I've been wanting to write about "The Very Separate World of Conservative Republicans," the new focus-group report from Democracy Corps and the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (PDF; also here).
A point the pollsters have been at great pains to emphasize is that hardcore base conservatives -- "almost one-in-five voters in the electorate," according to the report (yes, that's frightening) -- really aren't fixated on Barack Obama's race:
Instead of focusing on these intense ideological divisions, the press and elites continue to look for a racial element that drives these voters' beliefs -- but they need to get over it. Conducted on the heels of Joe Wilson’s incendiary comments at the president's joint session address, we gave these groups of older, white Republican base voters in Georgia full opportunity to bring race into their discussion -- but it did not ever become a central element, and indeed, was almost beside the point.
The same thing was said in a conference call with reporters about the report:
...the focus groups were given an open, relaxed environment to discuss what they thought, and [race] never came up.
My reaction to that is mixed. On the one hand, I think this is a good corrective to the belief some people on our side have that the intense vitriol directed at Obama is largely (or even exclusively) because he's African American. On the other hand, it's not as if race never came up in this focus group:
They were conscious of the charge that opposition to Obama is racially motivated and that bothered conservative Republicans and independents alike. They basically could not let it go and returned to this issue again and again throughout our conversations across myriad topics.
You can't openly criticize Obama. If you do, you'll be labeled as a racist.
Whatever we say about Obama, no matter what we say about him, it is a racial comment so you know, we can't say anything, we personally do not like him. I don't care if he is purple, but whatever we say we're racist.
... You would be called a racist. You would not like him because he is black. That is what the media is saying.
They see this as a personal rights issue because the racism charge is being used to prevent them from fulfilling their duty to stand up to Obama and his agenda.
Folks, what was I just telling you a couple of days ago about Rush Limbaugh's race talk? It's all precisely this kind of table turning: the message is that the real (perhaps only) victims of racial tension in this country are whites who are accused of racism when they criticize Obama (or Donovan McNabb or any other non-white person). The focus groupers are just repeating a Limbaugh argument -- also made by Glenn Beck and other wingnuts -- absolutely verbatim.
And that's the takeaway from this report: everything these people say is undigested bullet points from Fox and talk radio. Absolutely everything.
First and foremost, these conservative Republican voters believe Obama is deliberately and ruthlessly advancing a 'secret agenda' to bankrupt our country and dramatically expand government control over all aspects of our daily lives. They view this effort in sweeping terms, and cast a successful Obama presidency as the destruction of the United States as it was conceived by our founders and developed over the past 200 years.
This concern combines with a profound sense of collective identity. In our conversations, it was striking how these voters constantly characterized themselves as part of a group of individuals who share a set of beliefs, a unique knowledge, and a commitment of opposition to Obama that sets them apart from the majority of the country. They readily identify themselves as a minority in this country -- a minority whose values are mocked and attacked by a liberal media and class of elites....
And yet remarkably, these voters had virtually nothing positive to say about the Republican Party. They see their own party as weak, old, and out of touch. They feel it has lost sight of conservative values and conservative voters and is in desperate need of new leadership....
Obama has a secret agenda to destroy the country! Right-wingers are a persecuted minority! The GOP isn't pure enough in its consevatism! This is everything Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, World Net Daily, Free Republican, RedState, and the rest of the wingnut opinion-drivers have been saying for a long time.
The opinion drivers complain about "czars"? These folks complain about "czars." Glenn Beck suggests that George Soros is the hidden hand behind Obama? So do these people. Beck imagines himself being martyred? They say they "fear for his life."
Yeah -- and so?
Well, here's the thing. Imagine that Barack Obama hadn't become unstoppable by spring 2008. Imagine if Hillary Clinton had done well enough to win the nomination, or if the race had really been neck-and-neck until the end of primary season, with Hillary having a legitimate chance to win.
There never would have been a right-wing media campaign to make Hillary look good. And if she'd won the nomination and been headed toward at least as big a general-election victory as Obama achieved, with decisive Democratic majorities likely in both houses, the right would have used the same scorched-earth tactics against her. There was clearly a strategic decision that was the only possible way to slow what seemed to be a Democratic juggernaut -- and the same decision would have been made regardless of the Democratic nominee.
Hillary would have been demonized just the way Obama has been demonized. Her youthful reading of Saul Alinsky would have become a right-wing obsession. Wingnuts would fixate on her husband's pardon of members of the Puerto Rican separatist group FALN as a sign that she's "pro-terrorist." They'd also have focused on what The New York Sun called "her clerkship in 1971 at one of America's most radical law firms, Treuhaft, Walker and Burnstein." And on and on. (All this, of course, mixed with a heavy dose of the usual anti-Hillary sexism.)
And then if, as president, she attempted any sort of government intervention in any area, even a modest stimulus? Would Limbaugh and Beck and the rest have been able to restrain themselves? Wouldn't we be hearing that she's a big fat commie tearing down America? In the same hysterical, apocalyptic tones?
My point is that the members of the wingnut base would have been angry no matter what, about whatever they were told to be angry about. They'd have been angry at a black man or a white woman (or, if another candidate had come through the process, a white or Hispanic man). They're just like madrassah-bred jihadists or eager readers of Mao's Little Red Book -- they hate the people they're told to hate.
So, no, the key isn't the base's innate racism, or innate anything else. These people just think what they're told to think.