always works in the GOP’s favor. It’s easier to destroy than to create, to stir up anger instead of having a dialogue, to demonize rather than to offer constructive solutions. The rightwing noise machine—from Fox to AM radio to the new GOP super PACs—is nothing more than one big divide-and-conquer apparatus whose underlying drivers are fear and anger. These play exceptionally well especially when the economy is limping; it’s no coincidence that the Tea Party rose to prominence after the worst recession in 70 years. The critical question is whether enough of America’s fear has dissipated to allow reason and rationality a greater place in the national psyche.
If not, and the country elects Mitt Romney, the quality of life for millions of Americans will get significantly worse. The question then will be whether the resulting anger from this realization can finally be directed to positive change, or whether it will simply be channeled into more resentment and greater gains for the GOP.
Nothing less than who we are as a nation, and how we care for our citizens and the planet, hangs in the balance.