Monday, November 8, 2010

What Republicans Fear

The big victory for the Republicans in the recent midterm elections was predictable and predicted, but still a mystery to me. For a long time I have been trying to figure out why so many people vote against their own economic and social self-interests. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not rational. At first I thought Republicans were just less well informed than others, so they genuinely did not understand what they were voting for. But I decided that can’t be right. There are plenty of well-educated Republicans and plenty (Lord knows) of uneducated democrats. Analyzing Republican rhetoric reveals several consistent themes, and I thought those themes might reveal what the attraction is.

Some of the themes are admired traits of:

  • Plain working folks with common sense, not those Washington elites who tell us how to live
  • States’ rights, not federal government authority
  • Individualism, not collectivism
  • Low, or no taxes, not redistributive progressive taxation
  • Individual effort, not welfare
  • Personal overcoming of problems, without government programs
  • Voluntary charity, not wealth redistribution
  • Strong, aggressive, even bellicose defense policy, not nuanced negotiation
  • Absolutism, not compromise
  • Religion, not secularism
  • Strict morality, not permissiveness
  • Moral interpretation of sickness, weakness, poverty, crime, bad luck
  • Personal toughness, not mood-altering drugs (except for alcohol, nicotine, painkillers etc.)
  • Free market economics, not government regulation or interference
  • Strict, even literal interpretation of the constitution, without reliance on judicial precedent
  • Isolationism not internationalism
  • Uninhibited access to guns and weapons of all kinds, not regulation
  • Racial, or at least ethnic homogeneity, not multiculturalism
  • Tradition, not change
  • Untrammeled business practice, not labor unions
  • Economic growth, not inhibited by environmentalism or land use policy
  • Fear of God, intolerant of atheism or agnosticism
  • Non-acceptance, or intolerance of non-Christian religions
  • Non-acceptance, or intolerance of non-democratic forms of government
  • Heterosexuality only, no other patterns of sexuality
  • Anti-abortion, anti-free choice about conception
  • Merciless on crime, no mitigating circumstances
  • Appearance more than reality
  • Simple rather than complex solutions
  • Intuition or gut feeling, more than reason
  • Small government not large
  • Passive government, not activist
  • Government that spends no money except on constitutionally defined purposes
  • Conformity over creativity
  • American exceptionalism, not ordinariness
  • Low tolerance for and acceptance of different cultures, ways of life
  • Historical amnesia, not connectedness

I think that list hits the main points. These were culled from campaign speeches from the current midterm elections and other speeches going back to the 1950’s, such as speeches by Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and others.

Democratic speeches tend to emphasize the mirror image of those values, but this is about Republicans, trying to understand why, for example, they trumpet the sacredness of the “free market,” which brought us the mortgage crisis, the S&L crisis, the collapse of banking credit, and so on. Why are they so against government programs when their own children go to public schools and they drive on public highways and are glad to have social security and medicare? Why are they vehemently against government regulation which has halved air fares, and helps keep E. Coli out of our vegetables, lead paint out of children’s toys, and poisons out of medicine? Why do they chafe against separation of church and state while worshiping every word of the constitution? Republican values listed above, with a few exceptions, generally act against the economic and social self-interests of most voters. So how do Republicans win elections?

I think I have found the answer. In a word, fear. Republicans are fundamentally, personally, deeply afraid. They are afraid of criticism, ridicule, seeming foolish. They are afraid of appearing weak. It is a mentality of victimization. They feel they are always only a hair’s breadth from being oppressed, ridiculed, hurt, abused, and abandoned. It is a childish, or childhood reaction, not a reasoned adult attitude.

The fear arises from these sources: 1. Childhood abuse and/or neglect; 2. Just bad parenting in childhood; 3. Poverty in early life. 4. Poor early socialization leading to social exclusion, victimization, and low self-esteem.

To manage this deep-seated fear, Republicans, unconsciously, engage in “reaction formation,” a defense mechanism that emphasizes and exaggerates strength, fearlessness, prosperity, membership, high esteem, moral probity, social status. Of course everyone would like to enjoy those attributes, but when they arise from a psychological defense system, they become unrealistic, highly exaggerated, grotesquely inappropriate, because they are based on deep, unconscious emotion. These desired values are displayed bigger and louder than is necessary or even reasonable, because they have the impossible burden of keeping the lid on fear.

Defense mechanisms are ultimately not completely effective, however. The unconscious fear will still get out. The reaction formation is only a loose fitting lid over a seething cauldron of unconscious emotion. Consequently, Republicans still deeply fear the poor. Why? Because they know (unconsciously) that they themselves are just inches away from that pathetic, weak, morally suspect condition. For the same reason they fear the sick and are not much interested in reaching out to alleviate that suffering. Not because they lack compassion, but because psychologically, they simply cannot afford to contemplate what it means to be sick, weak, a helpless victim of Fate.

Big guns, big military, bellicose policies? Of course. It covers up the weakness that might be evident in nuanced negotiation. Big business and wealth? By all means. That means strength, not weakness. Government regulation? None needed. Regulation is like mom or dad telling you what you can or cannot do. It is victimization, and that cannot be tolerated. Taxes? The fewer the better, because paying taxes is victimization, giving up your hard earned money/strength/respectability to a tyrant. States’ rights? Yes! Submitting to mandates of the federal government is just like being sent to your room. It is victimization. Leave us alone.

How do Republicans win elections? They appeal to fear, and that works especially well when people are in fact afraid, for their job, their house, their retirement, their health, their safety against terrorists. It’s immediate, and it's not rational, so people will vote for the perception or even promise of strength over any economic or social reality.

How can Democrats win elections? By minimizing fear, providing safety and prosperity. By convincing ordinary voters that they are OK, and that everything is going to be alright. Just the way you calm a child who is afraid. What you do NOT do is try to explain to them the tax codes or Fed policy, long term strategies for reducing the debt, or the subtle chess games of international politics. That is not what elections are about. It is not a rational issue. It is all about fear, and overcoming it, despite the campaign rhetoric that tries to focus attention instead on rational, intellectual, policy debates. That’s all just cover talk for the real issue: fear.

People hate negative “attack” ads because they are irrelevant ad-hominem messages. They miss the point. They do not address the issue of fear. Except when they explicitly do: “Candidate X will ruin your life, raise your taxes, embrace the terrorists, confiscate your retirement, eliminate your job, send you to your room.” But of course you must be able to prove those claims to get away with them (because of government regulations). The anti-Goldwater "Daisy" ad that showed a nuclear bomb going off behind a little girl was a perfect campaign ad.

Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs were only possible because, despite the Vietnam war, it was a time of prosperity. People (most voters) were not personally, psychologically afraid.

Another move is that, when circumstances are so bad that fear turns to literal panic or outrage, the fear becomes conscious, explicit, no longer the unconscious childhood fear that Republicans can cover up (more or less). In that case, voters will look for realistic, rational solutions. This happened for FDR and Obama. But unless actual safety and prosperity are then forthcoming, voters will quickly revert to the difficult task of tamping down irrational childhood fears and rationality is no good for that, so Republicans will win again. Voters can’t help it because the underlying fear is not conscious.

Are Democrats immune from this unconscious fear-driven approach to life, most of the time? Not entirely, but there is a difference. In brief, Democratic psychology is bimodal. There is a hump of poor, undereducated, badly socialized, socially marginalized, but communal-living people at the low end and a highly educated, self-aware, critical thinking hump at the high end. The low mode are the likely beneficiaries of Democratic compassion and government largess, but they are also exactly what a Republican unconsciously fears. Republicans eschew the unwashed masses but they can draw votes from them when people feel the fear.

This is a story that satisfies me, after many years of thinking about why people vote against their own self-interests.

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