On June 27th New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote an op-ed, “Why Did Republicans Become So Extreme?”
In the article, he does a good job of connecting the rise in their extremism to the harnessing of the same fears that brought the rise of KKK. But then he leaves it there. That the GOP harnesses these fears is an important fact to bring attention to, however it doesn’t fully answer the question.
I respectfully extend the answer here because I believe bringing light to the party’s behavior and the motivations behind it are gravely important to helping people understand the threat it poses to our country and its future.
I think using the “5 Whys” method is a good approach in this case. Mr. Krugman already asked the first question, so I’ll continue going four “whys” deeper.
|Why did Republicans Become So Extreme?||Because they wished to tap into the fears of white, rural and small-town Americans against a changing nation.|
|Why do they want to tap into this fear?||Because fear and rage more reliably turns out voters.|
|Why do they use these tactics?||Because emotion clouds reason.|
|Why don’t they want voters to use reason?||Because they might notice the policies the GOP is pursuing are not for the benefit of a majority of the voters, their communities or the country as a whole.|
|Why don’t they want to pursue policies that would benefit the majority of their voters?||Because the majority of their voters are not providing the majority of their funding.|
The following sections show the case for each answer, skipping #1 since Mr. Krugman already answered that one adequately.
Why do they want to tap into this fear?
Fear is a powerful motivator to get large numbers of people to go to the polls. In a country where typically just over half of the voting population actually votes – with 2020 reaching an aberrantly high 66% – there is ample incentive to use these tactics to get more people to the polls.
Sometimes the fear is generated, as in the fear over Critical Race Theory. Sometimes the fear is already there and it just needs permission to come out, such as when Donald Trump claimed there were “fine people on both sides” or when Tucker Carlson is soft-pedaling “replacement theory”. But no matter its source, and no matter how “illegitimate” the fear’s foundations may seem, the fear itself is real and it has an impact.
Why do they use these tactics?
Strong emotions short-circuit our ability to think long-term and more rationally about the information or threat we’re being presented with. In 2000, Paul Slovic et al. presented evidence of this phenomenon called “the affect heuristic ”. By using strong emotive content, the “sellers” of an idea are hoping you don’t look too closely at what they’re actually selling.
This all has the effect of making the lie more believable, and the truth feel dangerous.
It’s also to important understand these tactics follow rules similar to a drug: The longer you use it, the more of it you have to use to get the same effect. As the GOP’s positions have become progressively more irrational and indefensible, so too has the need for ever-more strident and dire messaging. (“death panels” anyone?)
Why don’t they want voters to use reason?
While Democrats may not be as popular by their brand name, their policies certainly are. In a poll from 2019, three-fifths of Americans favored proposals to dramatically reduce the use of fossil fuels. 59% of all voters say stricter gun laws are “very” or “somewhat” important. According to Pew, 61% of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Meanwhile, look at the major policy efforts pushed during the previous Republican administration: a 2017 tax cut that benefitted mostly the very wealthy, separating immigrant children from their parents, a deepening wealth divide, a pointless wall, meaningless trade wars, a love of fossil fuels, and a willfully ignorant approach to the outbreak of coronavirus. And if we go back two Republican administrations, we can throw in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that cost us blood, treasure and moral standing in the world with nothing to show for it.
You would think in a clear-eyed democracy, the party promoting the more popular policies would have the upper hand. But there’s a large portion of the populace that isn’t clear-eyed, due in no small part to tactics that keep them from fully understanding the costs and consequences of their votes.
Why don’t they want to pursue policies that would benefit the majority of their voters?
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” said Upton Sinclair in 1935.
No other quote seems to better encapsulate the psychology at work within the GOP. What with dark money and influence peddling done with ever-dwindling transparency, and with the help of the Citizens United ruling, money rules decision-making more than voters do. While this situation is not unique to Republicans, it’s not accurate simply to say ‘both sides do it’. The GOP have deliberately pursued funding sources that have driven them to extremes to which there are no comparisons on the left.
As the amounts of money involved have grown, so too has the motivation to push the limits of what is normal, legal, or safe ever further out. A donor who writes a check for $10,000 has one set of expectations, but you can expect a donor writing a $1M check to have a wholly different, higher set of expectations for a return on their investment. Failure because “we’ve never done that”, or “we can’t go there” become less and less acceptable options.
This has resulted in a process of artificial selection over the decades, where the party funnels the most support to the most extreme candidates in every election. Each generation becomes more willing to go further to put party line above principles and ignore the consequences to their country and their constituents. Witness the current generation now willing to lead the country to the precipice where it now stands without regard to the consequences. (See Sen. Josh Hawley’s fist pumping the January 6th rioters, followed shortly by him running for his life from them.)
Combined with the strategic use of the filibuster, gerrymandering and the Electoral College, it’s been possible for smaller and smaller numbers of voters to wield an ever-more disproportionate degree of control over the rest of the country. Which, ultimately, is the goal.
Once we go through this process, it’s clear the fuller answer to Mr. Krugman’s original question is the GOP is being driven to greater and greater extremism due to the party’s desire for ever more money, power and influence in the midst of the dwindling popularity of their policies.
While I favor efforts to hold Donald Trump accountable for his crimes and to override this recent spate of Supreme Court rulings, until we can pass laws that remove the perverse incentives political money has created, we will only be hacking at the branches of the problem, not its root.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.