The polarization that has characterized American politics over the past two decades has been driven primarily by a sorting process. As examined in detail in the book I co-wrote with Marc Hetherington, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, Americans have increasingly sorted themselves into the Democratic or Republican party based on what we call worldview differences -- basic differences in how people think about information, hierarchy, diversity and change. More authoritarian-minded individuals who tend, in general, to think in black and white terms about a world of good and evil, are more likely to reject empiricism in formulating opinions and who are less comfortable with out groups and cultural change have gravitated to the Republican Party. Less authoritarian-minded folks who are, on average, more comfortable with nuance and ambiguity and less inclined to be disdainful of traditional minorities, have substantially made their way into the Democratic camp. The result, we've argued, and the political landscape in recent years has amply illustrated, is intense acrimony and seemingly irreconcilable differences between two warring camps, as political differences become so intense and personal that there appears to be no common ground for agreement.
In reality, of course, the picture is a little more complicated. Though conflict and dysfunction seem to be the order of the day on Capitol Hill, congressional negotiators and the president have managed to build jerry-rigged compromises on a range of issues. Furthermore, while rhetorical and ideological differences between partisans seem worse than ever, plenty of critics have rightly pointed to underlying consensus on a host of important issues -- including the ever-expanding national security state and the bailout of Wall Street.
Still, though, the nature contemporary polarization is not a mere mirage -- it is a reality that has had profound consequences for ordinary Americans. The decision by a number of right-wing governors to reject Medicaid expansion (and their need to rely on bogus data to claim that they are doing so for reasons of fiscal prudence) -- is one example of how ideological extremism and what appears to be spite and contempt will adversely affect significant numbers of Americans.
But this sorting process is beginning to run headlong into another reality. Demographic changes pose a growing challenge to a Republican electoral approach increasingly predicated on winning as many white votes as possible. A political party that has, partly by accident, cultivated an increasingly monochromatic and angry base resentful of significant cultural change is poorly equipped to compete nationally in a country that is becoming more diverse by the day.
Obama's victory in November has not, contrary to the wishful thinking of many, broken this authoritarian-inspired fever. But it has prompted intensified hand-wringing among some elements of the party about the GOP's future prospects. Lindsey Graham -- remarkably now regarded as a "moderate" in the current GOP -- said just before the election, "If I hear anybody say it was because Romney wasn't conservative enough I'm going to go nuts... We're not losing 95 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we're not being hard-ass enough." Of course, arrayed against those occasional bouts of reality recognition, are countless statements and actions -- especially by the increasingly extreme House GOP delegation and by state-level politicians -- from bizarre and offensive "theories" about women and rape, science rejectionism, a growing movement to abolish income taxes in service of a retrograde fantasy about how we were all (read propertied white men) better off before the cursed New Deal.
Nowhere are these tensions more evident than in the current debate over immigration reform. A range of GOP leaders, particularly in the Senate, has come to grips with the impossibility of remaining nationally viable while continuing to antagonize and demonize rapidly growing minority populations. That recognition has helped jump-start long-stalled proposals aimed at providing a path to citizenship for the millions of individuals, predominantly Latino, who reside in the country illegally. On other hand, however, the party's base is only growing more hostile to people who look different than they do. Standard measures of racial resentment show a sharp uptick among self-identified Republicans in recent years. And key party opinion-makers, including Rush Limbaugh, are adamantly opposed to any reform that involves amnesty, reflecting a Tea Party base broadly hostile to immigrants (including legal ones). While many opponents of immigration reform cite pragmatic considerations -- they say immigrants will be a drain on the economy, for instance -- reality tends not to support such arguments. It is quite apparent, that the hostility of much of the right to immigration reform is, in fact, "cultural." At the Daily Caller last week, Mickey Kaus articulated six reasons to be skeptical of reform. About one such issue, assimilation, Kaus wrote:
Yes, American culture is powerful. But now there is an entrenched lobby for bilingual education, and identity politics curricula that teach young people they're right to resist assimilation. Formal and informal race preferences reward Americans for maintaining separate ethnic identities. And then there's Univision, which would go out of business if too many people spoke the common language.
Kaus, it should be noted, is far from the extreme end of the spectrum on these issues. But here he embodies the visceral discomfort of many on the right to the idea of reform -- that it threatens our "way of life," whatever the authoritarian right imagines that to be. The pragmatic considerations of party leaders concerned with hunting where the ducks are exist in clear tension with a party built increasingly on a narrow view of what American culture is and who should be invited to share in the opportunity to pursue its just rewards.
If you've run out of people to recruit -- as many GOP strategists have themselves acknowledged is the case -- and there are fewer moderating forces to temper your increasingly extreme worldview, the likely outcome is not stasis. Instead, for current and aspiring GOP leaders, it's a choice between being seen as a traitorous compromiser or embrace of further extremism (and for reasons I and others have previously noted, this dynamic is not symmetrical among the two parties). These tensions have also been on stark display evident in the extraordinary debate about guns that has unfolded since the Newtown massacre in December. The vast majority of majority of Americans have come to embrace some restrictions on the availability of certain kinds of weapons and almost universally support expanded background checks.
But the NRA has doubled, tripled and then quadrupled down on its intransigence. Prominent conservative commentators routinely insist that the Second Amendment means what no credible jurist believes -- that there are no constitutionally acceptable limits on what kinds weaponry individuals may possess. Ronald Reagan is mocked as senile for his support for some of these common sense policies. Repeated warnings are issued that any form of gun control is tantamount to the imposition of a Third Reich in America. In an ecosystem like this, staking out an increasingly extreme niche becomes a viable path to political survival and relevance, including in a growing number of House districts that reward such behavior.
This is a pattern we're likely to see for a while -- a haphazard, unpredictable toggling back and forth among GOP leaders. Occasionally, they will capitulate to the reality of actually governing a large, complex society, in which their views are, on most issues, increasingly unpopular. But key elements in the party, particularly in the House and at the state level will continue to push an extreme agenda. They will continue to carry water for the super wealthy while trying to burnish their "populist" credentials in the only way they know how -- by obstructing voting, undermining economic recovery and standing in the way of a more inclusive citizenry, the better to foment the resentment and fear of change that remain the party's cornerstones.