This is my answer to a question at Quora, “Republican Party (U.S.): What traits do the Republicans have that makes them effective in selling their arguments to voters? Which of these traits should Democrats not underestimate?”
I respect the way that this question has been asked deeply. I will try to be as fair as I can to conservatives here, going against my own leanings. But before I begin, I have to get those leanings out of the way. As a person on the far left, I think that the biggest advantages Republicans have include
- A media that cannot challenge their mythologies too much without risking threatening deeper interests
- A lack of a political culture that remembers politicians’ lies and base pandering, and holds them accountable for hypocrisy
- The pre-existing racial
- Massive corporate power and wealth that allows them to buy ads
- Gerrymandered elections that make the wingnuts stronger
Almost every part of our national dialog is so distorted as to be beyond reason. Republicans can pretend to be the party of small government when they insist on walls, border enforcement, military expenditures, federal or state restrictions on gay marriage, federal or state restrictions on abortion, intelligence agencies able to monitor Americans, the right to use drone strikes on Americans on American soil, etc.
The biggest trait that they have is a coherent worldview, centered in a folk community, that circumscribes who you can empathize with.
The Republicans have managed to cobble together Christianity (no matter what the Gospel says), capitalism (no matter how inconsistently they want it implemented), an idea of personal responsibility and the appeal of a white straight Christian male folk community. Just like with any worldview, the individual facts actually don’t matter that much. It’s actually irrational to ask someone to change their whole way of viewing the world just from a single graph, or a single book.
One of the most insightful arguments that Mead makes in Special Providence is that the four separate traditions that define American life (Hamiltonian, Jacksonian, Jeffersonian and Wilsonian) are each coherent and allegations of inconsistency routinely miss the point. Jacksonian ideas in particular are what Republicans rely on to win at the polls (even when most of them are actually die-hard Hamiltonians).
The Republicans emphasize that there’s a folk community of “good-old folks” that deserve protection. The New York liberals (who may or may not be Jews depending on how much the specific Republican wants to risk coming off as anti-Israel in order to court those of a white supremacist spectrum of opinions), the Hollywood “elites”, the blacks, the gays, improper women… they’re all implicitly or explicitly
Why do you think Republicans can be so (allegedly) anti-crime but give so much backlash against white collar crime enforcement and rape enforcement? Rape victims must be slutty girls who were asking for it, because the patriarchal norms that they operate under insist that male power is beneficent and good. White collar criminals, and corporations who try to go overseas to stash more money, aren’t actually criminals, because they’re part of the folk community of people we like. What’s A Corporate Inversion, And How Is It Screwing Anyone Who Isn’t A Massive Corporation?
shows the hypocrisy here, that corporations are “economic refugees” (who FOX is willing to say should be treated much better than they would ever suggest Syrian refugees should be treated). But the basis of the hypocrisy is this idea of who is “in” and good and who is “out” and bad. It’s okay
to discriminate against black people: They actually are
more criminal or less hard-working, so no matter what their resume or references might say, that’s all just a smokescreen to cover up their hidden incompetence or malice!
This folk community idea is really easy because it doesn’t require you change your politics or your empathy. It doesn’t require you to have any solidarity. You can use the kind of low-effort thinking that is strongly correlated with conservativism (Shocking New Study Ties Conservatism To ‘Low-Effort’ Thinking
). Corporations are good and white: They bring us iPhones! Trump is a good Presidential candidate because he was on TV and he is successful! I don’t like some things I see in America now and I want them to stop, so I will ask for America to be “great again”, ignoring how utterly racist, sexist, classist and homophobic that is!
These people are overwhelmingly decent folks. The Republicans give them an easy way of thinking that matches all of the stereotypes and schema they’ve inherited. These people know that inequality is bad, at the end of the day, but they find it easier to blame black people who abuse welfare or Mexican immigrants or anyone but a corporation.
The 92% of Americans who want our system to be more equitable than they think it is, let alone than it actually is, include a ton of Republicans. They don’t need to be convinced inequality is bad. They need to be convinced that some people are deserving of less inequality. They need their empathy widened to include people that don’t look like them.
It’s vital to understand how the same people can simultaneously have an idea of optimism in American institutions and serious cynicism about those same institutions. They have a belief system that the American institutions were at one point and are at their base good and just, so they must have been perverted by individual bad people or individual trends. Multiculturalism. Muslims. What’s the Matter With White Folks?: Racial Privilege, Electoral Politics and the Limits of Class Populism
points out that it’s much easier for a person to wage war against those who want to take away your Christmas than it is your boss.
I mention race here repeatedly because race is one of the most important variables. Why Americans Hate Welfare
compellingly argues that one of the best predictors for opposition to welfare is race.
So, Republicans give people an implicit choice: “Do you want to push against the system, including us and the Democrats, for better policies that would really benefit all Americans and honor the rights of all human beings, thereby having to fight corporations and change the basis of our political and economic systems? Or would you rather keep your existing prejudices intact and just make sure that you’re doing okay?”
If you want to sway those people, you have to give them hope that a better alternative is possible. When leftists bash the system and say how awful it is, they’re actually not telling these people anything new. They’re just reinforcing the helplessness that leads to these politics in the first place. A huge number of people who have right-wing viewpoints are terrified of the UN, or believe Bush was behind 9/11, or believe in the Rothschilds. When leftists push against the attitudes of the general populace, you see conspiracy theories like chemtrails start to emerge. It’s the same fearful system that tries to identify individual bad guys instead of systemic problems.
When people are pushed against a wall, they tend to try to protect them and their first. So the solution to beat the Republicans? Get rid of the wall. Give people better alternatives and more hope.