Why They’ll Die On This Hill

The Democratic group headed up by Stan Greenberg and James Carville has just put out a report on their recent focus group discussions with Republican voters. It’s a sobering read (pdf) – and definitely helps explain the primal scream now threatening to take down the entire American system of elective government.

Here, for starters, is the word cloud for what these voters say when talking in like-minded focus groups about president Obama:

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The base Republican voters in these focus groups view themselves as besieged by minorities seeking free benefits, and see Obama as the Pied Piper of those hoping to abuse the system. They are not explicitly racist about the president or about the beneficiaries of the new goodies (though they had no such qualms during Bush’s Medicare D entitlement). But they believe they are losing an America that a Roanoke evangelical describes like this:

Everybody is above average. Everybody is happy. Everybody is white. Everybody is middle class, whether or not they really are. Everybody looks that way. Everybody goes to the same pool. Everybody goes – there’s one library, one post office. Very homogeneous.

This is the America they believe is being taken away from them. Some money quotes:

“The government’s giving in to a minority, to push an agenda, as far as getting the votes for the next time”. (Evangelical man, Roanoke)

“There’s so much of the electorate in those groups that Democrats are going to take every time because they’ve been on the rolls of the government their entire lives. They don’t know better.” (Tea Party man, Raleigh)

But this is the core conclusion of the study and why it helps us understand our current predicament – nothing represents their sense of loss and anger more powerfully than Obamacare:

When Evangelicals talk about what is wrong in the country, Obamacare is first on their list and they see it as the embodiment of what is wrong in both the economy and American politics. In fact, when asked what she talks about most, one woman in Colorado replied, “Obamacare, hands down, around our house.” In Roanoke, it was the first thing mentioned when asked “what’s the hot topic in your world?”

To participants in these groups, Obamacare “just looks like a wave’s coming, that we’re all going to get screwed very soon. ” (Evangelical woman, Colorado Springs)

“Obamacare’s just another intrusion on the Constitution … And I just – I’m appalled. I’m appalled by what’s going on in our country.”(Evangelical man, Roanoke)

“It’s putting us at the mercy of the government again.” (Tea Party woman, Roanoke)

“[Our rights] are slowly being taken away… like health care.” (Tea Party woman, Roanoke)

I’ve long argued that you have to see the bigger cultural and religious picture when analyzing what has happened to American conservatism these past two decades or so.

The bewildering economic and social and demographic changes have created a cultural and existential panic among those most heavily concentrated in those districts whose members are threatening to tear down the global economy as revenge for losing two presidential elections in a row. They feel they have already lost and have nothing to gain from any constructive engagement with a president they regard as pretty close to the anti-Christ of parasitic minorities. They feel isolated in a more multi-cultural country. They feel spied upon and condescended to. They have shut out any news sources apart from Fox. It does not occur to them, for example, that Obamacare might actually help them. And you get no actual specifics on policies they like or dislike. It is all abstractions based on impressions.

More to the point, the bulk of these Republicans no longer believe in the Republican party. They identify more strongly with the Tea Party or Evangelical groups or Fox News than the GOP. On social issues, the defining issue is homosexuality – not abortion. That intransigence will alienate them them even further from the future mainstream. Their next big issue: denying climate change. Right now, I see no way to integrate these groups and people into the broader body politic or conversation. Their alienation is so deep it is close to unbridgeable. And further defeats will make their isolation worse, not better, their anger more, not less, intense.

This is the deeper crisis we face – and without strong economic growth, it is hard to see how it can be ameliorated in the near future. Perhaps if moderate Republicans – a mere quarter of the whole – jumped ship to the Democrats, then the electoral losses would be so great as to demand some kind of reform. But the center is not holding. And I fear it will get even worse than this until it gets better.

Except it’s hard to imagine political dysfunction getting worse than risking the first ever default by the Treasury of the United States because a key minority feels “disrespected.”