Monday, December 21, 2015

The Best Defense Is Being Offensive: The Republican Attack Machine and Moderate Voters

by Neil H. Buchanan

In my Dorf on Law post this past Friday, I renewed my occasional discussion of the puzzling relationship between self-described political moderates and the modern Republican Party.  There, building on my most recent Verdict column, I asked whether anyone who thinks of herself as a Republican moderate would ever leave the party, if she has not already done so.  There are plenty of people who have abandoned the Republicans over the years, to become either Democrats or independents, because of the hard right turn that the party has taken in the last three-plus decades.  Even so, there are people who still insist that they are not on board with the extreme conservative views that now define their party, yet who are evidently comfortable enough to stay in the Republican fold.

My conclusion in that post, a conclusion that by its nature must be tentative and subject to revision, is that even the nomination of Donald Trump might not drive those people out of the party.  The party's insiders are easy to explain, because they have too much to lose by walking away from even a fully corrupted party apparatus.  The people with nothing personal to lose are more interesting, however, because they claim to be upset by what they see in the party, but they are not so upset that they are willing to walk away.  It is those people whom I am trying to understand.

One possibility is that such people are a tiny fraction of the electorate who really do not matter as anything other than a curiosity of political anthropology.  If so, then there must be some explanation for the facts that I continually come across such people in my professional and personal lives, and that I read stories about them on a regular basis.  I am not saying that it is impossible that my own observations over-sample an isolated phenomenon.  In fact, that would have to be true for everyone on earth.  Yet personal happenstance would not explain the continued discussion of such people in press accounts of U.S. politics.  Of course, reporters also are often guilty of over-reporting events and memes that are close to home (see, for example, the coverage in The New York Times of Ivy League-related educational issues).

So maybe there just are not that many self-identified Republicans who call themselves moderates, but I happen to have met and read about those few who do exist.  Or maybe the people who call themselves Republican moderates are actually not at all moderate, but they like to think of themselves as non-extreme.  Maybe, in other words, there is nothing to explain.  Nonetheless, readers should consider this series of occasional posts as evidence of my suspicion that there is something interesting going on, even though I cannot rule out these other possibilities categorically.

It has been well documented that Republicans and Democrats are further apart on policy than they have been in decades, which again could mean that there are no true moderates.  It could, however, also mean that true moderates who feel the need to identify with a party are left with two extreme choices.  That latter explanation, however, mistakes a growing distance between the parties (that is, their becoming extremely far apart from each other) for mutual immoderation.  Given that everyone who ever actually describes what a moderate should believe inevitably describes something like Barack Obama's actual policy views, however, it is obvious that a person with genuinely moderate views -- as measured by anything other than the current relative positions of the two parties -- could easily find a comfortable home in the Democratic Party.  (One useful way to think about this is that, as many people have noted, the non-mythical Ronald Reagan would be a pariah in the current Republican Party, whereas the supposedly extreme socialist Bernie Sanders is actually simply advocating an updated version of New Deal liberalism that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would recognize and endorse.)

Which, again, brings me back to asking how people who claim to be politically moderate would stick with the Republican Party today.  In last Friday's post, I noted an exchange of letters published in The New York Times in which a self-identified Republican moderate and various readers discussed her claim that her party could still be called anything but extreme.  What I found most interesting about that writer's response was that she immediately fell back on them-versus-us mythology to demonize the Democrats.  She repeated the standard claim that Democrats are bad for capitalism, which one can believe only by ignoring the evidence, but more tellingly, she went straight to "but Hillary's awful," citing the email thing and Benghazi.

For the longest time, I had thought that the only point of the endless scandal-mongering on the right was to fire up the extreme base.  Anyone who has looked at the facts of the Benghazi story, as told after unending Republican-led witch hunts in both houses of Congress, could only conclude that there is nothing to the claims of evil-doing by the former Secretary of State.  Similarly, nothing has come of repeated attempts by Republicans to turn a long-since-corrected mistake by various IRS employees into a political scandal, yet this has not stopped Republicans from vilifying the tax collectors and slashing the IRS's budget.

Again, however, I had always thought of these overreactions to what ought to be apolitical issues as being little more than a way to keep the true believers in a froth.  What I now see is that these fake scandals also serve a purpose even with the people who would supposedly be least likely to buy into Fox News-style propaganda.  For people on the left end of the Republican spectrum, the scandal-mongering provides an excuse to say, "As bad as my guys are, I hate those other people even more."

Notably, the only person in the presidential race who polls as negatively as Donald Trump is Hillary Clinton.  This is hardly an accident.  Going back to Bill Clinton's presidency, the Republicans have been faced with the question of what to do when your opponents move in your direction.  It used to be PoliSci 101 that the parties would end up mimicking each other, because if Democrats moved to the middle, Republicans could not afford to be seen as extreme.  And Clinton's embrace of what his advisors happily called triangulation was especially challenging to Republicans, because he simply co-opted standard Republican views on economics ("Balance the budget!"), social policy ("End welfare as we know it!"), labor (embracing a decidedly union-bashing element of the party), and on and on.

What is a Republican to do when a Democrat is suddenly agreeing with all of the things that Democrats supposedly would never embrace?  Why, in other words, do Republicans not view Bill Clinton as the most Republican president that the Democrats ever elected?  It was easy to see why the party needed to vilify Clinton, from the standpoint of the true believers.  He was not willing to go along with even more extreme policies, and he reveled in his unparalleled popularity among African Americans.

But the "vast right-wing conspiracy" was not just in the business of whipping up the extreme hatred of the party's base.  It was also succeeding in creating a narrative in which people who view themselves as moderate could continue to self-identify as Republicans by focusing on what they should hate.  And they have been successfully taught that they should hate the Clintons.  For example, whenever a conservative commentator or politician appears on a left-leaning show, such as "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore," viewers can count on hearing something like this: "OK, I concede that Republicans should stop being so crazy about ______, but Hillary Clinton will say and do anything to get elected."

That line is not aimed at base voters.  The idea is to make people who view themselves as part of the reasonable middle feel a visceral antipathy toward the politicians who actually represent their views.  This strategy, moreover, does not require one to think that there are a large number of Republicans who think of themselves as moderates.  Rather, it merely requires that there be some people who might otherwise start to think that the Republicans have gone too far.  "I might have been on board with pro-business tax cuts, but I do not believe in starting life with an unfair advantage, so we should have a robust estate tax."  (Yes, there actually used to be, and still are, conservatives who agree with that statement.)  "I want fair elections, but there's no evidence of in-person voter fraud, so even if voter suppression helps Republicans, I think it's wrong."  "Some reporters seem too liberal to me, but I don't feel comfortable when Republican candidates respond to challenging questions by attacking the press rather than actually answering the questions."

A person, even a non-moderate true-believing conservative, could find herself thinking all of those things and concluding that the party with which she would naturally identify has become too far gone, and that the other party is actually now sitting in the middle of the road.  But yelling "Benghazi!" often enough creates the emotional space necessary to keep those people in the fold.  The politics of personal destruction is not just personal.  It is an apparently effective method of distracting enough people who might otherwise bolt.


David Ricardo said...

This post and the ones preceding it document what many of us have been concerned about, namely the sharp rightward movement of the Republican party and why what were formerly non-mainstream radical positions are now becoming the dominant Republican voice. We know what is happening, but as Mr. Buchanan discusses, what about why. Here are some observations.

1. The psyche of the electorate is dynamic, not static. One answer to the question of where the moderates in the Republican party have gone is that they have not gone anywhere. They have just become radicalized.

2. The rationale for this radicalization is not totally economic. By any measure other than income inequality and poverty, the Obama years have been spectacularly successful. Stock market way up, inflation almost non-existent, employment up and unemployment rate down, millions more have affordable health insurance etc. But the stagnation of the lower middle class is a factor, and as that stagnation grows the radicalization of Republican politics is likely to grow.

3. The typical Republican has become far more emotion driven than fact driven. Those of us who try to make objective analysis have difficulty understanding that many people are controlled by their emotions, but that is reality.

4. Racism has not been vanquished. Again many of us felt that anti-Black animus had largely disappeared after decades of civil rights progress and the election of Barack Obama. But racism was only submerged, and the election of Mr. Obama brought it to the surface. A purely speculative estimate is that fully 20-30% of Americans harbor racist thoughts, and since they are largely Republican this means up to 75% of Republicans are prejudiced against African Americans. It is still not acceptable to voice these thoughts, unless one is Justice Scalia who is protected by his unassailable lifetime appointment to the Court, but these attitudes still exist. Candidates which pander to those attitudes do well in the GOP.

5. The growth and duration of hate driven talk radio must be having an effect. Twenty five years ago there was just Rush Limbaugh, today he continues to thrive and is joined by 10 to 20 similar commentators who dominate the spectrum. Add the propaganda machine of Fox News and millions of Americans are buying their story; the sheer volume (several meanings) alone giving it credibility.

6. What is happening in the U. S. is an international phenomenon. UKIP in Britain is rising, the National Front in France almost won a major victory. Ultra nationalist parties spewing right wing hatred control governments in Poland and Hungary and have a strong presence in The Netherlands and other smaller European countries. The U. S. is unique in that being a strong two party political society it is a mainstream rather than fringe party that has taken on this role. But this movement is not unique to our nation.

7. The Democratic Party has been a massive failure in many parts of the nation, so inept that it has no real presence in large sections of the country and is really not except for Presidential elections, a national party.

Yes, there is more, but you get the picture. And the trend is not good.

Joe said...

It might be noted that Lindsey Graham, who at times comes off as an adult, was a manager in the Clinton impeachment and repeatedly has been part of the "politics of personal destruction," particularly in a way that suggests he has some personal beef with Obama. This is likely to occur with strong partisan feelings but it is notable that even one of the "adults" leaves something to be desired.

A comment on the "large sections" with "no real presence" of Democrats. This wouldn't be the coastal areas, the old Northwest, parts of the Southwest (Nevada is a purple state) and even Texas is not a total lost cause (forty percent Democrat with promising trends). It isn't places like Montana or the like with some Democratic presence including the current governor. It isn't even the "Confederate South" since Virginia, N.C. and Florida at least aren't lost causes. So, we are left with the a couple remaining bands of the country with "no real presence."

This isn't a matter of the Democrats doing great -- one can look at the places with Republican control in that respect, but "no real presence" is a high bar and by that test significant chunks of the country are comfortably Democratic too.

David Ricardo said...

With respect to North Carolina, where I reside one could conclude it is a swing state, except for the facts on the ground. NC has a Republican governor and two Republican senators. The Republicans have 10 of 13 House seats. The legislature is overwhelmingly Republican and in the last election at the state level Democrats made no gains. The same was true of the recent state legislative races in Virginia.

Florida and Texas may be promising, but the current situation in both states is a Republican governor, total Republican control of state government and the only Democratic House members are those gerrymandered into concentrated districts. There are few signs of life of a Democratic Party in South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Ohio, (where the Democrats could not even field a credible candidate for governor) Nebraska, Kansas, Utah, Wyoming, etc and bunch more states have only token Democratic presence. Mississippi Democrats nominated a truck driver for governor, his own mother did not even know he was on the ballot. Think Democrats dominate New York and Pennsylvania, check the legislatures. How soon before West Virginia and Missouri are totally Republican? Anyone seeing Georgia turning Democratic at the state level anytime soon? Anyone?

Had Republicans nominated credible Senate candidates in 2010 and 2012 in Colorado, Delaware, Nevada, Indiana, Missouri etc the Senate Republicans would havea filibuster proof majority. The dominant Democratic strategy is to win races by hoping the Republicans nominate incompetent or extremist candidates, not to present alternative attractive candidates and policies. That ain’t working..

What about the traditional Democratic strongholds like Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan? Republican governors all, some serving a second term.. Do we need to even document the huge Republican gains in the last 7 years in state legislature seats? At the Presidential level is there any alternative to Ms. Clinton? Is there an avalanche of young, energetic Democrats pols waiting to rise to national prominence that we don’t know about?

Joe said...

Virginia currently has two Democratic senators and a Democratic governor and lieutenant governor. If this is not a "real presence," the term confuses me.

Florida has a Democratic senator and BOTH parties have gerrymandered districts as a general matter so don't know where that takes you. It takes me into thinking you are selectively applying the evidence to put a more extreme case than the facts suggest.

Putting aside Ohio (Democratic senator btw ... Sherrod Brown might be upset you think he is a potted plant), you have just what I said -- a portion of the country is strongly Republican while the coastal areas, the old Northwest, parts of the SW and even places that one might think has a shot like Montana has a real Democratic presence while others like Texas have enough Democratic strength to have real potential (40 percent).

If Maryland, VA, Florida, Montana et. al. can have significant Democratic presence, including state-wide office, yes, Republicans can and do have presence in other places like N.Y. etc. And, given the exaggerated state of the Republican Party, there is every chance -- like happened a mere decade ago during the Bush Administration, Democrats can have gains even if Republican strongholds. The system has corrected itself repeatedly since the 1970s.

If senators, governors and even 40%+ voting presence is an assumed "lost cause" state like Texas is not "real presence" enough, me citing the various young Democrats out there in various places might not help. The situation is a concern but this isn't enough for you. You have the amp up the rhetoric to 11.

Joe said...

ETA: I might not want to second guess a resident but I think the "facts on the ground" would including presidential elections, which are seen as a limited exception from what I can see. But, it is a rather significant matter.

I also see N.C. has a Democratic governor for some time in recent days until 2013. Not sure I'm inclined to think that is some sort of lock. The legislature is unbalanced but "real presence" to me includes state-wide office and presidential voting. Sen. Kagan (D) lost the last election there by 1.5% of the vote. Real presence.

David Ricardo said...

One final point because I think it is important in addressing Mr. Buchanan’s posts about the loss of moderates and the rise of extremists in the Republican party.

We can disagree about the extent of the collapse of the Democratic party at the state and local levels but there is no disagreement that it has happened.

As a result, in states where the Democrats do not have state wide or district wide presence, winning the Republican primary is tantamount to election. And because radical conservatives tend to dominate the Republican primaries, radical conservatives are increasingly winning the primaries and hence the general elections. Texas is probably the best example of this, where even the current elected Republicans are outside the mainstream of voters, but these extremists continue to win because of the lack of a credible Democratic alternative.

Shag from Brookline said...

Perhaps it is attributable to the 2016 presidential campaigns, but I haven't been hearing that much about secession and nullification of late. (Some may recall Sandy Levinson's lengthy essay on those topics at Ark. Law School forum a year or so ago.) Perhaps these topics may surface after the election. David's reference to Texas is a reminder of Rick Perry's alluding to Texas seceding.