Important to understanding why the federal government has been shut down by a group of unyielding, extremist congressional conservatives is to understand the voters who elected them. That was the goal of a series of focus groups conducted this summer by Democracy Corps, and its report on those focus groups presents an important challenge for progressives.
The “Inside the GOP” report describes a segment of the Republican electorate that is “’worried,’ ‘discouraged,’ ‘scared,’ and ‘concerned’ about the direction of the country – and a little powerless to change course.” The reasons why would to progressives suggest that these voters live in an alternate universe with little connection to the real world: They think President Obama has succeeded in imposing a “socialist” agenda on the country and that Republicans in Congress have allowed that to happen.
Fed by Fox News and conservative pundits, these voters see a federal government that is using programs like the Affordable Care Act, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, extended unemployment benefits and other safety net programs to create a dependency class, and thus a loyal political base of support for the Democratic Party agenda.
“While many voters, even some Democrats, question whether Obama is succeeding and getting his agenda done, Republicans think he has won,” the report says. “The country may think gridlock has won, particularly during a Republican-led government shut down, but Republicans see a president who has fooled and manipulated the public, lied, and gotten his secret socialist-Marxist agenda done. Republicans and their kind of Americans are losing.”
That broad statement, though, needs context. There are clear fissures in the Republican Party that are evident to even casual observers. Christian conservatives are most disturbed by such social changes as marriage equality that they believe are debasing American culture. Tea Party Republicans are more concerned about the size and power of government, and government spending, and include voters with a more libertarian bent than those who identify as Christian conservatives.
The Democracy Corps report also identified a moderate bloc that it says makes up about a quarter of the party that is distinctly uncomfortable with the Tea Party and Christian conservative wings. They share the view that government is too big and inefficient, but they also believe the Republican Party in Washington is at least partly responsible for gridlock and dysfunction.
The report does not offer any political prescriptions; it strives instead to describe “the future battle ahead.” There is no suggestion that these voters are “winnable.” But this does challenge progressives to present a narrative and a set of values that speaks broadly to the economic anxieties that most Americans share.
The word cloud from the focus groups on the first page of the report serves as a starting point. Americans are “worried,” “concerned” and “scared” for good reason, given the economic forces that have held down the middle class and have kept the lowest-income Americans from climbing out of poverty. But recent electoral victories like that of Bill de Blasio in the New York City Democratic mayoral primary, and his current commanding lead over Republican challenger Joseph J. Lhota, demonstrates that a progressive populist narrative that speaks head-on to these anxieties can win broad support.
That narrative explains how we got into this mess, and points the finger at the nexus of big money, failed conservative ideology and, as is now transparently clear, rejection of basic democratic values that has brought us to the precipice of economic and political catastrophe.
That narrative also sets forth the vision that if we get the government back into the business of growing the economy, a sense of hope will also grow, and the values of generosity and fairness that have helped fuel America’s most progressive strides forward can once again prevail.
There has always been an extreme right fringe in American politics. We can’t hope to make it disappear, but we can rob it of its power.