When Did the GOP Become So Sinister?

While Democrats are busy infighting, Republicans have found a way to unite and stand behind a president for whom everyone is a winner or loser.

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Since the election (and arguably even well before), we have been bearing witness to a reckoning—really a breakdown—within our two major political parties, as Democrats and Republicans try to figure out who they are and what they stand for. But while Democrats battle each other over whether to include women’s reproductive rights in their platform, the GOP has formed a unified front, backing the possibly treasonous, definitely fascist and incompetent and least popular president in the history of our country—a gamble that will most certainly detonate their party, in the best-case scenario. And their mission? It appears singularly focused not on improving the lives of those who live here, but on betraying voters, by taking away rights and resources away from who most need them, whether it’s attempting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, banning refugees’ safe asylum in the U.S., and defunding public programs.

It’s gotten so that even some Republicans have grown disillusioned with the party. Crissy McClelland-Brackett, who works in social services in Kansas, left the GOP and became a Democrat because she saw Republican lawmakers going after programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Service (WIC) as an act of cruelty—these are services that her clients depend on, and that she herself has used to survive.

“I was raised on WIC and SNAP,” she said. “To have lived in that fear of not knowing where your next meal is coming from. I just think about how not having access to those programs will affect families, mothers just trying to feed their babies”

Dismantling public programs hasn’t always been the GOP’s approach to conservatism. In fact, it is in stark contrast to Republican administrations of the past. Today we are seeing Republicans attempting to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, slashing its funding and cutting back on environmental regulations—an agency established in 1970 by Richard Nixon’s administration in response to voters’ concern over environmental pollution.

It wasn’t until after the civil rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s that the party began to shift in a more sinister direction. When Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981, he trained his critical attention on welfare, shepherding deep cuts on welfare programs. For more than three decades now, this sort of disdain for people who live in poverty—and cuts to the programs that help families and individuals—has been a mainstay of the GOP platform.

And in the past eight years, the party’s obsession with slashing programs and targeting the most vulnerable citizens has intensified, now coming to a peak in the time of Trump. Smaller government principles have evolved into governing as though rights are a zero sum game, where gains for one person only come at another person’s loss. A zero sum game is a mathematical representation in game theory where each participant’s gain or loss of utility is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participants. The reasons for the GOP’s zero sum game approach are complex and layered—tied up in worldviews, ideologies, biases, and a patriarchal capitalist society that produces winners and losers.

“There are very few genuine conservatives in the Republican Party today,” said Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. “What you have in the GOP are various forms of radicals who seek radical solutions rather than conservative ones and are very different in their political and cultural objectives. True conservatives honor tradition and believe changes should be met with circumspection.”

Central to conservative ideology, and also a large part of American culture, is rugged individualism, the belief that people get what they earn based on their talent, merit, and work ethic. This mindset is not only an ideological worldview, but also a psychological coping mechanism. If you believe you solely earned what you have, then you also believe those with less deserve what they get, Wilkerson said, despite evidence to the contrary that shows economic mobility in the U.S. is limited no matter how hard one works. The radicalization of the GOP over the last four decades has created GOP leaders today with more extreme stances rooted in the idea of meritocracy. The ideology of the Democratic Party differs in that it takes a more collective approach, and centers government in providing social services for the general welfare of the public.

The Republican ideology of individualism fosters competition and enables this zero sum approach to politics, said Diane Goodman, a social justice trainer and consultant in Nyack, New York. Politicians are motivated by what will keep them in power, and not just political power from winning elections, but power in society—maintaining the systems and structure that puts them at the top.

“As long as people stay in that frame of mind, there always has to be winners and losers,” she said. “There’s this sense of hierarchy—that I need to be above you in this game. This provides the motivation for people to try to succeed and keep others down.”

Ironically, the GOP remains in power with support from some of the very people it oppresses— white working-class voters—despite the fact that the party’s lawmakers have eviscerated unions, rolled back collective bargaining rights, and do not support raising the minimum wage.

Voter suppression in the form of voter identification laws, and gerrymandering made possible by Republican-dominated state legislatures who draw federal congressional districts, partially explain why the GOP continues to win elections and carry the white working-class vote, Wilkerson said. However, beyond that lay a strong psychological desire—sometimes conscious, sometimes not—to be drawn to people who look like you, particularly who are the same race.

“Voters evaluate the importance of who they elect in different ways,” said Lindsey Cormack, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Director of the Stevens Diplomacy Lab at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. “They may be willing to overlook or discount the potential economic consequences so long as they are more at ease with a candidate who is like them versus one who is not.”

The rise of racial justice movements like Black Lives Matter have intensified these feelings among white voters, Goodman said. A 2011 Harvard Business School study found that whites view issues of race as a zero sum game that they are now losing. The study found that whites link increases in racial equality with increases in anti-white bias. Combine race relations with widening income inequality and diminishing job opportunities, and you get anger, resentment, fear and a need to place blame.

“Especially for middle- and working-class white folks in rural areas, they feel like the world that they’ve known is changing. There are all these people they don’t know—there’s these feminists and LGBTQ activists and immigrants. They feel like their world is changing and they are being left behind,” Goodman said. “I have no doubt that some of this is a response to Obama. I think for a lot of people having a black person in the White House was a step too far and upset the social order.”

All of this helps to explain the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009, born out of anger over the recession, bank bailouts, what conservatives see as overreaching government and excessive taxation, and a need to place blame somewhere for lack of economic progress.

Capitalizing on this, the Republican Party has been very effective at providing voters with blame diversion talking points that shift the focus of policy outcomes, Cormack said. They do this with tactics like labeling the Affordable Care Act as “Obamacare” coupled with terms like “death panels” in an attempt to negatively link the legislation to the president, and more recently attempts to “repeal and replace” before forming an actual replacement plan, or the term “welfare queen” coined by Ronald Reagan, which has resulted in successfully dehumanizing and demonizing the poor.

“Republicans have better marketing strategies [than Democrats]. They do a better job of connecting with constituents and centralizing terms to more concisely explain issues,” Cormack said. “So Republican voters have a more readily available mental menu of political terminology to explain policies and positions even though the facts on which the explanations rest are oftentimes tenuous.”

All of this is interconnected: The conservative worldview upholds the power structure of capitalism, while dehumanizing other groups of people serves to justify “keeping them in their place,” Goodman said, adding that as long as the capitalist structure of the U.S. persists, there will always be competition for resources.

“We need to change the system out of this way of winners and losers and think about how we can provide for everyone’s needs. I certainly believe there are enough resources to go around,” Goodman said.  “As long as we do not fully understand each other and fail to realize our human connection, we can do all sorts of horrible things.”

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