The other day, I got a question from reader John Kurko. He wrote --
My “Question” remains: Just what is wrong with “citizens” who continue to vote these “tea-party-maga-morons” into office?
I obviously don't have an answer, and I doubt there's even "an" answer, but a lot of different reasons that converge. And the question asked is a cousin to (and somehwat overlaps) another age-old imponderable: how has the Republican Party been able to convince so many people to vote against their personal interest for the past 75 years? Yet, they have.
All I can offer are a range of totally inexpert opinions that are nothing more than personal observations which maybe offer a clue. Well...mostly personal opinions. Last among the reasons, but far from the least, is found in a very objective, fascinating, British scientific study that looked into the differences between conservatives and liberals. So, stick around. Or just jump to the end.
And to be clear, the issue here is not “How can people vote for those I disagree with?” Disagreement is a basic core of politics -- and life. Rather, the question is “How can people give unbending loyalty to political leaders who seem to transcend reason and, in doing so, are almost nihilistic and even perhaps crazy in their support?”
(And I don’t mean “crazy” hyperbolically or subjectively, but rather to factually describe a party whose base ingrains itself in believing and trusting literally anonymous gurus like QAnon – not having even the slightest idea who these anonymous “leaders” truly are and actually believe things like that the dead JFK, Jr. is coming back to life and, further, will run on a ticket with Trump, and that Anderson Cooper eats babies. That kind of crazy.)
Moreover, to be very clear, as well, I don’t remotely think everything conservative is wrong (it’s not), nor that everything liberal is right. (It isn’t.) This is about how a mindset in people has moved from being conservative and supporting democracy to enabling authoritarians, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, banning books and insurrection to overthrow the government to the point of becoming fascist.
Both parties have their similar -- and individual-- strengths and flaws. And this particular issue does overlap with Democrats. But only in part. And only, for very real and specific reasons, in small part. Indeed, lest anyone think this question is remotely equal between Republicans and Democrats, I offer two quotes. One, from Ronald Reagan who famously said the 11th Commandment was, "Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican." While the other was said all the way back in 1935, when humorist Will Rogers said, "I'm not a member of any organized political party -- I'm a Democrat."
As I said, the basic answer to the question at hand is that I don’t know. But I certainly have some observations over the years that seem to fit together. This is long, but then that's because the reasons are a great many. Intermingling with one another.
And among the abundance of factors that overlap, I think (without any expertise in my observations) some of the reasons are –
When you feel beaten down, stuck and angry about how your life has not turned out how you've wished, and see others you consider "lesser" succeeding more than you, and have no outlet to vent, you look for others who as a group will support your angst and someone who expresses your anger out loud and can lash out about it, in ways that you can't. Demagogues prey on these kind of people, who are looking for almost a savior.
I also think that when you’ve invested so much of yourself so emotionally and vociferously in a politician, it becomes incredibly difficult for some people to step back and say they were wrong, even when it becomes clear that that politician has gone off their rails, because it may feel to a person that you are saying you yourself are wrong, mistaken about all that you have been so vocal and aggressive in defending and believing in. And so you become entrenched in supporting that politician and even start to circle the wagons against any outside attack, to protect them and yourself.
Years ago, I wrote a couple of long articles for the Huffington Post about GOP beliefs. The very short, simplistic version of those columns are – the base of the Republican Party is the “Religious Right.” And much of that group has as a foundation that their religious leaders are interpreting the Word of God, which is infallible, and by doing so those religious leaders are themselves close to infallible. And this ingrained concept for a person may transcend from religion into the larger view that the leaders I have chosen to believe in, in general, are infallible. And so, when they support a politician, there is a religious zeal to it, and a sense almost of infallibility. A feeling enhanced when their ministers promote the same political views from the pulpit. And as a result, not only do you see it near-impossible for these politicians you believe in to be wrong, but any criticism of them is almost an attack on your core beliefs as a person, and maybe even an attack on God, and maybe even evil, the work of the Devil. (This my seem exaggerated -- until we hear many on the Religious right calling their political opponents "evil." It was, sadly, not an uncommon charge by the extreme right about Barack Obama, in particular, but has carried on beyond that.)
Related to this religion foundation is that faith is based on putting aside reason and relying instead, not on what you’ve learned and on facts and even grounded reality, but something you see as being higher, on belief. On what you believe to be true, or what you want (or even need) to be true. And at that point, when deciding between differing views based on research and study and science and debate and listening to experts and following the news, and what you see, ceases to be a driving force in coming to a viewpoint, you often become willing to turn yourself over to others and let them lead you to reinforce what you believe, contrary to all evidence around you.
Indeed, much of the answer to the initial question that started this isn’t something that just popped up in society -- a "why now??" thing -- but has its roots in the past and has slowly grown and, in many cases, become twisted into a different beast.
And again, I must reiterate that I'm not talking about all the Republican Party here, or necessarily even most, but the extreme fringes who believe anonymous sources and literally crazy conspiracy theories. However it is these fringes which are the base of the Republican Party. And it is that foundation which has its roots in the path which has morphed over time.
For instance, education is a significant part of this jigsaw puzzle. There’s another article that I wrote 10-15 years ago about how the conservative Republican Party has pushed to undermine education since the 1950s – a view supported by studies which have shown that those with college degrees tend to vote Democratic, and those without tend more to vote Republican. And it's therefore in the party's best interest to downplay education. And so, in the 1950s, Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson was ridiculed by Republicans as being an “egghead” (or smart). In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy was slammed for being surrounded by a “Harvard mafia”. (Or…smart people.) In the 1970s, Richard Nixon had college students high on his Enemies List – and it reached the point where protesting Kent State University students were shot to death by the National Guard. In the 1980s, George Bush gave a speech in Los Angeles to union workers about there not being a need to go to college – and while, no, there isn’t such a need at all, people live wonderful lives without going to college, we tend to look to our presidents as pushing education, inspiring the American Public to grow and improve themselves and society. Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar, but Republicans denigrated that as for why he went to England to supposedly avoid the draft and smoke pot. Barack Obama was a Harvard graduate, president of the Law Review and Constitutional scholar, but Republicans tried to undermine that by continually demanding to see his grades (!), suggesting he only got into college through Affirmative Action because he was black. Indeed to conservatives, Affirmative Action – a program created to give educational opportunities to minority students who’d long been denied them – has long been an abomination.
This GOP war on education has continued on and on to the point where today education is no longer a goal in some conservatives circles for improvement, pushing the next generation forward for “American Exceptionalism,” but has become to conservatives something that makes you an elitist. And so many Republicans hide their education – Sen. Ted Cruz rails against elitists, while burying that he went to Princeton and Harvard. Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana plays the homespun backwoods good ol’ boy, hiding that he has a law degree from Oxford University. This 70-year downplaying of education by Republicans has gotten to the point now where we almost see riots at local school board meetings from conservatives outraged at teaching subjects that they don't like or "believe" in, under the guise that they might make their children uncomfortable, like slavery, (never mind that most subjects make students uncomfortable...), and red states being passing laws to ban books in school. All of which works to the benefit of the Republican Party: the less you understand and are uncertain and confused by what to know, the more you will believe what we, the leaders you trust, tell you what you want to be true. The end result is it becomes nearly second nature at that point for many in the GOP to trust anonymous conspiracies and “what I saw on the Internet” and what a politician says without checking it out, as long as it supports that great driving force: what you want to believe to be true.
And so, too, as the importance of education and facts dwindle, we get the base of a party that doesn't believe in science -- as if science was a belief system. And therefore disbelief in Climate Change, while facing the reality of now-yearly "once-in-a-century" devastating storms and heat waves and hurricanes and forest fires. And disbelief in vaccines, despite everyone having had required vaccines since childhood. And forcing military rules to change in order to eliminate COVID vaccines, despite (never mind knowing history) there having been required rules for vaccines since the founding of the country when George Washington protected American troops against smallpox -- and despite today's military having 17 required vaccines...to keep infections from spreading in units and helping keep America safe. As the pandemic virus continues and mutates. Because the conservative base wants to believe that science is bad and against God and "personal choice" trounces the spread of infectious disease and whatever reason is convenient, fed to them by the GOP leaders for votes.
And fed, too, is the red meat of fear, made all the more impactful when education falters and only your leaders you trust can protect you the most from what you don't understand. The "I alone can fix it" gambit -- made most effective when you create the problem in the first place, only then to offer the protective solution. And so for 70 years, Republicans have been trying to scare the public into believing Democrats and liberals are “Commies” and “Socialists.” Never mind that most people don’t have a clue what a Communist or Socialist actually is. And what they think it is, it isn’t. Never mind, too, that we’ve had periods where Democrats have controlled the White House, Senate and House, and yet the U.S. didn’t become “Commie” then, when liberals had all the power to do so. And after 70 years of Republicans trying to convince the public otherwise, the U.S. still hasn’t become Commie. Where it’s gotten to the degree that pointing at any government program as “socialist” is enough to terrify the GOP base, who thinks they know what "socialist" means. And utterly terrify the base so much that it’s one of the things that lead to so many Republicans taking part in the Insurrection to overthrow the government out of fear of the country becoming socialist if Joe Biden won. Which he did. And we haven’t gone “Commie.” The irony being that the Republican base today loves Trump's adoration of Russian socialist despot Vladmir Putin, and supports socialist Russia's war to destroy democratic Ukraine.
And with the added irony in all this is that in the meantime, the GOP itself has, in fact, morphed into becoming, by every book definition, fascist.)
Those are only just a very small handful of amateur guesses that, together, impact why some true “crazies” at the base of the Republican Party are able to give such loyal political support. (And by “crazies,” to repeat, I don't mean All Conservatives or the entire GOP in the slightest, but people on the fringes, who among many attributes, trust literally anonymous gurus, to the extent of their core believes that the dead JFK, Jr. is coming back to life.)
But to conclude, there’s one more explanation that fits into this very large mosaic, and it’s actually not opinion, but science.
This is something that I wrote about first in 2015 (and repeated last year). You can read it in full here -- but the very short version is:
There was a science study that looked at the difference in brain activity between liberals and conservatives. It came about when actor Colin Firth was invited by the BBC radio to be "guest editor" of their Today programme. What started as a playful suggestion turned instead – remarkably -- into an actually, well-regarded study that was published in Current Biology…on which Firth himself is listed as a co-author. It's titled "Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults."
After the findings were released and the show broadcast, Colin Firth commented -- "I took this on as a fairly frivolous exercise: I just decided to find out what was biologically wrong with people who don't agree with me and see what scientists had to say about it and they actually came up with something."
And yes, they actually did come up with something. As I wrote at the time – “The research studied MRI scans of over 90 college students — as well as two politicians on opposite sides of the aisle, Labour MP Stephen Pound and Alan Duncan, the conservative minister of State for International Development. What the scientists found was that ‘conservatives have larger areas concerned with fear and anxiety while liberals have greater capacity for optimism and courage.’ Undetermined was whether the brain impacted political beliefs or if those beliefs affected the development of the brain. As some subsequently observed, though, this might explain why fear as a motivating message works better with the right than left.”
And in the end, I suspect that, at the very least, that is one of the factors involved:
That scientific brain studies showed conservatives have larger areas concerned with fear and anxiety while liberals have greater capacity for optimism and courage.
And before any conservatives scream in outrage, it is not inherently wrong to be fearful and inherently right to be optimistic. Sometimes the wisest and most protective thing in the world is to be anxious when entering a dangerous situation – and the most foolhardy action is to courageously ignore the risks you’re blindly taking, certain that all will be well, when that is utterly unjustified.
The problem, though, is when fear and anxiety become the ruling foundation of a person’s life. Because ultimately, no matter how scared you are, life moves forward, you can’t stop it, which is itself the foundation of progress and, in the end, optimism.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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