12/11/2012 11:28 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2013

Fearing a Diverse Future

Since President Obama's re-election there has been a great deal of political chatter about why Mitt Romney lost. Pundits have claimed that the GOP miscalculated or, worse yet, ignored dramatic demographic shifts in the U.S. population. We have heard that the increasing voter turnout of non-white American citizens (Latinos, Asians, and African Americans) sealed Governor Romney's political fate. We have also learned that Governor Romney and his inner-circle seemed genuinely shocked that they lost the election to a "minority" president who was governing a nation faced with severe economic challenges, a context that should have ensured a GOP triumph.

The shock of political loss continues in the GOP. In the wake of President Obama's resounding victory, there are many people in the GOP base who refuse to accept the election results, let alone the legitimacy of President Obama. Some of them still think he's not a real American (a God-fearing white man) but a "foreign other" who is really a socialist, inexorably leading America toward godless Communism. Consider what Sarah Palin, who represents the ideological foundation of the GOP base, recently said to Sean Hannity on Fox News.

So I say, Republicans, go back to what the planks in your platform represent ... It represents reining in government, putting back the power and the responsibility in the individual, not in the state, not in government. Again, that gets us towards socialism. What goes beyond socialism, Sean, is Communism. I know I'm going to get slammed for speaking so bluntly about what's going on here, but that is exactly what is going on.

Millions of Americans share Palin's concern. What gives?

Pundits have put forward a number of explanations. When it comes to shifting demographics, several analysts argue that the GOP inner circle hadn't bothered to read the 2010 census data, which suggests that America is rapidly becoming a multilingual and multicultural society. Many of the people who make up the GOP base, according to several commentators, live in an alternative universe in which social reality has more in common with life in the 1950s than in the social realities of 21st century America. It is a universe of climate change deniers, creationists, anti-science crusaders, and conspiracy theorists. When it comes to denying the election results or President Obama's legitimacy, many pundits have suggested that large swaths of the GOP base harbor racist sentiments.

Considering the range of GOP reactions to President Obama's re-election from an anthropological vantage, my guess is that the GOP disconnect results from two culturally contoured emotions that are interconnected: 1) a fear of change; and 2) a fear of difference.

Very few people like change of any sort. Change unsettles your life and leads you to an uncertain path. Indeed, most people find it difficult to live with uncertainty. So when people in the GOP say that they want to "take America back" they are fueling a nostalgic desire for a kinder, simpler, and more certain society in which people (minorities) know their place, in which immigrants want to assimilate into the American mainstream (white and Christian), in which difference is suppressed. The statement also signals a powerful fear of an American future in which non-white populations will become much more economically, socially, culturally and politically powerful. The latter sentiment, of course, is linked to a fear of difference, a fear of people who look different, speak languages other than American English, or practice religions other than Christianity.

Change is frightening, but anthropologists have long argued that a society that cannot adapt to changing social or technological environments is destined lose its spark and fade way. Although the widespread fear of difference is real, it is empirically unfounded. Consider Roger Sanjek's award-winning book, The Future of Us All. In that work, Sanjek reports on his anthropological study of one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse neighborhoods in America -- Elmhurst-Corona in Queens, New York, a community that provides us a glimpse into the diverse American future. Sanjek wonders how so many people of such diverse language and cultural background could ever get along. Wouldn't such linguistic and cultural and racial diversity bring endless misunderstanding, conflict and social dysfunction? After more than a decade of research in the neighborhood, Sanjek found that diversity had little negative effect on the community. Indeed, he discovered that that people of Elmhurst-Corona were able to blend the strengths of their diverse social and cultural traditions to create a robust community that has flourished economically and socially -- a model of the future in a multicultural and multilingual and multiracial America.

So what happens if the GOP's fear of change and difference persists even in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence that demonstrates that American society is rapidly becoming a multilingual, multicultural? If the past is indicative, the GOP may, like other social groups that resisted change and refused to incorporate difference, slowly implode leaving its traces in the dustbins of history.