Commentators, including our own Sara Robinson and author Neal Gabler, have observed a resurgent brand of conservatism that has taken on the characteristics of religious zealotry. It is a brand of conservatism that cannot be negotiated with because its adherents see themselves as the bearers of the one true faith and as victims of a host of apostate “others” who they feel must not be appeased through compromise.
Elements of that brand of conservatism can be seen in a report issued Friday by Democracy Corps based on interviews with groups of conservatives and moderates in Cleveland, Ohio.
“The self-identifying conservative Republicans who make up the base of the Republican Party stand a world apart from the rest of America,” the report says, not because they stand in fervent ideological disagreement with President Obama and the mainstream of the Democratic Party but because they “identify themselves as part of a ‘mocked’ minority with a set of shared beliefs and knowledge, and commitment to oppose Obama that sets them apart from the majority in the country.”
Among the characteristics of what the report calls “a world apart”:
These conservative Republican voters believe Obama is deliberately and ruthlessly advancing a ‘secret agenda’ to bankrupt our country and dramatically expand government control over all aspects of our daily lives. They view this effort in sweeping terms, and cast a successful Obama presidency as the destruction of the United States as it was conceived by our founders and developed over the past 200 years.
This concern combines with a profound sense of collective identity. In our conversations, it was striking how these voters constantly characterized themselves as part of a group of individuals who share a set of beliefs, a unique knowledge, and a commitment of opposition to Obama that sets them apart from the majority of the country. They readily identify themselves as a minority in this country – a minority whose values are mocked and attacked by a liberal me- dia and class of elites. They also believe they possess a level of knowledge and understanding when it comes to politics and current events, one gained from a rejection of the mainstream media and an embrace of conservative media and pundits such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, which sets them apart even more. Further, they believe this position leaves them with a responsibility to spread the word, to educate those who do not share their insights, and to take back the country that they love. Their faith in this country and its ideals leave them confident that their numbers will grow, and that they will ultimately defeat Barack Obama and the shadowy forces driving his hidden agenda.
These voters can’t be viewed in partisan terms, the report goes on to say. They are as likely to label Republican politicians as political infidels as their Democratic counterparts. Nor, the report says, do the views of this group appear overtly to be racially motivated hatred toward Barack Obama as the first biracial president. Rather, “they are actively rooting for Obama to fail as president because they believe he is not acting in good faith as the leader of our country… [T]hey explicitly believe he is purposely and ruthlessly executing a hidden agenda to weaken and ultimately destroy the foundations of our country.”
It sounds to some of us like the stuff that is babbled by mentally ill homeless people, but it’s very real to the significant segment of the electorate that gets its framing of the political debate from Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and their ilk. The danger for progressives, and for democracy as a whole, as Gabler wote, is this:
Having opted out of political discourse, they are not susceptible to any suasion. Rationality won’t work because their arguments are faith-based rather than evidence-based. Better message control won’t work. Improved strategies won’t work. Grass-roots organizing won’t work. Nothing will work because you cannot convince religious fanatics of anything other than what they already believe, even if their religion is political dogma.
David Corn, writing about this in Mother Jones, believes that it is not Obama that is in the most peril from this wing of conservatives but the Republican Party:
So is this a problem for Obama? Probably not. The White House can dismiss this group as a right-wing fringe. The real dilemma is for the Republican Party. How can it speak to (or appease) these voters without appearing extreme and without alienating reasonable Republicans and independents? After all, GOP chairman Michael Steele, Republican congressional leaders, and the party’s 2012 presidential contenders will have a tough time remaining in the real world while courting conservatives who reside somewhere else. But if GOP leaders don’t join the underground movement hailed by these conservatives, won’t that indicate they, too, are part of the Obama conspiracy?
The report finds that the independent voters they interviewed are not being won over by this group of extremists. They see the Republican Party as one that “advances the interests of the rich and big businesses at the expense of the middle class. They worry about the Democratic Party’s proclivity to spend tax dollars and provide ‘freebies’ to those who do not do their fair share, but they appreciate the Democrats’ focus on ‘the little people’ (among which they included themselves) and the fact that ‘it’s not all about the money.’”
This summer, Sara Robinson wrote a three-part series on what she provocatively called “fascist America.” In Part III of her series, Robinson discussed the political contract that through much of American history promised “the upper classes predictable, reliable wealth in return for their investments … the middle class mobility, comfort, and security … [and] the working classes fair reward for fair work, chances to move ahead, and protection against very real risk that they’ll be forced into poverty if they can’t work any more.”
For the past four decades, conservatives have done everything in their power to dismantle that essential contract, and thus destroy our mutual confidence in the fundamental agreements that allow any democratic system to function. (None dare call it treason — but a solid case could be made.) This isn’t news: by now, most of us can recite the litany, chapter and verse, of the all the many ways they hacked away at America’s essential ability to function as the Constitution intended.
… America’s best (and perhaps only) chance to keep the shreds of its tattered democracy intact is to get serious about cutting working Americans back into the democratic contract — and repair their broken trust by making damn sure those promises are actually kept. Once they’re back on board, the system will begin to work again for everyone. Until then, the accelerating breakdown is just going to continue.
In the Democracy Corps report, there is more hope that progressives can win the hearts and minds of independent voters with a message of using the power of government to protect ordinary Americans from the conservative-inspired excesses of capitalism run wild, while putting forward concrete plans for restoring their ability to find good-paying jobs and enjoy an improved quality of life.