What Spurs the GOP’s Conservative Base
Andrew Kohut, former Pew Research Center president and founding director, has a big op-ed in WaPo arguing that while the GOP’s intransigent conservative base keeps it competitive at the Congressional level, it at the same time renders the White House out of reach. It’s not really a new argument, but Kohut’s a nonpartisan establishmentarian, so when he makes it, it counts as news.
Kohut says there are three factors keeping Republicans from being a truly national political party:
the consequences of what he calls an “Obama backlash,” conservative anxiety over the “changing face of America,” and the epistemic closure wrought by the “conservative media.” The second and the third reasons make sense.
But the idea that the Obama backlash is a thing unto itself rather than a consequence of racial panic and a media echo chamber — this is nonsense. Simply look at Kohut’s numbers. Race is the salient characteristic of so-called Obama backlash:
The nation’s demographic and social shifts have also played a role in galvanizing the new bloc. Conservative Republicans are more likely (33 percent) than the public at large (22 percent) to see the growing number of Latinos in America as a change for the worse. Similarly, 46 percent of conservatives see increasing rates of interracial marriage as a positive development, compared with 66 percent of the public overall.
During Obama’s first term, ethnocentric attitudes — on immigration, equal rights and interracial dating — grew by 11 percentage points among conservative Republicans but did not increase significantly among any other political or ideological grouping. Some academic surveys found similar partisan polarization on racial measures over the course of Obama’s first term.
Race has loomed larger in voting behavior in the Obama era than at any point in the recent past. The 2010 election was the high mark of “white flight” from the Democratic Party, as National Journal’s Ron Brownstein called it — the GOP won a record 60 percent of white votes, up from 51 percent four years earlier.
Here’s the order of events, it seems. Conservatives who were already ambivalent about racial equality (most obviously seen in the response to interracial marriage) more or less immediately reacted to Obama’s becoming president with profound anger and ideological retrenchment. In nearly every way, their political complaints jostled explicitly or as a subtext with race. More than four years later, this subgroup’s antipathy for the president hasn’t wavered one bit, largely thanks to conservative media’s comforting and insulating echo chamber.
Let me pause for a second to emphasize that I am not saying all opposition to Obama stems from racial animus. Without question, it does not. There is more than enough room to find reasons to dislike the president without one’s being forced to straddle the line separating reason from superstition. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the fact that there is a highly uniform and unyielding minority of self-described conservatives (not Republicans, but conservatives) who currently have great influence over one of America’s two major parties.
And they’ve got problems with people of color, the president first and foremost among ’em.