Opinion: Our politics is no longer about policy, or even ideology

Policy differences, ideology and even narrow-minded self-interest cannot explain the deep and growing divide in American politics. Nor can it explain the popularity of Donald Trump in some quarters. The only way to explain or understand these phenomena is to attribute it to a bone-deep cultural resentment that probably does not originate in politics, but that finds its outlet and expression in politics.

Why do I say that?

In an addendum to a Tuesday post, I noted a new Washington Post poll asking voters whether they support bombing the Syrian government as punishment for the use of chemical weapons. The same pollsters asked that same question in 2013, when it was President Obama, not President Trump, who was wrestling with the question of how to how to respond to Syrian use of chemical weapons. In short, we've got almost identical situations with almost identical policies at issue, and the only major variable is which party holds the White House. It's an almost perfect political-science experiment.

And the results?

As you can see, the wariness of Democrats is consistent across the board, regardless of who is in power. Among Republicans, however, the difference is stark. Just 22 percent supported the policy when it was proposed by Obama four years ago, but that support jumps almost four-fold when it is proposed by a Republican. In short, support or opposition has almost nothing to do with the actual merits of the policy.

That finding dovetails nicely with the results of YouGov polling that I've cited here before. In July 2014, before the emergence of Donald Trump, YouGov pollsters asked voters for their impressions of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. They asked that same question again in December 2016, after Trump had been elected president and after the announcement by U.S. intelligence agencies that Putin had tried to assist Trump in the election.

Here's what they found:

In 2014, both Democrats and Republicans had deeply unfavorable impressions of the Russian leader, with the disfavor particularly strong among Republicans. That wasn't a surprise, given the generally more hawkish, anti-Russian attitude that is traditional within the GOP. At the time, given what I know of history, I would have thought GOP opposition to Putin to be implacable.

Yet once Trump emerged on the scene, eager to embrace Putin, Republican attitudes changed dramatically. In a matter of 29 months, the percentage of Republicans with a deeply unfavorable impression of Putin fell from a majority of 51 percent to a tiny minority of 14 percent, or roughly John McCain, Lindsey Graham and the staffs of the Weekly Standard and National Review.

Putin didn't change between 2014 and 2016. He didn't cure cancer or become America's friend or win that season's "Dancing with the Stars" contest. Instead, a lot of Republicans decided that if the price of beating the hated Democrats was to find some previously unseen virtue in Putin, then they would pay that price. That's how deep the resentment runs, and how much power it has to alter perceived reality. I never would have thought it possible.

We can find a lot of answers here, to conundrums large and small. Republicans who were outraged that Obama played golf and took his family on trips at public expense are now silent when Trump is on schedule to spend more on travel in his first year than Obama did in his full eight years. They simply don't feel the resentment when Trump does it.

When you ask why not a single Republican supported passage of Obamacare, even though it was basically a conservative policy pioneered by conservative leaders that was adopted by Obama in hopes of luring conservative support, I refer you to the charts above. No policy, no matter how conservative, would have sufficed to win conservative support, because it was never about policy in the first place. It was about saying no to whatever liberals wanted, no to all these changes going on around them.

When you ask why Obama failed to enforce his "red line" in Syria, the answer is again in the charts above. When Obama asked for congressional backing for military action in 2013, Republicans refused, even though Bashar al Assad's chemical-weapons attacks at that time far exceeded the scale of the recent attack. If Obama was for it, Republicans had to be against it, regardless of its merits.

It also explains how Trump was able to tramp all over traditional conservative ideology in the primaries and still emerge victorious. He understood when no else did that loyalty to that ideology was an inch deep among the GOP base, and that the true unifying force was resentment. Even now, with the incompetence of the Trump administration on full display, and after a clear betrayal of his anti-elitist campaign promises, he retains significant conservative support based on his unrivaled ability to outrage liberals. He is proving once again that people will vote even against their own self-interest as long as their resentments are validated and appeased.

And on and on it goes. When you marvel at Republican inability to formulate coherent policy on health care, on Syria and the Middle East or any other issue, I again refer you to the charts above. For decades now, the centerpole of conservative thought has been to oppose liberal thought. As a result, when put in a position to enact policies of their own, they have none. It's like a drunk who has spent all night leaning against a lamppost for support. Take away the lamppost, and he collapses.

And again, the true source of that resentment isn't political in the first place, which also means it cannot be addressed through politics. Its inspirations are demographic, generational, economic, technological and religious. It is also a reaction against a media culture that conservatives find increasingly antagonistic and dismissive, and often, I'll admit, for very good reason.

Yet for the most part, all of those things are and ought to be well outside the control of government. In fact, the irony is that a government that is powerful and intrusive enough to alter such trends would contradict everything that the "small-government" Republicans have claimed until now to support.

I'm hopeful that too won't change, but on some days I do have my doubts.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.