Understanding the GOP (written by a foreigner)

[TL;DR]: This post is my attempt to propose a good, understandable case for why people in the States vote Republican when it’s so inconceivable to us. Given that America is fairly neatly split down the middle between the political left and right, it may well descend into a diatribe about general left vs. right politics.

I like American politics, a lot. As a (somewhat) British man I sometimes feel like I should focus more on Britain in general, but whereas the circus that is American politics can be fun and exciting to watch, British politics are just depressing. That might be something to do with the level of separation, since I can watch and laugh at, say, Donald Trump’s antics without thinking that I might have to suffer the possibility of that man running my country. (Though I do get to suffer British politics instead. If I’d been two years younger my tuition fees would have tripled – and I’ve always got to keep in mind that I can no longer count on being left alone as long as I obey the law. Cheers, big Dave).

But beyond the entertainment factor, I feel there is a genuine importance in understanding American politics, as it remains for now the most powerful country in the world, and will be pretty safely in that position for another twenty years. Beyond that, it will probably be the most powerful English-speaking country in the world until I die.

So that’s what got me thinking about writing this. I’ve often thought that if the entire world could vote in the U.S. elections, the Democrats would win hands down every time. The Republicans (or Grand Old Party; GOP) and their voter pool come across to us non-Yanks as representative of everything bad about the USA: right-wing bible nuts, corporate greed, and gun-toting maniacs. For so many outside the States, “Republican” means “‘Murica.”

But recently I’ve been thinking more and more about this and I have a few issues.
Firstly: right-wing populism that verges on inciting hate is not unique to American politics in the modern day, not at all. Look at the Front National. Look at the Golden Dawn Party. Look at Julius Goddamn Malema. These are political bodies that have earned a sizeable amount of legitimacy and influence from playing off people’s conservative sides. They cannot simply be dismissed as some unelectable, loud, ‘evil’ voice. The American version of this only takes such a priority in our concerns because, as noted above, America is so powerful. That, and America’s entire self-identity is formed around it being founded on the basis of idealistic philosophy, so primal conservatism in America comes across as more shocking because they so often present themselves as more progressive than traditional European systems. It’s easy to ignore, for example, anti-Semitism in Poland and Hungary, and nobody would be shocked at the idea that some old man named Lord Autumnbottom would vote against marriage equality in the UK, but none of us wants to entertain the idea of a close-minded bigot whose foreign policy consists mainly of inimicizing China as being “the guy with his finger on the button”.

Secondly, and this is the main point of this post: there must be something good about the GOP. I got this idea from watching the West Wing*: early in the second season they introduce a character who’s supremely intelligent, politically competent, idealistic and non-corrupt, and a Republican. I think this was executive producer and screenwriter extraordinnaire Aaron Sorkin, who’s got a reputation for being a bit preachy, seeking to challenge himself, to see if he could write a non-villainous Republican.
*yes, more American politics, but it’s SUCH a good show.

But in doing so he made an excellent point to me, one that is so often lost on us outside the borders of the U.S., probably because of the general slightly left-wing stance of pop culture. Republicans aren’t evil.** The GOP have been a credible, even dominant force, in American politics for 150 years. There’s no way they’re an ‘evil’ party, as it’s statistically impossible that everyone who votes for them – let’s say generally 47-53% of the voting public (or about 25-29% of all Americans) is evil. I personally don’t believe humans are inherently evil or good, so it’s not a case of those who have managed to restrain their evil side through education and practice (as Xunzi taught) being Demmycrats or those who have been led away from their good side by the constraints of society (as Mencius taught) being Republicans. Statistically, there’s about an equal number of ‘good’ Republican voters as Democrats. The nutbags like Dylan Roof and Kim Davis who seem emblematic of the Republican votership are a stark minority: they simply have to be. If they weren’t, then American society would have broken down into sectarian and race wars a long time ago.
**I am aware of how stupid and obvious this sounds; but it’s amazing how easy it is to get that impression of them if you live outside the States.

But that’s not how it comes across to us in other countries. The combined influence of the Christian right and corporate money-lenders in the GOP is hypocritical at best, their policies on gun control make literally everywhere else in the world look progressive, and their media mouthpiece, Fox News, would probably convert to Satanism if Jesus ever came back and endorsed Barack Obama. Basically, so many of their politicians are utter shits (“legitimate rape”, anybody? Committing treason to try and block the Iran deal?)

SO, what on earth would provoke approximately 1 in every 2 voters to vote for them?

Like Sorkin above challenging himself to write a decent Republican character, this is me challenging myself, and will require a bit of mental gymnastics. I’m trying to understand what the other side (not “the enemy”, but “the other side”) thinks.
For this, it may be worth a brief explanation of my own political leanings. I used to be apathetic, and with that apathy came a general dislike of those annoying left-wing activists and protesters. I wasn’t strictly right-wing, but I was a strong believer in the free market and individual freedoms. I didn’t like the phrase “right-wing”; I would definitely have classed myself as a libertarian. I still think Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’ is an extremely well-written book. But over my time at Cambridge, I became much more socially aware. My libertarian ideal of individual rights, I came to believe, had to be extended to those who needed those rights for protection against the injustices of our society: the oppressed, the poor, and anyone who wasn’t white, cisgender, heterosexual, and male. To that end, I started to think, government regulations and safety nets were necessary. Over the course of the last few years, especially the run up to the British election in May 2015, I became pretty much middle-of-the-road left wing (if a bit apathetic still).

So, what reasons can I see for someone to vote Republican in America? (Note: I’m not endorsing these. I’m just trying to put myself in other people’s shoes).
What I’ve realised is that it’s very very often NOT the whole package that your average voter is attracted to. With such contradictions and hypocrisy in the party, there’s no way it could be the whole package: people generally are smart enough to see when they’re being so duped.
No, it’s not the whole package: it’s the fact that everyone has priorities. Some interests supersede others. This was another point illustrated on the West Wing: when one of the main characters argues with his friend, a gay Republican senator who still votes to block marriage equality. When grilled by the main character, which ultimately becomes a question of “how can you be in this Party as a gay man?” the senator responds that he is not, first and foremost, a gay man. He is a strong believer in local government, in a strong national defense, and in the free market, and as a patriotic American, those things are more important to him than his rights as a homosexual. Similarly, from the 1960s to the 1990s, the USA created the most expansive and sufficient middle class in history, and those effects are still around today. Many of the people on the poor side of that middle class are still well-off enough, such that benefits and welfare cuts while the super-rich are getting tax cuts don’t matter to them as much as, say, an assertive foreign policy. Equally, gun rights activists don’t support Republicans for the right to kill people, but they’re attracted by the strong libertarian platform put forward by the GOP (as Ron Swanson put it: a man’s right to fart in his own car) and what that means for gun rights: the rights of the individual over the rights of the state.

It’s also worth considering, from the GOP-voters’ point of view, what the alternative is. If you’re a Christian, like a huuuuuuge number of Americans, even if you’re pretty middle-of-the-road, non-interfering and not a Westboro militant, but still proud of your faith, then voting for the Party who are going to promote and value your faith which means so much to you is probably just as favourable an option as voting for the party who say they’re going to do a better job of feeding the poor (and other Christ-like stuff), but who also say that your religion, as a good American, has as much value to the state as the religion of the people they’re currently carrying out air strikes against.*** If you’re at all against any kinds of liberal values, like drug legalisation, equal rights for the LGBT+ community, or multiculturalism (and a lot of people are against at least one of those kinds of things – NEVER underestimate the pull of social conservatism), then in each instance, the liberal party becomes increasingly unfavourable.
***For the record, there are obviously good Christians on both sides of the aisle. And good Muslims in every country.

Speaking of being increasingly unfavourable, that’s really one of the key sticking points about the left (as I imagine it from the rightist point of view). I remember it in my own case, becoming increasingly left-wing up until half a year ago: as a ‘leftist’, I felt this overarching sense of moral superiority. For a while, I simply couldn’t fathom how people could be voting UKIP, or Tory – couldn’t these people see what they would do to the country? Don’t they care about the poor, the hungry, the refugees? Oh well: if they don’t, they must be morally inferior to me.
But then imagine being on the right-wing side of that. Imagine being constantly bashed on social media for “not caring enough”, when in fact you probably try to care a lot, and try to be what you believe a good person is. It’ll make you resent the other side all the more.
And that’s another problem with the left-wing: conservatism tends to stay in one place on the conservative-progressive spectrum, but it’s really hard to define the other end of the spectrum. There’s a lot of in-fighting in the left, with people holding pretty progressive views being condemned by people who define themselves as even more progressive. I consider myself pretty darn liberal but I do believe there’s a point ultra-progressiveness just becomes a waste of time (a throwback to my right-wing days). Even now, though, I’m hesitant to say exactly what that point is, because I have a lot of ultra-leftist friends for whom it will nevertheless not be enough.
So for people who fall somewhere between ultra-conservatism and ultra-liberalism, like a lot of the Swing States (at least, on the American version of that spectrum), the smug moral superiority and condemnations coming from the left would make them increasingly resentful.

That, I believe, is that. Maybe all of you reading this knew this already: maybe I’m the only one who up until this point couldn’t really get my head around why anyone would vote Republican. But hopefully it has been useful.

I ought to state again that I don’t agree with many of the views I demarcated above. If I were American, I’m fairly certain I’d vote Democrat over and over again. This has been, for me, a discursive exercise.
Moreover, it’s been an important exercise for me politically, because it’s helped me to understand opposing points of view. All opinions are, after all, of equal value – and funnily enough, that’s the most liberal thing I’ve ever said.

JH

P.S. Pointless trivia: there are two Chinese characters – 手 and 毛 – that look really alike. The first one, shou, means “hand”, while the second, mao, means “wool”, “hair”, or “fur”. For a beginner, the easiest way to distinguish them is that in shou the final stroke flicks to the left at the bottom, while in mao the final stroke flicks to the right. That mao is the same character as in 毛泽东 – Mao Zedong, Chairman Mao. Ironically, though Mao was a notorious leftist (to put it lightly), mao is the character that flicks to the right. I always found that funny.

Though why do we refer to these ideologies as “left” and “right”? Maybe one for another blog post. I really need to go to bed.