03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Missing Story in Democracy Corps' Analysis of the Conservative Right

A recent Democracy Corps analysis, based upon focus-groups conducted with older white voters in Georgia and in Cleveland, Ohio, has concluded that the base of the Republican party, constituting roughly twenty percent of the electorate, lives in a "world apart" from the rest of America, including demographically similarly-situated but ideologically more moderate voters.

Among Democracy Corps' key conclusions:

The self-identifying conservative Republicans who make up the base of the Republican Party stand a world apart from the rest of America, according to focus groups conducted by Democracy Corps. These base Republican voters dislike Barack Obama to be sure - which is not very surprising as base Democrats had few positive things to say about George Bush - but these voters identify themselves as part of a 'mocked' minority with a set of shared beliefs and knowledge, and commitment to oppose Obama that sets them apart from the majority in the country. They believe Obama is ruthlessly advancing a 'secret agenda' to bankrupt the United States and dramatically expand government control to an extent nothing short of socialism. While these voters are disdainful of a Republican Party they view to have failed in its mission, they overwhelmingly view a successful Obama presidency as the destruction of this country's founding principles and are committed to seeing the president fail.

Instead of focusing on these intense ideological divisions, the press and elites continue to look for a racial element that drives these voters' beliefs - but they need to get over it. Conducted on the heels of Joe Wilson's incendiary comments at the president's joint session address, we gave these groups of older, white Republican base voters in Georgia full opportunity to bring race into their discussion - but it did not ever become a central element, and indeed, was almost beside the point.

The Republican base voters are not part of the continuum leading to the center of the electorate: they truly stand apart. For additional perspective, Democracy Corps conducted a parallel set of groups in suburban Cleveland. These groups, comprised of older, white, non-college independents and weak partisans, represent some of the most conservative swing voters in the electorate and they demonstrated a wholly different worldview from Republican base voters by dismissing the fear of "socialism" and evaluating Obama in very different terms. Most importantly, regardless of their personal feelings toward Obama or how they voted in 2008, they very much want to see him succeed because they believe the country desperately needs the change he promised in his campaign. Though we kept discussion points constant between the two sets of groups, on virtually every point of discussion around President Obama and the major issues facing our country, these two audiences simply saw the world in fundamentally different ways - underscoring the extreme disconnect of the conservative Republican base voters.

The study is certainly worth reading in full, but I wanted to address D Corps' dismissal of a "racial element" in this hard-core right wing opposition to Obama. I have addressed some of these issues before, but the highly simplistic terms in which commentators in America, both left and right, talk about race - and more broadly, aversion to difference - continues to undermine our ability to understand fully the nuances and significance of antipathy toward outgroups as an important element in our collective political life. More broadly, as Marc Hetherington and I show in detail in our book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, there are a number of inter-connected elements of an authoritarian worldview, comprising cognitive elements, antipathy toward outgroups and particular views about security and threat.

In this context, D Corps' findings are largely consistent with the findings in our book - that the base of the Republican Party today shares a that worldview comprising the inter-related facets noted above. And understood in these terms, there is no incompatibility in recognizing both the deeply felt ideological differences that these base voters have with Obama's policy agenda and the undoubtedly powerful currents of prejudice that undergird the authoritarian worldview.

A few caveats are in order:

1) The D Corps focus group of Georgia Republicans identified conservative republicans. This is not identical to authoritarians. However, there is an increasingly strong relationship between the two.

2) Even if the focus group Democracy Corps conducted were exclusively high authoritarians, it would NOT be true that all would be racists, or motivated primarily by animus toward outgroups, or whatever. There are powerful relationships here, but they do not apply universally.

3) In that light, it is undoubtedly true that some of the folks interviewed are, in fact, substantially motivated by strong policy/ideological differences with the President.

Having said all that, the respondents' views, as reported by Democracy Corps, are strongly redolent of the features of authoritarianism we describe in our book.

Some examples:

1) A key finding of the focus group was that the conservative Republicans were convinced that Obama was advancing a "secret agenda" to destroy the country and had bought into many of the paranoid conspiracy theories about Obama that have been advanced by right-wing media, notably Glenn Beck, who D Corps identified as the hero of this group of conservative Republicans.

There is much evidence to suggest that authoritarians are far more likely to seek out confirmatory sources of information - even when those sources are obviously inaccurate and lacking in credibility - than are less authoritarian individuals. We note in our book that individuals scoring high in authoritarianism are much more likely to be wrong about basic factual questions related to politics. To cite just one of numerous examples, those scoring high in authoritarianism were more than twice as likely to say that WMDs were discovered in Iraq compared with those scoring low in authoritarianism. And it is noteworthy that this is not simply a partisan finding about Republicans. Less authoritarian Republicans were half as likely to believe that WMDs had been found than were more authoritarian Republicans.

The focus group respondents were convinced that Obama's political agenda amounted to a government takeover of all aspects of our life and, as such, were a direct threat to our most basic freedoms. People are, of course, entitled to believe this. But it is a reality-challenged and arguably incoherent view of the world, given the respondents' much more benign (and favorable) view of President Obama's predecessor, who took significant steps to undermine bedrock features of America's historical commitment to personal liberties and freedom from government intrusion into our personal lives, most notably in the warrantless wire-tapping program.

And it's worth noting that despite all the hysteria about Obama and raising taxes, America's federal income tax rates are significantly lower than they were thirty years ago and there is absolutely no reason to believe that that will change substantively during Obama's term in office.

All of which is simply to point out that Democracy Corps' valid intention to elucidate the hard-right worldview also revealed a feature of that worldview that has been well-documented in studies of authoritarianism - namely their tendency to factual inaccuracy and the particular way they sift and process information.

As noted above, this is connected to the tendency of authoritarian-minded individuals to be especially invested in seeking out information sources that confirm their suspicions and anxieties and appeared to be rife in the focus group conducted by D Corps. The conservative focus groups' insistence that all mainstream media are liars and complicit in the conspiracy, apart from FOX news, is also noteworthy in this regard. Consistent with this particular form of information-processing is that much of FOX's programming advances a highly simplified view of reality, one in which there is a clear contest between good and evil and in which any substantive discussions of policy differences take a backseat to framing political struggles in apocalyptic terms. This is certainly true of Beck and Hannity and it happens to comport well with a cognitive style that authoritarians commonly evince - a powerful desire to see the world in clear, simple, black and white terms. Such cognitive preferences were rife among the comments reported by D Corps.

Among the comments that came up in support of the conviction that Obama was a shadowy figure advancing a secret agenda to "destroy America" were the supposedly closed hospital records from Kenya, the fact that his "tentacles" were into ACORN and that Obama was just a figurehead fronting for the true power - George Soros.

These comments do not, of course, exhaust all of the concerns raised by the participants in the focus group about Obama's agenda, but D Corps regarded them as representative enough to include in their sampling of comments. And I leave it to readers to decide whether raising the specter of ACORN, Obama's Kenyan background and a Jewish financier/puppet master are simply a matter of strong "ideological" differences.

2) The overwhelming opposition to health care reform expressed by the Democracy Corps focus group - they reject health care reform by a 59 point margin - is not inconsistent with the assertion that there is a "racial factor" in opposition to Obama's agenda. As I've pointed out before, there is a very high correlation between racial resentment and opposition to health care reform. To re-iterate, it does not follow from this fact that all opponents of health care reform are motivated by racial resentment. But it is equally true that the relationship exists and is a powerful one.

3) The D Corps findings mention the attack on the policy "czars," the policy meisters who did not need Senate confirmation who, in the view of the hardcore right, symbolize Obama's nefarious means of advancing his agenda. Beck, of course, has been front and center in the attack on the czars. And it should not be a surprise that the two who have come in for by far the most vitriol and demonization are a black man (Van Jones, who resigned in response to the furor generated by Beck) and a gay one (Kevin Jennings).

4) The D Corps research found widespread dissatisfaction among conservative voters toward the GOP. It was viewed as old, weak and too ready to compromise (one respondent said "They're so worried about pandering to the Hispanic vote that they're going to alienate their base.")

Some of the respondents found W to be ineffectual, but generally they liked him - he was patriotic, loved his country, you knew where he stood, "never changed his mind," and was the victim of a relentlessly critical media. And they were especially enamored of Ronald Reagan and their current hero is - no surprise - Sarah Palin.

Through the prism of the authoritarian world view, these sentiments are unsurprising. Preferences for leaders who think and speak in straight-forward, black and white, easy-to-digest categories like good and evil, are characteristic features of the authoritarian cognitive-style. In this context, it is also not surprising that Obama's intelligence and cleverness (the respondents' words) are held against him - authoritarians tend to be averse to complexity, shades of gray, nuance and find untrustworthy public figures who think and express themselves in such terms. It follows from such inclinations that many in this group would interpret Obama's own intellectual style as evidence of a scheming and conniving mind.

Notably, as much as this group disliked President Clinton, several respondents said that they didn't know how good they had it when he was President and that, in retrospect, Clinton was more likable and far less dangerous than is Obama.

Summing up, in some senses Obama's own racial identity is a red herring in discussing the impact of race on views of his presidency, agenda, etc. A white President promoting a similar agenda would receive similar treatment (though, again, note the "revisionist" views of some of the focus group participants toward Clinton), but it is a basic misunderstanding of how race works in our political discourse to claim that this counter-factual disproves the import of race.

More broadly, understanding racial animus in isolation from broader personality-based predilections is itself an oversimplification. The reason authoritarianism is such a useful construct for understanding American politics today is that it offers a means of understanding several important, inter-connected phenomena that are too often treated in either/or terms in popular discussions.The conservative voters interviewed by Democracy Corps undoubtedly do have deep-seated, sincerely felt and strongly held ideological objections to Obama. But acknowledging this fact is in no way incompatible with recognizing the degree to which a particular cognitive style and a well-documented aversion to difference and antipathy toward outgroups are all part of a particular world view, one that now plays a dominant role in the base of the Republican Party.

It is perfectly understandable that many people are frustrated to have their own opposition to Obama and his policies reduced to accusations that they're simply racists (and, of course, many liberals did not appreciate being called terrorist-sympathizers because they opposed Bush's means of fighting the war on terror or his invasion of Iraq).

But the most rudimentary understanding of human psychology recognizes that each of us is a hash of motives and psychological cross-currents, not all of which we are fully conscious of. In the case of the group conducted by Democracy Corps, it is a fair bet that many harbor deep-seated, perhaps unconscious anxieties about the changing nature of American society - its increasing ethnic pluralism, changing mores, especially among the young and so forth. So, there's no reason to assume that the discussion of their motives begins and ends with their own assertions about why they're so upset.

Democracy Corps' dismissal of a "racial element" reflects a black-and-white understanding of race, feelings about outgroups, the psychological functions of information processing and political worldview. If we're to have a better understanding of the nature of political conflict in America today, it's important to understand the multi-dimensionality of the authoritarian world view that sits at the heart of the hard core right's understanding of politics.