1. Fiscal Austerity and Economic Stagnation
We have entered an era in which politics increasingly revolves around the ugly question of who will bear how much pain. Conservative constituencies already see themselves as aggrieved victims of American government: They are the people who pay the taxes even as their “earned” benefits are siphoned off to provide welfare for the undeserving. The reality is, however, that the big winners in the American fiscal system are the rich, the old, the rural, and veterans—typically conservative constituencies. Squeezing the programs conservatives most dislike—PBS, the National Endowment for the Humanities, tax credits for the poor, the Department of Education, etc.—yields relatively little money. Any serious move to balance the budget, or even just reduce the deficit a little, must inevitably cut programs conservative voters do like: Medicare for current beneficiaries, farm subsidies, veterans’ benefits, and big tax loopholes like the mortgage-interest deduction and employer-provided health benefits. The rank and file of the GOP are therefore caught between their interests and their ideology—intensifying their suspicion that shadowy Washington elites are playing dirty tricks upon them.
2. Ethnic Competition
White America has been plunged into a mood of pessimism and anger since 2008. Ron Brownstein reports in the National Journal: “63 percent of African-Americans and 54 percent of Hispanics said they expected their children to exceed their standard of living. Even college-educated whites are less optimistic (only about two-fifths agree). But the noncollege whites are the gloomiest: Just one-third of them think their kids will live better than they do; an equal number think their children won’t even match their living standard. No other group is nearly that negative.” Those fears are not irrational. In postrecession America, employers seem to show a distinct preference for foreign-born workers. Eighty percent of the net new jobs created in the state of Texas since 2009 went to the foreign-born. Nationwide, foreign-born workers have experienced a net 4 percent increase in employment since January 2009, while native-born workers have seen continuing employment declines. Which may explain why President Obama’s approval rating among whites slipped to 41 percent in January 2010 and is now testing a new low of 33 percent. The president’s name and skin color symbolize the emergence of a new America in which many older-stock Americans intuit they will be left behind.
It is precisely these disaffected whites—especially those who didn’t go to college—who form the Republican voting base. John McCain got 58 percent of noncollege-white votes in 2008. The GOP polls even higher among that group today, but the party can only sustain those numbers as long as it gives voice to alienation. Birtherism, the claim that President Obama was not born in the United States, expressed the feeling of many that power has shifted into alien hands. That feeling will not be easily quelled by Republican electoral success, because it is based on a deep sense of dispossession and disinheritance.
3. Fox News and Talk Radio
Extremism and conflict make for bad politics but great TV. Over the past two decades, conservatism has evolved from a political philosophy into a market segment. An industry has grown up to serve that segment—and its stars have become the true thought leaders of the conservative world. The business model of the conservative media is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel). As a commercial proposition, this model has worked brilliantly in the Obama era. As journalism, not so much. As a tool of political mobilization, it backfires, by inciting followers to the point at which they force leaders into confrontations where everybody loses, like the summertime showdown over the debt ceiling.
But the thought leaders on talk radio and Fox do more than shape opinion. Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even England. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from.”