Don’t expect the GOP to move left anytime soon

It’s no secret that the Republican Party needs to rebrand.

From strategists to party leaders to even the Speaker of the House, it’s widely accepted within the party’s elite that the GOP’s rhetoric and positions on issues ranging from immigration reform to marriage equality simply don’t square with the rest of the American public.

But the rebrand isn’t going so well (told ya so). When members of the party try to soften their language, or even hint at legislative compromise, they’re labeled heretics and drummed out.

We normally explain this with geography. The GOP has gerrymandered themselves into pearly-white uber-conservative boxes, the explanation goes, so while they don’t have to worry about general elections, they’re scared out of their minds at the thought of a primary challenge, which is sure to come if they make the slightest ideological misstep.

This explanation doesn’t entirely cut it: In the 2012 elections, Republicans won 128 House seats with at least 60% of the vote.  And Democrats won 125.

In the 112th Senate (2010 to 2012), ten Republican senators were more conservative than socialist Bernie Sanders was liberal. Three of them — Senators Ron Johnson, Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey — hail from swing states.

So gerrymandering and margin of victory in general elections don’t explain why Democrats are allowed to compromise on the things they care about, and Republicans aren’t. Something else must be going on to explain why the two electorates take such different stances towards their party and, by extension, why one party has so much more flexibility than the other.

I have a theory.

Attila the Hun.

Attila the Hun.

Maybe, just maybe, liberals and conservatives really do think differently about the big social questions. And maybe both have been speaking different political languages for the last thirty years, which lead them to have different orientations towards pragmatism and compromise. And, finally, maybe demographic and social trends really are challenging conservative conceptions of purity, hierarchy and acceptance of the other, triggering an expected, if dangerously obstructionist, reaction.

Stick with me for a second.

Political differences run deep, and that’s normally a good thing

Political issues are, at their core, moral issues. We have a conception of The Good, and seek to have that conception represented in the world around us. But while we’re used to talking about morality in terms of good/bad and right/wrong, reasonable people really do have different ideas about appropriate levels of liberty, purity, hierarchy, reciprocity and so on. The origins for these differences are partially genetic and partially conditioned — as with so many psychological questions nature and nurture both contribute to the answer. Either way, when we interact and inevitably disagree with people who have a different conception of morality than us, we’d do well to categorize them as “different” instead of “evil.” As I wrote a few weeks ago, on the evolutionary biology of political ideology:

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As questions concerning how to interact with outsiders, how to orient oneself towards authority and how to punish those who violate the social contract arise, communities that allow varied answers to compete for public acceptance will be more sustainable than communities in which one dogma dominates. And when it comes to these questions, self-described liberals and conservatives are predisposed to serve different functions when it comes to answering them.

So while we can and should argue that we’ll be better off if our take on morality is adopted on issues such as marriage equality, gender equality, immigration, and so on, we shouldn’t be at all surprised when we’re met with a visceral, emotional response grounded in a fundamentally different idea as to what righteous or just policy looks like.

Long story short, certain moral appeals are going to resonate more with some people than they will with others, and it’s helped us survive. For thousands of years, we’ve relied on sets of competing moral narratives in order to maintain viable political communities.

Speaking of narratives…

Republicans talk in emotion; Democrats talk in data

On October 3, 2000, George Bush beat Al Gore in their first presidential debate. Why did Bush win? Because Al Gore was too right about Bush’s Medicare plan (I start the video at 15:35. Watch to 17:30):

“Fuzzy math” was considered the winning zinger in the debate, and is still considered one of the top moments in Presidential debate history, it also underscored a huge difference not just between Bush and Gore, but between what Republican and Democratic candidates have considered effective communication for quite a long time. As Drew Westen notes in The Political Brain, while the Republican Party has spent decades developing a clear, consistent narrative that dates back to Ronald Reagan, Democrats — President Obama being an exception — have left emotion at the door and placed their trust in voters’ rationality and ability to coolly consume data.

And then they wonder why they have a hard time “connecting.”

As Thomas Frank pointed out recently, because of the Democratic Party’s unyielding and one-dimensional interpretation of polling numbers:

[A] data-minded commentator like Nate Cohn is able to look out over the blasted moonscape of Appalachia and conclude that a party of the left has nothing it might conceivably offer the people there. If Democrats wish to win back the seats that Republicans have taken away from them in such stricken areas, the Dems must either become more conservative themselves or sit audaciously on their butts for a couple of decades while some new generation is born and grows up to populate the boarded-up towns and collapsing houses of the deindustrialized hinterland. Those are the only choices.

The fatalism here may be science-driven, but still it boggles the mind. Today, the right is out there organizing and proselytizing and signing people up for yet another grievance-hyping mass movement. Over the last 40 years they have completely remade the world, and at no point did they play by the centrist rules.

If you want to see this kind of thinking in action, look to Kentucky. “Vote for me because Mitch McConnell doesn’t hold his gun right,” isn’t a compelling narrative, but it polls well. “Alison Lundergan Grimes is a carpet-bagging, interloping, liberal Washington elitist acolyte of Barack Hussein Obama and Harry Reid because reasons” doesn’t poll well, but it’s a compelling narrative. We’re very likely to lose a winnable race in Kentucky because our polls are talking past our morals.

Poll-tested messaging based on rational choice theory is academically honest, but it isn’t how the brain works. We learn, ingrain and solidify our beliefs over time, and respond to new information by assimilating it with neural networks that already exist. When we have to choose between existing beliefs and new, conflicting data, more often than not we’ll keep the beliefs.

While Democrats have spent the last 30 years coming up with policies that would benefit the middle class, Republicans have spent the last 30 years repeating the same narrative: God created the world in six days and then told us, in English, that anyone who stands in the way of American capitalism is out to get you…and your gun. And a clear, consistent narrative that squares with your conception of morality will beat value-neutral, complex policy every day of the week and twice on Sunday. If you’re wondering what’s the matter with Kansas, it isn’t the Kansans: it’s the data-driven, emotionless ignorance of the Democratic Party.

But Team Blue should take note: the GOP’s ability to speak in (misguided) moral narratives is a double-edged sword. When the narrative fits, it wins; when it doesn’t fit, you’re still stuck with it:

Policies are easier to change than principles

The same narrative that put Ronald Reagan and Georges Bush into the White House is the actual box the GOP currently finds itself in. As it turns out, while policy wonkery is flexible, immutable moral principles that have been seared into the minds of your base for the last 30 years aren’t. And trying to rewrite a decades-old narrative that speaks to the moral core of a huge swath of the American electorate is a whole lot harder than drafting new legislation or redrawing Congressional district lines.

So when the electoral math doesn’t add up, the solution has to fit the narrative because the narrative sure as hell can’t change. Waking up with the revelation that DREAMers, gays, African-Americans and women are just as human as you and me won’t do, since that runs counter to everything the Right has stood for for a very long time. As I noted above, when the GOP dipped its toes in the water on immigration reform — as John Oliver said, “not because [they] want to, but because they mathematically feel [they] have to” — their base freaked out. It was a non-starter. Eric Cantor was literally voted off of the Republican island for even thinking it.

That being the case, instead of adopting the Democrats’ time-honored tradition of moving to the middle, the GOP’s only option is to, quite literally, take the country back. That means less compromise. That means more concern over the “quality” of votes being cast. That means holding a gun to the economy’s head in order to extract spending cuts that disproportionately affect people who aren’t like you. That means revising history and science to conform to a worldview that you find more comfortable. That means pushing through as many backwards policies as you can in states where you have the power to do so, seemingly with the understanding that this is your last chance before it’s too late.

Conservatives are mad as hell and they aren’t taking it anymore. They’ve convinced themselves that the big bad liberals are out to get them, and they’re lashing out in response.

This is a disaster. It’s led to the out-and-out rejection of evidence that doesn’t fit the GOP’s understanding of how the world works, from polling data to climate science, and that rejection is literally costing American lives. It’s a disaster that means we shouldn’t get our hopes up and assume that if only they lose enough elections, the Republican Party will figure out how to moderate itself. That hasn’t been their takeaway from their defeats in 2012 and 2013; as far as the party’s rank-and-file are concerned, they’re losing because they aren’t conservative enough.

So while it’s easy for those of us who live in the real world to assume that the Republican Party will behave rationally, that assumption is based on the notion that we’re really all the same, that all political animals always engage in poll-tested, vote-maximizing behavior. That isn’t how ideology works, and that isn’t how the human brain works. We’d do well to keep that in mind when we try to explain away the damage the Republican Party has done and will continue to do to this country while the electorate slowly but surely moves away from them.

Like I said, it’s just a theory. But I think it fits the evidence better than the explanation offered by those who, mistakenly, predicted a more centrist and less insane GOP after the 2012 elections.

Yes, the ideological purity demanded by the GOP base is making compromise in Washington impossible. But if the relative partisanship of a given district or state were enough to explain that kind of behavior, we’d be seeing it from Democrats, too. Instead, the GOP is currently falling victim to a perfect storm of moral cognition and a worn-out strategy that it can’t shake.

I’d say I hope they shake it soon, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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