A big crop of nuts has rolled into the Republican Party
Since the mid-20th century when Republicans and Democrats began their slow march toward separate ends of the political spectrum, the share of GOP voters with curiously weird ideas has steadily increased. In 2016, that has become a disturbing problem for the party establishment as the two candidates with the strongest appeal to fringe voters, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, have moved well ahead of the more moderate pack.
Once upon a time — the 1960s — both the Democratic and Republican parties were big-tent coalitions with a range of ideological views. Presidential campaigns were usually a race to the middle. The philosophical differences between the contenders in the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, were slight by today’s standards. Both were anti-communist Cold Warriors with mildly progressive stands on issues such as civil rights.
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There were, of course, staunchly conservative Republicans back then. They raised up Barry Goldwater as their standard-bearer in 1964 and lost in a landslide. But there were also Rockefeller Republicans; socially liberal, pro-business and disdainful of extreme rightist groups such as the John Birch Society. Meanwhile, power in the Democratic Party of the ‘60s was split between FDR liberals and the old guard Southern racists who ran the most powerful committees in Congress.
President Lyndon Johnson’s support for the Voting Rights Act and other anti-segregationist legislation sent conservative Southerners racing into the arms of Nixon and, a few years later, Ronald Reagan. Today, Democrats are mostly liberal, increasingly secular and racially diverse. Republicans are proudly conservative, assertively religious and mostly white.
The United States, compared with the European democracies, is a center-right country. This has kept Democrats from straying too far left (although Bernie Sanders may change that). However, there has been nothing to stop Republicans from stirring up and profiting from anger on the right. GOP leaders have won majorities in Congress and the lion’s share of state legislatures by riling up the most conservative voters, and now the riled-up are dominating the GOP primary campaign and giving respectability to points of view that Republicans of a past era would have rejected outright.
Public Policy Polling just released a new survey of Republican voters in South Carolina that gives insight into what is on the mind of the party base. Only a third of them are glad the North won the Civil War. More than half think the Confederate flag should fly on the grounds of the state Capitol. Almost a third would shut down mosques in the United States, while a quarter would outlaw Islam altogether. Nearly half of South Carolina Republicans support creation of a national database of all Muslims in the country, and 60% would stop any more Muslims from entering the United States. (Polling indicates the same percentage of Republican voters in New Hampshire also share that view, by the way.)
And, as long as we are banning people, 20% of South Carolina GOP voters would also prohibit homosexuals from coming into the USA.
The survey found that, among Trump voters, those percentages skew much higher (80% would ban Muslim immigration, for instance, and 31% would keep gays out). Meanwhile, Ted Cruz is appearing on stages with pastors who believe homosexuals deserve the death penalty — and he is not embarrassed by it.
We already knew that a significant number of Republican voters, nationally, are willing to tell pollsters that President Obama is a Muslim and is lying about where he was born. Now, with right-wing conspiracy theorists running wild with the story that Obama had Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia assassinated, do not be surprised if that issue comes up in a Trump town hall meeting, a Cruz fundraiser or even the next Republican debate.
The Republican Party establishment knows it is only a matter of time before the kookiness among their constituents ruins their brand, but they are helpless to stop it. They are riding a wild and crazy bull and cannot jump off without the high risk of being stomped into the dirt.
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