What beliefs animate the average Republican voter?
That’s a question that’s dominated the news cycle this primary season.
With the Republican front-runner being a man routinely denounced as a grave threat to conservatism to no discernible effect, some have been wondering if the party’s voters are on the same page as its intelligentsia.
Some say the conservative movement still articulates the message of the Republican rank-and-file, while others say it is a different story.
The best illustration of this disagreement is how two recent articles at different conservative publications treated the prominent social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s conservative instinct theory.
Last week, Breitbart published a controversial overview of the “alt right” — a growing online movement that includes white nationalists and other extremists — which utilized Haidt’s idea to argue that Republican voters don’t care about conservative orthodoxy.
Haidt’s theory postulates that those who typically vote Republican do not do so much out of agreement with conservative policies but more so with the GOP’s image as synonymous with patriotism, the military and cultural Christianity. These “natural conservatives” typically prefer authority, tradition, homogeneous communities and are suspicious of the unfamiliar. In other words, they’re fairly tribal, and cultural issues connect with them in a way that economic matters can’t.
That’s why, in the opinions of Breitbart authors Milo Yiannopoulos and Allum Bokhari, a fringe movement like the alt right could possibly appeal to a large number of Republican voters who feel like their party is not doing a good job of representing them.
The authors of the article took a lot of heat for their piece due to its perceived intent as an apologia for the alt right.
One of those critical responses came in the form of a Federalist column by Robert Tracinski. Arguing that the alt right is just full of rank racists, he also took a swipe at Haidt’s study as well.
Tracinski claimed that “liberal social psychologist Jonathan Haidt” dredged up an “old smear” against Republicans in portraying them as “authoritarians motivated by ‘in-group loyalty.'”
The Federalist writer would prefer to believe that the average Republican simply loves free markets and capitalism, and the alt right (which he believes is actually leftist) undermines all the hard work conservatives have done to prove they’re not racists.
The problem with dismissing the study out of hand as the work of a biased liberal is that Haidt’s research has pretty good science behind it and the man himself is no typical liberal. He’s in fact been on the frontlines fighting against campus political correctness and co-authored The Atlantic feature on how that phenomenon is harming the mental health of young adults.
It’s also a bit of a smear to say the study portrays Republican voters as inherent authoritarians. It simply says they prefer the way things are, accept inequality as a fact of life and are skeptical of strange new things that seem to threaten their way of life.
Successful Republican candidates for president have understood this feeling among their voters and appealed to it during election season. During the tumultuous 1960s when violent radicalism and crime was on the rise, Richard Nixon promised to restore order and stand up for the Silent Majority that saw their nation in peril at the hands of nefarious liberals. Nixon won in 1968 and 1972.
Ronald Reagan won in 1980 and 1984 on a similar message that promised to “make America great again” and take the fight against the nation’s greatest enemy, the Soviet Union. A return to the way things were and combating the tribal enemy, to put it another way.
Reagan’s campaign made sure to note in his rhetoric that his opponent, Jimmy Carter, was far too soft on these matters and giving him another term would jeopardize the American Way.
And in this election cycle, Donald Trump is winning millions of Republican votes with promises to build a wall to keep out dangerous intruders, take back the government from incompetent losers and restore the nation to its previous greatness.
It’s not just because all these voters have been duped or that the Republican Party has a large number of secret Democratic interlopers voting in their primary. Trump is tapping into that conservative instinct in a way none of his rivals can match, which horrifies the pundits.
Many Republicans were hoping this election would offer the opportunity to rebrand the GOP as an outfit solely concerned with fiscal and foreign policy matters, one that leaves divisive cultural issues in the dust. That hope failed miserably, and the respective primaries of both parties reveal a nation bitterly divided on its values.
It’s unlikely a cut to the capital gains tax rate would mend the fences.
There are many things to learn from the 2016 primary, one being that conservatives should take extra note of the concept of natural conservatism. It’s not a smear against Republican voters, and it’s not saying they support fascism. It merely unveils the psychology for why people vote the way they do and why Democratic and Republican voters view things from totally different perspectives.
Resolving that values gap is going to take more than a political agenda and will probably require change within our culture. In the meantime, movement conservatives need to come to terms with the fact that the folks who vote Republican aren’t doing so purely out of agreement with the party’s economic agenda.
They’re doing because they see it as the vehicle for conserving their way of life.