Tea Party and the politics of partisan polarisation

A new study of the American voter points out tantalising possibilities for the Republican Party’s long-term renewal – as well as the real dangers for it in the future. J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks at this survey and what it may portend for future US elections.

For non-Americans, the US political system sometimes seems like an unfathomable dark but storm-tossed sea. The political parties can appear to be incoherent, nearly-amorphous entities without boundaries or sharply defining features. Some critics – both from the far left as well as from the equally far right part of the political continuum – snap that the two parties are essentially same; that they are actually under the thumb of some shadowy conspiracy or corporate cabal, and American politics is simply being carried out in the interests of faceless corporate puppet masters right out of the latest grand conspiracy movie.

But this harsh critique also manages to virtually ignore the values and attitudes of political supporters – why they feel as they do and how that translates into the actual political landscape. From this vantage point, the key is to understand the motivations of voter groups and how political parties try to gain their allegiance.

An important feature of the American political landscape is one important difference between the way US political parties relate to or attempt to attract voters and new supporters, versus the way things operate in, say, a country like Britain, or South Africa. In the US, one joins a political party effectively by saying one is a supporter. Except, perhaps, for someone who is a supporter of the Vegetarian, Prohibition or Socialist Workers Parties, there are effectively no membership cards, annual dues or other forms of formal party initiation, indoctrination or related behaviour. Instead, supporters self-identify, and, if they feel strongly enough, join in helping canvass other voters or potential voters for support, or even make financial contributions.

And, of course, in contemporary American political life, supporters of party A or B are also in sync with politically potent advocacy groups, like the Club for Growth that are largely financed by super-rich donors whose political allegiances are congruent with the candidates they want to support financially. In recent years, a key feature of this financial support structure is that these potent groups do not officially back any particular candidate, but, instead, these groups back the ideas that a particular candidate espouses directly. This distinction, of course, has become a meandering line between campaigning and issue advocacy, made more complex still by recent Supreme Court decisions on free speech and campaign financing issues.

Because of the Tea Party’s galvanising impact on American politics over the past three or four years, there has been great interest in the values and attitudes of those who have self-identified as supporters of the Tea Party strand in the Republican Party. That helps inform the current struggle for dominance in that party between people whose allegiances split between what are frequently termed the old-line establishment, the neo-conservative wing, social values conservatives and libertarian arm of that party.

Of course the Democratic Party has also had its own divisions over the years, but from at least from the Clinton years onward, the party has largely managed to find its left-centrist voice as its most consistent position on most issues, and by most senior politicians. If that changes, it creates both new challenges as well as opportunities for the country’s two dominant political parties.

Now, a new Pew Research Centre study has looked closely at the divergent political ideologies of Americans, dividing them into a typology of seven distinct groups of political involved and one group of the uninvolved. The key is that these groups are not divided precisely along the Democratic/Republican fault line in American politics that is more familiar to most people, nor do they follow in a precise way that fourfold division – establishment, neo-conservatives, social values conservatives and libertarians – of the GOP. Pew researchers argue that as a result of the divisions in the electorate, the Republican Party may increasingly be at a disadvantage in national elections, although the party also has the opportunity to make gains with two groups of voters – frequently voting Democratic in the past – who have become increasingly disappointed with the Obama administration, and thus may be up for grabs in future. Pew calls these two groups the “young outsiders” and the “hard-pressed sceptics.”

Discussing the Pew survey and providing a deeper context that helps explain the results of most recent senatorial primary election in Mississippi, Dan Balz commented in the Washington Post the other day, “Republicans broadly share a belief in smaller government, but they are sharply divided over issues including perceptions of Wall Street, the power of big corporations, the value of immigration and free trade, according to a new study of the contours of the American electorate. The findings provide timely insight into the political battle that unfolded this week in Mississippi, where Republican Sen. Thad Cochran narrowly defeated conservative state Sen. Chris McDaniel in a bitterly fought runoff that exposed the broader tensions within the GOP coalition. That election pitted the business and establishment wing of the Republican Party against the populist-conservative wing. As it has through a series of elections this spring, the establishment wing prevailed, but the new study from the Pew Research Centre suggests that the GOP faces continued instability because of profoundly different views on some issues held by those who identify with the party.”

Historically, of course, various ethnic populations or ideologically driven voter strands have moved back and forth across the Republican/Democratic political divide – if for no other reason than that the parties themselves have – over time – come to stand for ideas that may have become significantly different from earlier positions or even with regard to positions that were part of their founding myths. More recently, despite a decade of an ideological sorting out, as partisans have moved themselves into an increasingly ideologically appropriate party identification and alignment, this new Pew study finds that significant numbers of American voters manage simultaneously to hold potentially conflicting economic and cultural views that cut along income, racial and religious lines. Such potential fissures create openings and challenges for both parties.

As the Pew study says, “Partisan polarisation – the vast and growing gap between Republicans and Democrats – is a defining feature of politics today. But beyond the ideological wings, which make up a minority of the public, the political landscape includes a centre that is large and diverse, unified by frustration with politics and little else. As a result, both parties face formidable challenges in reaching beyond their bases to appeal to the middle of the electorate and build sustainable coalitions. The latest Pew Research Centre political typology, which sorts voters into cohesive groups based on their attitudes and values, provides a field guide for this constantly changing landscape.”

As far as the Republican Party’s current challenge going forward, the Pew report notes that two generally Republican-leaning groups, the so-called “steadfast conservatives” and “business conservatives,” now only represent about 27% of all registered voters. By contrast, three Democratic-leaning groups, what Pew terms the “solid liberals,” “next generation left” and “faith and family left” — correspond roughly to generally well-educated voters that include the nation’s urban liberals, liberal millennials and non-white voters, taken together that now equal around 47 % of all registered voters. (Curiously, this 47% should not be seen as precisely aligned with Mitt Romney’s infamous 47% who “pay no taxes” and thus could not be expected to vote for him because they were kept alive because of the government largesse.) More ominously Republicans, only a fraction of the country’s younger voters fall into the category of traditional conservatives.

Pew Survey Groups as a percentage of total voting population:

Type Age 18-29 All Adults
Steadfast Conservatives 4% 12%
Business Conservatives 6% 10%
Young Outsiders 19% 14%
Hard-Pressed Sceptics 9% 13%
Next Generation Left 19% 12%
Faith and Family Left 10% 15%
Solid Liberals 16% 15%
Bystanders 17% 10%









Source: Pew Research Centre (This shows the typology for all adults, including non-politically engaged voters. Among politically engaged voters, the tallies are higher.)

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The Pew study breaks down the population into eight groups, seven of them who say they are engaged in thinking about (or acting on) politics at least to a degree and the eighth group whose members have stayed mostly on the sidelines of political controversies and issues. Three groups are highly ideological and politically engaged — two that lean to the Republicans, one to the Democrats. Four other groups are “less partisan and less predictable” in their political views, what the study calls a “fragmented centre” that poses challenges for both major parties.

The most loyal followers of the Republican Party represent about one-fifth of the total population, more than a quarter of all registered voters and thus more than one-third of politically engaged Americans, according to the Pew report. The Pew study labels these two Republican groups as “business conservatives” and “steadfast conservatives.” Almost 90% of the people in each of these groups are white, and about 6 in 10 in each of these groups are male. Two-thirds of steadfast conservatives are 50 or older, compared with 53% of business conservatives. Only very small percentages of each of these two groups say they disagree with the Tea Party movement.

The two GOP groups find common ground in their overwhelming disapproval of President Obama’s job performance and the Affordable Care Act. More than 9 in 10 disapprove of both and they similarly say government is almost always wasteful and inefficient. The GOP core groups also strongly oppose the Common Core State Standards [a new educational reform identifying key content to be taught nationally], support a strong military, assert the lack of solid evidence of global warming, and a perception that governmental efforts to protect the environment have gone too far even as new environmental laws have cost the economy too many jobs.

At the same time, among these conservative Republicans, the ideological divisions are also widespread. On business questions, an overwhelming majority of the steadfast conservatives argue too much power is concentrated in a few large companies and they are split evenly on whether the economic system unfairly favours the powerful. But only about a third of the business conservative voters say big corporations have too much power and by 2-to-1 margin they also say the economic system is fair to most people, rather than being tilted towards the powerful. Moreover, business conservatives are significantly more likely to agree with the view Wall Street helps the economy more than it hurts.

Immigration is yet another fault line, per the Pew study. A significant majority of the steadfast conservatives agree that immigrants put a burden on the country and take away jobs, housing and health care from others. 80% of these conservatives say newcomers from other countries threaten traditional American values. But by contrast, the business conservatives believe newcomers actually strengthen the country as immigrants bolster the nation through their hard work. As a result, the business conservatives strongly support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who meet certain eligibility requirements in contrast to the steadfast conservatives who split down the middle on this element of the debate about immigration reform.

These two presumed core Republican groups also part company over their assessment of America’s role in the world. The business wing strongly agrees it is best for the country to be active in the world. They also say problems in the world would be worse without US participation – a position that might be seen as roughly analogous with what is usually called the neo-conservative position. But in even larger numbers, the steadfast conservatives say it is time the US focuses on domestic problems rather than foreign questions and a majority of the steadfast conservatives also agrees with the argument that American involvement makes world problems worse – a very different perspective than that neo-conservative approach. These conservatives also argue free trade agreements – usually a Republican position – are bad for the country.

Both groups do, however, say military strength is the real path to ensuring peace, rather than a reliance on the avenue of diplomacy, and that defeating terrorism demands the ability to use overwhelming force. This, in turn, puts them significantly at odds with the most loyal Democrats, who tend to say too much force creates hatred and therefore more terrorism.

The remaining Republican group is labelled the “young outsiders.”  As the name implies, those in this group are generally younger, more independent, and more likely to express “a pox on both their houses” view of both major political parties.

Meanwhile, over on the Democratic side of the ledger, Pew calls the most ideological of the Democratic supporting groups the “solid liberals.” The other Democratic-leaning groups are what Pew called the “faith-and-family left,” the “next-generation left,” and the “hard-pressed skeptics.” All four of these groups backed Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012 by margins that ranged from 40 to 88 points, according to the study.

Among these four groups, the biggest differences come into play over a range of moral questions and social issues, including same-sex marriage. As their label implies, those in the “faith-and-family left” have strong religious convictions while a plurality of solid liberals have no religious affiliation.

The Pew analysts argue that the 13% of voters brought under the rubric of “hard-pressed sceptics” may well be the place where the Republican Party could find new supporters. Such voters are neither affluent nor well educated, with less than 10% holding a university or college degree. In the most recent presidential election, Barack Obama had won over such voters with an extraordinary 40% margin; the love has gone, with their support for Obama falling to a 44% level. This also tracks with other survey data that indicates Obama has suffered his greatest losses of support among less affluent voters.

These voters say they are deeply distrustful of government – with some 72% saying government is a wasteful and inefficient enterprise. Such defections of support for a Democratic president mean the Republicans could attract such voters in future elections, especially since such voters now only support a generic Democratic candidate by only 14% – a decline far more precipitous than for any other of the seven Pew groups. In fact, such voters have often been a swing group, supporting George W Bush in 2004 (and their predecessors probably were similarly a key to victories by other contemporary era Republican candidates for the presidency.)

But the whole thing certainly isn’t a slam-dunk for Republicans because these voters simultaneously also believe government should do more to help the needy, even if it means the federal government must go deeper into debt to do so. From among this same group, only 32% hold a favourable view of the Republican Party in generic terms, even as nearly half, some 46% are favourably inclined towards Democrats in the abstract. Such voters, accordingly, may have their issues with the Democrats, but they may also be an even worse fit for Romney-Ryan style economic conservatives the GOP seems likely to aim towards as future presidential candidates.

Still, the generally conservative groups defined by Pew tend to be more consistently and uniformly Republican than the more liberal groups that constitute the Democratic Party’s base. Moreover, historically, more conservative groups have tended to vote at a higher rate than the generally younger and more diverse liberals clustered towards the Democratic Party’s core. But, despite such demurs, the Pew study also casts a spotlight on the progressive deterioration of the GOP’s position over the past decade. In 2005, a similar Pew study found a 34% – 44% Republican/Democratic split of registered voters specifying party identification.

And here’s the real stinger in the tail for the Republicans. Their position is likely to deteriorate because those two Republican-leaning groups, the “steadfast conservatives” and “business conservatives,” are now virtually non-existent among younger voters. Those two strands among voters represent about 14% of politically engaged voters below the age of 40 years old, while the three generally more Democratic groups make up 54% of the politically engaged voters. That 40-point gap is twice as large as it is among all registered voters. The lesson here is that to succeed in the future, it will be incumbent on Republicans to ramp up their support with the swing voters among the “young outsiders” – representing perhaps 15% of all registered voters.

Defining these voters and, even more importantly, finding ways to make their appeals consistent with the values of such voters, becomes crucial for any political strategy that attempts to reel them into support for a political party. The Pew survey notes such “young outsiders” are conservative about the role of government – some three-quarters of them agreeing government is always wasteful and inefficient, while 76% do not believe government can now afford to do more to help those in need. And an extraordinary 86% argue that government assistance to the needy does more to harm them than help them while 81% think poor people “have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.” Those numbers are nearly identical to self-identified Republican leaners and should be music to GOP ears.

But, and there is a serious “but” in all this for Republicans. Like most of their generation, these “young outsiders” are decidedly liberal on cultural issues. This includes support for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalisation, as well as with their enthusiasm for environmental concerns. These are three rather significant disconnects with the positions and attitudes of many – perhaps most – leaders of today’s GOP. Moreover, these “young outsiders” are also deeply sceptical over the value of an assertive foreign policy as expressed by Republican neo-conservatives. The “young outsiders”, per the Pew results, say that some 59% of this group argue that attempts by the US to solve problems around the world usually make things worse – not a position that would allow someone like Governor Christie or former Governor Jeb Bush to endear himself easily to them on foreign policy grounds.

As a result of these divergent views, these voters merely lean Republican, rather than being solidly in that corner. Not even Rand Paul scores well among these voters; 34% carry an unfavourable impression of Paul, compared with 29% who have a favourable impression of the Kentucky Republican senator. As a result, the GOP has an opening among this group but only when – or if – the party chooses to focus more on the role of government than on the heat and light-generating issues of the cultural divide.

Accordingly, going forward, the real challenge for the Republicans, however, will be to court such voters by downplaying their party’s obdurate stance on those divisive cultural issues and in favour of the neo-conservative foreign policy agenda, and, instead, focusing like that proverbial laser beam on government’s role in the economy.  Given the current slate of possible candidates in that party, that may be a tall order indeed. DM

Photo: Protesters listen to remarks during the Tea Party Patriots rally on ‘Audit the IRS’ on the West Front Lawn of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, 19 June 2013. Tea Party Patriots organized the rally to protest the Internal Revenue Service’s ‘gross abuse of power in targeting Tea Party and grassroots organizations for harassment.’ EPA/SHAWN THEW

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