In the early 1980s, veteran pollster Stan Greenberg, conducted a focus group in Macomb County, a Detroit suburb, of former US Democrats who had switched allegiance to then-Republican president Ronald Reagan.
After he read a statement by former US attorney general Robert Kennedy about racial inequality, one participant interjected: “No wonder they killed him.”
“That stopped me and led to a whole new analysis of Reagan Democrats,” Greenberg wrote in a recent report, Inside the GOP.
“I realized that in trying to reach this group of people, race is everything,” he said.
While conducting a focus group with Republicans over the summer he had a similar revelation, although it came not from a sole outburst, but almost throwaway comments, often left on cards after the session.
As one man left his handout he half-joked: “It’s probably digital, so you can check it on the NSA [National Security Agency] files.”
Another asked: “Now you’re going to guarantee that what we put down here, we won’t be getting a call from the IRS [Internal Revenue Service] about an audit or anything like that?”
Alongside this sense of being spied upon was relief that, in these Republican-only groups, they had found kindred spirits.
“I’m not alone in the way I view things for the most part,” one wrote on a postcard.
“Not by myself in thought process,” another said.
Those seeking to understand what drove the Republican party to shut down the government this month in a strategically disastrous move that laid bare its deep internal divisions — and ultimately led to humiliating defeat — could do worse than start here.
The report reveals a sense of ideological, demographic and cultural siege on the American right, from which there is no obvious escape.
Unable to comprehend or process last year’s election defeat, they feel the nation has become unmoored from its founding principles and is on a full-scale, unrelenting descent into chaos.
US President Barack Obama has been victorious in implementing socialism and the party they identify with has proved incapable of halting the decline, leaving them alienated not only from the country at large, but one another.
If it appears as though they are howling at the moon, it is because they feel all earthly options have been exhausted.
Describing Ireland’s economic and cultural transformation in his book The Deportees, Roddy Doyle wrote: “I went to bed in one country and woke up in a different one.” Many Republicans have precisely the same feeling.
Central to this deep-seated sense of angst is race. Last year, 92 percent of the Republican vote came from white people who, within 30 years, will no longer be in the majority.
“They are acutely racially conscious,” Greenberg said. “They are very aware that they are ‘white’ in a country that is becoming increasingly ‘minority.’”
Growing increasingly dependent on an ever-shrinking base, they see their electoral fortunes waning, but are resistant to adapting their message to broaden their appeal beyond their narrow racial confines.
Race is less the explicit target of their anxiety (issues such as affirmative action and civil rights no longer dominate) than the primary (if not exclusive) prism through which their political consciousness is being filtered.
“Race,” Greenberg writes, “is central to their worldview.”
There are three main ways in which this has been a factor in the recent government shutdown and Republican schisms.