The Republican factions leading the war on Obamacare, the federal government shutdown—and attacking other Democratic priorities such as preserving safety nets, expanding civil rights and regulating big business—are going to become more extreme and intransigent, top Democratic pollsters have concluded.
“Understand that the base thinks they are losing politically and losing control of the country… and [feel] a little powerless to change course,” the analysis by Stan Greenberg, James Carville and Erica Seifert found after a series of focus groups in three red states this summer. “They think Obama has imposed his agenda, while Republicans in DC let him get away with it.”
Their Democracy Corps report is an illuminating profile of the GOP’s three main factions: the Tea Partiers leading today’s brinkmanship, the evangelicals lining up behind them, and overlooked but still significant moderates. At the front of this stampede are right-wingers who believe they are fighting for political survival in an era where white-run America is vanishing and they’ve lost the culture war.
In this paranoid world, Obamacare is Armageddon, the setting for the final battle between good and evil, and the rallying cry that unites the party’s factions.
“Republicans shut down the government to defund or delay Obamacare,” the report said. “This goes to the heart of Republican base thinking about the essential political battle. They think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support. It starts with food stamps and unemployent benefits; expands further if you legitimize the illegals; but insuring the uninsured dramatically grows those dependant on government. They believe this is an electoral strategy—not just a political ideology or economic philosophy. If Obamacare happens, the Republican Party may be lost, in their view.”
The pollsters describe the beliefs of three distinct GOP factions whose passions and thinking are critical to understanding what’s happening in the shutdown and what may ensue in its aftermath. For example, should the White House invoke emergency powers to avoid a federal debt default—as some legal scholars and historians have suggested—their analysis portends that the Tea Partiers and Evangelicals, comprising more than half of the party, will ramp up the rhetoric, accuse Obama of tyranny and possibly even pursue impeachment.
But Democracy Corps’ analysis also describes a political party in turmoil. It suggests that the right-wingers’ escalating tactics will further alienate the 25 percent of Republicans who identify as moderates, including fiscally conservative but socially liberal women who surprisingly told the focus groups they would consider voting for Hillary Clinton for president in 2016.
The report also said that, “climate change is poised to replace healthcare reform among Republicans, with the same dynamics in evidence. But that also could further isolate and divide Republicans too.” It noted, “Evangelicals and Tea Party Republicans share and are consumed by skepticism about climate science—to the point where they mistrust scientists before they begin to speak.”
Race is very much at play in right-wing politics and identity, the pollsters found.
“While few explicitly talk about Obama in racial terms, the base supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities,” they said. They believe that “their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities.”
Three Distinct Factions
The report’s most intriguing elements were quotes from members of the various factions that reveal core beliefs and splits in GOP ranks, such as evangelicals’ fervent oppositon to gay rights and reproductive choice, while the Tea Partiers’ don’t want any government role in an individual’s private decisions.
The polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research based its report on six focus groups held among partisan Republicans during two months this summer in Raleigh, North Carolina; Roanoke, Virginia; and Colorado Springs, Colorado. All paticipants said they only or mostly voted for Republicans. The pollsters identified three GOP factions: evangelicals, Tea Partiers and moderates.
Evangelicals were clearly the most aggrieved and discouraged GOP faction.
“They believe their towns, communities and schools are suffering from ‘culture rot’ that has invaded from the outside,” the 30-page analysis said. “The central focus here is homosexuality, but also the decline of homogenous small towns. They like the Tea Party because they stand up to the Democrats.”
Evangelicals are a third of the GOP base, the report said. More than three-quarters are married. More than 90 percent are white and older. Eighty percent vote only Republican. And like the other factions, they can’t stand President Obama, labeling him as a “liar” who panders to middle-class worries.
“I think that his picture of the people in this room would be that we’re all a bunch of racist, gun-clinging, flyover state, cowboy hat-wearing yokels—because we didn’t go to Harvard, and we’re not from New York, and we’re pretty white, we’re pretty middle-class,” said one man in Roanoke, Virginia. “We’re going to be in a very politically incorrect minority very soon,” added another, objecting to how the mainstream culture supports gays, schools allow same-sex teenagers to hold hands, and the political left beats up on them for anti-gay beliefs.
The notion that their corner of American life—described by a Virginian as “a little bubble”—is under attack extends to feeling “invaded” by immigrants, and taking offense that they have to tell their phones to talk to them in English, not Spanish. “Don’t come here and make me speak your language,” another man said.
Evangelicals also feel the Republican Party in Congress does not represent them, nor does anyone in national politics. “They cave all the time,” a Colorado Springs woman said. “I don’t have a party anymore,” a man from Roanoke said. “The problem is there’s not a party that thinks like us,” a Virginia man said.
To evangelicals, Obamacare represents “the embodiment of what is wrong in both the economy and American politics,” the report said. “To participants in these groups, Obamacare, as a Colorado woman said, ‘just looks like a wave’s coming, that we’re all going to get screwed very soon.”
The evangelicals were drawn to the Tea Party because they saw it as fighting back and speaking up. “I thank God there’s enough people getting angry now and it will have to stop,” a Virginia man said. “It was about time… it’s given me courage to be able to say what I believe,” a Coloradan said.
This faction is 20 percent of the GOP base—the same size block that voted for Ross Perot for president in 1992 and were similarly drawn to an anti-government, anti-regulatory, pro-business plank. “They are libertarian and not very concerned with homosexual encroachment, but the hot topics for their friends and family are Obama, gun control, taxes and government spending,” the report said. “They have hope because they are trying to get America back to the Constitution, to American entrepreneurship, freedom and personal responsibility.”
Tellingly, the pollsters said that Tea Party’s advocacy pined for an America that may never have existed but was seen in nostalgic remembrances of another era.
“They want to return to a time when they believe government was small, people lived largely free of the government, and Americans took responsibility for themselves,” their report said. “This is not those times.”
The Tea Partiers constantly spoke of going “back to basics” and never mentioned that their families might rely on federal retirement programs. Instead, they bristled at what they called “big government” and constantly complained they were losing their “freedom” because Obama’s federal government might tell them what to do.
“Telling people on a personal level what they can or cannot do—I have a problem with that,” said a Virginia woman, who felt the government was invading her life. “Our freedoms are getting taken away all the time with more regulations and rules and things we can’t do. And we let it happen,” echoed a North Carolinan.
Opposing gun control was an “immediate battle,” said the report said, which was based on focus groups held this summer when the White House was still seeking new federal gun controls. Others were fearful of government surveillance. “The government already has enough knowledge and stuff about what’s going on in my life,” a Virginian said. “I just feel like we’re Nazi Germany.”
While some women who described themselves as moderates were skeptical of the private sector’s ability to care for the vulnerable, Tea Party men were proud defenders of the wealthy, claiming they provide jobs for the country. They ridiculed the notion that prosperity flows from America’s middle class, as Obama has repeatedly said in his stump speeches.
“The whole middle-class-up economy format is completely ridiculous. Because who’s going to give the middle class their money? The upper class. The middle class isn’t going to make money coming out of nowhere. They’ve got to get a job. And who gives the jobs? The rich people. So if you take all the rich people’s money, they’re not going to be able to give anybody a job. Just it’s so backwards. He [Obama] keeps talking about a strong middle class. I don’t want a strong middle class. I want to make all the middle class rich people, because then you’ve got even more rich people who can give more jobs. It’s like a – it’s just ridiculous.”
The Tea Partiers, like the retirees many of them are, said their priority was balancing the country’s finances—by tightening budgets and limiting government handouts. They especially disliked people they saw as using safety nets, and vilified Obama for what they said was offering handouts to get votes.
“Obama got elected because he kept saying, ‘I’ll give you unemployment forever,'” one Virginian said. “Now you can live in this country without a green card. Come on, we’ll give you insurance. We’ll give you money.”
“They’ve been on the rolls of the government their entire lives,” a Tea Partier from North Carolina complained. “They don’t know better.”
The GOP’s two biggest factions—evangelicals and Tea Partiers—viscerally hate President Obama, needless to say. They describe him using every negative cliché in the book, and even question if the President is a Muslim and a U.S. citizen.
They also demonize people who depend on government, saying they are lazy, undeserving, manipulative, and have less self-respect than they do.
“I see a lot of lack of personal responsibility… People are constantly looking toward the government to get what they need,” a North Carolinan said. “They want us to be dependent on the government, more so than self-sufficient,” a Colorado woman said. “That’s the sort of subculture that the Democrats are creating,” an evangelical woman from Colorado said.
Moderates: Silent But Critical Minority
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Democracy Corps’ analysis concerned the Republicans who have not yet been heard in the Obamacare war and federal shutdown, the 25 percent of the party that call themselves political moderates. “While they are firm Republicans, some have started splitting their tickets,” the report said, referring to voting for a mix of GOP and non-GOP candidates.
The biggest divide between the moderates and hard right was over social issues, with moderates saying that they don’t understand why their party has made opposition to gay marriage and rights such a priority. Several women said that Planned Parenthood was a valuable organization that offered badly needed services. “It does so much more than that [abortion] that they don’t get credit for,” a North Carolina woman said. “I mean it just offers people options; it offers a lot of edcation,” another woman from North Carolina said.
The red-state moderates also disagreed with the right’s opposition to immigration reform—even if it was for selfish reasons. “If we’re not going to embrace some sort of path to citizenship, we're going to see the cost of a lot of services go up,” a woman from Raleigh said. “I need more customers. I need more people to sell to,” said a Colorado man, adding, “And the jobs they did…we won’t do.”
The Republican moderates were concerned about big government, complaining about “waste,” “inefficiency,” “regulations,”and “red tape.” But they saw a federal role in social progress, citing the civil rights and women’s movements. And they also wanted to see Republicans in Congress compromise and move on.
“It doesn’t ever seem like we get to that kind of a middle ground,” a North Carolina woman said. “My concern… [is] the leaders can’t get together,” said another woman from her state. And when it came to Obamacare’s impact, they were more concerned about how it might affect their families—not how it was leading to a perceived decline of American civilization.
“I can’t sell my kids on this party,” said a man from Colorado Springs. “I agree with… some of their positions. But the stupid things… for instance, the rape crap they were saying [raped women will not get pregnant]… I can’t sell them on my party. The kids are smart. They know the stupid politicians are saying crap.”
The GOP Tug-of-War
These comments from Republican moderates suggest there could be a majority to end the federal government shutdown and avoid a federal debt default if Speaker of the House John Boehner allowed votes on bills without defunding Obamacare. But that is not likely to happen, the Democracy Corps analysis suggested, because right now the GOP radicals are in control. If somehow an Obamacare coup is averted, the pollsters say that any federal action on climate change would be the radicals' next target.
That’s because the evangelicals “deeply doubt scientists writ large” and Tea Partiers “are concerned that climate science is another way to force regulations on individuals and businesses.” While the report’s profile of moderates is encouraging, it closes by reminding readers that the radicals rule today.
“We probably need to remind you that evangelicals and Tea Party Republicans dominate the party,” it ends. “This looks like the future battle ahead, driven by the dymanics of the Republican Party.”
Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).