A recent survey of 10,000 Americans from Pew Research Center for the People and the Press was ostensibly designed to provide proof of the increased polarization of our country. (Spoiler alert: “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.”)
But the poll, due to its large sample size of both far left and far right respondents, provides quantitative data demonstrating something striking: an extreme right wing that not only hates those on the opposite side of the political spectrum, but also desires to be isolated ethnically, culturally and geographically from the rest of the country.
Observing the conservative movement from afar, the products of the intellectual segregation of the right-wing biosphere are obvious: the belief that climate change is a hoax, that racism only exists in the form of the knockout game, that polls in 2012 needed to be unskewed and Mitt Romney was going to win in an electoral landslide culminating in Karl Rove’s televised meltdown.
But, though further study is necessary to determine whether the chicken or egg came first, it’s clear from the Pew study that the right-wing echo chamber is also buttressed by a conservative movement desiring a siloed existence.
According to Pew, “two-thirds (66%) of consistently conservative Republicans see the Democratic Party as a threat to the nation’s well-being, compared with the half (50%) of consistently liberal Democrats who say the same about the Republican Party.”
This 16-point divide between the polarized ends of the ideological spectrum is fomented by the seething anger of the conservative media. It convinces the Republican base that Democrats are not the loyal opposition, but a domestic enemy. As conservative David Frum noted in his postscript to the passage of Obamacare, “How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?”
In fact these trends have only gotten worse. Andrew Sullivan observed this week after a single night viewing Fox News, that network viewers were told, “the president is a lawless dictator, abetting America’s Islamist foes around the world, releasing Taliban prisoners to aid in his own jihad on America, fomenting a new caliphate in Iraq, and encouraging children to rush the Mexican border to up his vote-count, while effectively leaving those borders open to achieve his ‘fundamental transformation of America.’”
With this messaging being broadcast to conservatives not only on Fox, but also through talk radio and conservative websites, it’s surprising the 16-point hate gap is not larger.
Furthermore, according to Pew’s research, want to live on an ideological island, sequestering themselves away from diversity of any kind.
Those on the far right – or, as Pew describes them, “consistent conservatives” -- are 15 points more likely than their progressive counterparts to want to live in communities where most people share their political point of view. This is only logical. Why would you want to live in an area where you think your neighbors are out to destroy America?
These same conservatives are 40 points more likely than their progressive counterparts to prefer to live in areas with people of the same faith and 56 points less likely to want to live in an area of racial and ethnic diversity.
Odder is the conservative antipathy toward art and culture. While liberals and conservatives all are within a 10-point range when asked about their desire to live near family, good schools and the outdoors, conservatives are 50 points less likely than liberals to want to live in communities with cultural institutions such as art museums and theaters.
And what company do conservatives choose to keep? Other conservatives.
“Consistent conservatives” are 14 points more likely to say most of their friends share their political views.
The picture painted by Pew is one of a conservative movement that wishes to simply avoid any divergence that creates a modicum of discomfort. This isolation has a price.
The legislative product of this monochromatic politics will be evident following the defeat of Eric Cantor. As House Republicans scurry from any issues that might create friction with their base – effectively killing immigration reform this year -- they further position their party as one that can only attract the votes of white males. House Republican members are more fearful of the small ideological niche that holds a controlling interest among their primary electorate, particularly in gerrymandered congressional districts. That’s why polling in Virginia’s 7th suggesting that immigration reform was extremely popular is unlikely to sway other Republicans.
Observing that right-wing extremists have killed 40 people in this country since Sept. 11, 2001, while the left has not been responsible for a single death, Brian Beutler of the New Republic wrote:
I'm inclined to believe the answer is written into the DNA of conservative extremism—that deeply conservative people are more politically tribal than others, and more inclined to confront cognitive dissonance by entertaining conspiracy theories and cocooning themselves in communities with like-minded true believers.
Pew’s survey adds evidence to this hypothesis.
The bubble around the conservative movement is no accident. It has been spawned from the desire of those on the far right to isolate themselves in every conceivable way from any group that is at all different. Ultimately, this isolation is both self-reinforcing and politically toxic, and as Beutler pointed out, it creates a cultural petri dish from which twisted conspiracy theories can emerge.