Fear and Loathing in the American Electorate: Part 8

Photo credit: 1931 still from the movie Frankenstein

This is Part 8 of an eight-part exploration of the 2020 American National Election Study, focusing on the motivations and sources of information driving the American electorate, especially the Republican/conservative voters who cast their votes for Donald Trump in 2020. Here are quick links to the other seven parts.

  • Part 1: The most important question facing American democracy today
  • Part 2: Demographic predictors of 2020 vote
  • Part 3: Media consumption — Where do voters get their information and what difference does it make?
  • Part 4: Seven “deplorable” beliefs that predict 2020 Presidential vote
  • Part 5: The role of conspiracies and misinformation in the 2020 election
  • Part 6: Partisan animosity
  • Part 7: Combining sources of behavior — Path models of the 2020 Presidential vote

The picture of self-described conservatives and Republicans in the American public revealed in the 2020 ANES surveys is not a pretty one. It is a snapshot of an angry, embittered, and deeply bigoted constituency that has been conditioned by decades of propaganda, fear-mongering, and outright lies to believe two things: first, that half of America — so called Blue America — is its mortal enemy, and second, that keeping the Republican Party in power is its only path to salvation, the only source of information and guidance it can trust.

Republican voters today are a large block of American citizens who are willing to sacrifice their economic self-interest, their quality of life, and even their life expectancy, as long as they are assured by their Republican leaders that others, whom they are conditioned to fear and loathe, are worse off than they are.

This has been quite an impressive hat trick on the part of the Republican Party. But it is not a sustainable foundation for a healthy, diverse democracy. In their zeal to retain political power at all costs, Republican elites have followed the classic authoritarian playbook of not only demonizing their political opponents and other scapegoat groups, but also undermining the very concepts of truth and accountability against which their actions might be judged.¹

Republican leaders learned some dangerous lessons from the failed Presidency of Donald Trump. They learned they could say anything to their followers and they would be believed. They learned they could promote any lie, no matter how outrageous and obviously false, and their followers would accept it as truth. They learned they could rip apart refugee families, put children in cages, and even let hundreds of thousands of Americans die unnecessarily in a botched pandemic response, and their followers would happily accept their actions as morally justified because they celebrated their deplorable values and hurt those they considered their mortal enemies.

The 2020 ANES survey data shows that the Republican Party has managed to build a consequences-free constituency that seems incapable of abandoning it or holding it accountable for its lies, policy failures, and general lack of governing competence.

But Republicans are also good at looking ahead, at playing the long game. They know that American demographics are changing and that the base they depend on today is shrinking as a percentage of the population as a whole.² They also know that their policy preferences are wildly unpopular with most Americans because they only serve the ultra-rich who fund them.³ So there are definite risks ahead.

Republican leaders are worried because America seems to be breeding more and more people who reject their hate-fueled agenda.

This is why Republicans are working feverishly to dismantle the mechanisms of electoral accountability in every state where they hold power. Fresh gerrymandering based on the flawed 2020 census is allowing them to put Republican voters in the majority in enough districts in GOP-controlled states to make sure Democrats never hold a majority in the House of Representatives again.⁴ If gerrymandering doesn’t get the job done, they are also putting in place voter suppression laws across the country to make it as difficult as possible for Democrats to cast a vote. And if that doesn’t get the job done — that is, if a Democrat somehow manages to win an election in a Republican state despite all those obstacles — they are taking over election operations in those states so they can simply throw out any results they don’t like.

So where can the country go from here? Where are the levers of change? Our analysis puts deplorable beliefs and values at the center of the web of relationships that sustains the Republican Party’s current grip on its followers.

All the other pieces of the puzzle depend on the presence of deplorable values in the American public.

Deplorable values drive people to consume media that celebrates those values. Deplorable values make people uniquely vulnerable to conspiracy theories and lies that align with those values. Deeply-held deplorable values allow elites to motivate political action by demonizing and dehumanizing the opposition, thereby exacerbating political polarization and hatred to achieve their ends.

The situation would actually be much more manageable if the core problem were rightwing media, or Facebook, or some other social media platform. But the core problem is not rightwing media or Facebook, it is the deplorable beliefs and values that drive people to seek out those platforms. If the government decided to eliminate or regulate offending media platforms tomorrow, the underlying deplorable values would still be with us, ready to pop up again at the first opportunity.

Similarly, if the core problem were simply over-the-top elite rhetoric, gratuitous lying, and conspiracy-mongering, one could imagine a scenario (implausible, but possible) in which Republican elites toned down their lies and apocalyptic rhetoric. But this has not happened, nor is it likely to happen, because another lesson Republicans have learned from the Trump years is that the electoral beast they have created can be turned against any of them by more radical Republicans as easily as it can be turned against their opponents. They are, in a very real sense, just as captive to the deplorable beliefs they have cultivated and nurtured as anyone else. They fear if they don’t continue feeding the beast, they might be eaten by the beast.

Addressing deplorable beliefs and values directly is a much more difficult challenge.

No human being is born a racist or a science denier.

Children learn their values in their homes, in their communities, in their churches, and in their schools. Traditionally, education and exposure to diversity have been the two greatest antidotes against prejudice and false beliefs. These are the means by which people learn there is more to the world than their parents and pastors might tell them. But Republicans know this too, and they are doing everything in their power to make sure education in communities they control does not challenge the deplorable beliefs they rely upon. This battle is currently being waged in communities across the country, as school boards become the targets of threats and intimidation by rightwing thugs:

Mobs are yelling obscenities and throwing objects. In one district, a protester brandished a flagpole against a school board official. Other cases have included a protester yelling a Nazi salute, arrests for aggravated battery and disorderly conduct, and numerous death threats against public officials. School board meetings, usually one of the most mundane examples of local democracy in action, have exploded with vitriol across the country in recent months, and school leaders are scared.

Eliminating deplorable beliefs in American public will be a multi-generational project of extreme difficulty, but it is one that must be taken on if American democracy is to survive. And it seems a certainty that such a project will be resisted mightily by Republicans, anywhere they hold power across the county.

So we are left with a most unsatisfactory conclusion.

The only real solution to the problem of fear and loathing in the American electorate is the massive repudiation of the Republican Party at the polls. But every indication today is that this is not going to happen.

On the contrary, it is much more likely that Republicans are about to be massively rewarded at the polls.⁶ Their strategy for overthrowing American democracy and putting in place a permanent Republican regime dedicated to rising inequality, climate change denial, white supremacy, subjugation of women and minorities, and rejection of science and facts seems to be working. Democrats have proven uniquely incapable of stopping it.

Columnist Jennifer Rubin recently opined in the Washington Post:

If Democrats are smart, they will present midterm voters not only with a record of success but with a question: Do they really want to be governed by MAGA Republicans who routinely gaslight voters, undermine elections, wink at violence, demonize immigrants, operate in a fact-free universe and incite white grievance.

Unfortunately, what the 2020 American National Election Study tells us is that this is exactly what Republican voters want. Not all Republicans are haters, bigots, and racists. But all haters, bigots, and racists know they have a home in the Republican Party. And they are perfectly willing to overthrow American democracy and sacrifice their own well-being to get what they want.

What will happen next? Republicans might do well to remember the ancient curse: May your wishes be granted.

References

  1. See Snyder, Timothy. On tyranny: Twenty lessons from the twentieth century. Random House, 2017.
  2. See Bonica, Adam. “What’s Good for Democracy Is Also Good for Democrats,” New York Times, July 26, 2018, online here.
  3. See Cooper, Ryan. “Why Republicans lie about their own terrible policies,” The Week, October 15, 2020, online here.
  4. Epstein, Reid and Nick Corasaniti, “Republicans Gain Heavy House Edge in 2022 as Gerrymandered Maps Emerge,” New York Times, November 15, 2021, online here.
  5. Kamenetz, Anya. “School boards are asking for federal help as they face threats and violence,” NPR.org, September 30, 2021, online here.
  6. See Baker, Perry. “Why Republicans Don’t Fear An Electoral Backlash For Opposing Really Popular Parts Of Biden’s Agenda,” Fivethirtyeight.com, March 2, 2021, online here.
  7. Rubin, Jennifer. “Opinion: Most Republicans won’t be able to distance themselves from Trump like Glenn Youngkin did,” Washington Post, November 8, 2021, online here.

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Steve Genco

Steve Genco

Steve is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019) & Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013). He holds a PhD in Political Science from Stanford University.