When you take the time to interview Republican voters, as I did over the past two weeks, you quickly come to the realization that there is more than an ideological divide between the two parties; there are two wildly divergent views of reality.
In the Republican reality, George W. Bush is trustworthy and competent. “Sure,” conservatives say, “Bush may have difficulties communicating his thoughts, but he is doing a good job. He kept the country safe after 9/11. He is an honest man and a strong president.”
There is no arguing with Republicans on this point. Bush’s character is taken as a matter of faith. GOP partisans may acknowledge that Bush Administration policies have failed with regards to Iraq or the economy, but they have no doubt that he is a sincere, competent leader.
For many Republicans one phrase explains their attraction to Bush—“He’s a Christian.” Several folks I interviewed gave this as the crux of why they trusted him. When I countered that John Kerry is also a Christian, these voters responded in one of two ways: Some expressed surprise that Kerry is a person of faith. Many Republicans actually don’t know much about Kerry and, therefore, don’t know anything about his Christianity. All their information comes from the Republican Party, and from conservative media such as Fox news and the Rush Limbaugh show. These sources don’t say much about Kerry; what they do say is negative.
The second response was to discount Kerry’s Christianity—to imply that he is not the “right kind” of Christian. Some Republicans snapped that they don’t trust Kerry and therefore don’t believe his profession of Christianity. When I looked further into these comments, I found that most of these interviewees had been negatively influenced by the scurrilous “swift boat” ads.
There is also a big difference between Republicans and Democrats on the status of the war on terror and the war in Iraq. Those I interviewed felt that we are winning the war on terror and that our efforts have been helped by the invasion of Iraq. “Better that we fight them there, than here,” was a standard refrain. Once again, there is a fundamental difference of opinion. Republicans feel that there was a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein—some maintain that Hussein helped with the 9/11 attacks; Democrats dispute this. Republicans feel that the invasion of Iraq was an integral part of the war on terror; Democrats see it as a diversion. Republicans believe that we are winning the struggle in Afghanistan and Iraq; Democrats disagree, saying, for example, that our occupation of Iraq has actually helped Al Qaeda win new recruits.
Finally, there is a huge difference between Republicans and Democrats on the economy. The Republicans I interviewed felt that the economy is “getting better” and that a rising tide has, in fact, lifted all boats; Democrats believe that there are fundamental problems with this economy and that Bush administration policies have damaged the middle class. Republicans argued that the Bush administration is doing what needs to be done to deal with the health care crisis; Democrats feel that the response has been woefully inadequate. On a variety of related subjects from the future of social security to the provision of low-income housing, Republicans and Democrats have dramatically different perspectives.
What explains the gulf between the Republican reality and that of the Democrats? One explanation is that Republicans and Democrats “frame” reality differently. As UC professor George Lakoff and others explain, voters in each party have a fundamentally different sense of the world we live in. Republicans see the world as a jungle, where everyone is out to get us, and conclude that Americans need an autocratic leader—George W. Bush. Democrats have a more positive perspective; one that sees problems solved through cooperation among nations. In the Democratic worldview, Americans need a smart leader who is capable of forming alliances. Each view is reinforced by information “silos;” that is, Republicans and Democrats get their information from radically different sources. Republicans watch Fox news, read the Wall Street Journal, and listen to Rush Limbaugh and James Dobson; Democrats watch the News Hour on PBS, read the New York Times, and listen to NPR and Al Franken.
Does this mean that there is an irreparable split between the two parties? I don’t think so, but we do need to find ways to keep talking to each other. We do need a president who actually is, “a uniter, not a divider.”
A couple of Republicans I interviewed were not completely sold on George Bush, but didn’t know much about John Kerry. I gave them some information during the interview; for example, referred them to the Kerry web site. After the conclusion of the first presidential debate, I called to get their reaction; they were less committed to Bush and said that they wouldn’t decide how to vote until after the last debate. That’s a hopeful sign.