Why Republicans Shut Down the Government

If you want to understand why the government is shut down or why elected Republicans would even consider doing something as reckless as using a debt default to extract policy concessions from the White House -- without necessarily even knowing which policy concessions they want -- Stan Greenberg has a memo for you.

Greenberg has been a prominent Democratic pollster for decades, with a specialty in white working-class distrust of Democratic elites. In addition to his own polling firm, he operates Democracy Corpswith former Democratic consultant James Carville. (Both men worked for former President Bill Clinton.)

Democracy Corps issued a report this week on six focus groups conducted with Republican subgroups -- two each with Tea Partiers, evangelicals and moderate Republicans. The results somehow manage to be unsurprising and shocking at the same time -- largely due to the bracing effects of reading the real words of (almost) average Americans.

First, a word on focus groups. Unlike a poll, which asks a series of standardized questions to hundreds of people and then tallies the results, a focus group is more like a conversation. Usually 10 or 12 people are chosen because they meet certain demographic and partisan profiles and invited to a conference room. A professional moderator is charged with keeping the conversation flowing in a productive (for the researchers) direction, and a sense of safety is established among participants.

Safety is largely a function of sameness. If you want to know what black working-class men think about Mitt Romney, for example, don't throw three white professionals with briefcases into the mix. Instead, surround like with like. Groups that are homogenous in terms of race and class tend to produce far more uninhibited responses.

That's what Greenberg did -- putting together separate homogenous groups of white Tea Partiers, white evangelicals and white Republican moderates.

The moderates are in some respects a breed apart. They share the antipathy Tea Partiers and evangelicals have toward President Barack Obama, but lack the other groups' default position amid demographic, political and cultural change.

That default is essentially abject terror. Before discussion began, participants were asked to write down private thoughts about Obama that they wouldn't have to share with the others. Here's a sample:

"Socialist, income redistribution"
(Tea Party man, Raleigh)

"What is he really thinking?"
(Tea Party man, Raleigh)

(Tea Party man, Raleigh)

"Lack of relationship with the American people."
(Tea Party man, Raleigh)

"Muslim; birth agenda; Fake; not true"
(Tea Party man, Raleigh)

"Not a US citizen. Supports Terrorists."
(Evangelical man, Roanoke)

"I don't believe he's a Christian. He's a tyrant."
(Evangelical man, Roanoke)

"He wants to fundamentally change the country."
(Evangelical man, Roanoke)

"He is going to try to turn this into a communist country."
(Evangelical woman, Colorado Springs)

"His motives behind his actions."
(Evangelical woman, Colorado Springs)

"He supports everything that is against Christianity."
(Evangelical woman, Colorado Springs)

It's worth noting these were not the words of activists dressed in colonial garb on their way to a Capitol Hill protest. All these participants did was get paid to attend a focus group in or around their home towns.

For them, Greenberg notes, Washington looks nothing like the capital many others see. Gridlock? There is no gridlock. Only a socialist steamroller before which the Republican Party is feeble and afraid. "Evangelicals who feel most threatened by trends embrace the Tea Party because they are the ones who are fighting back," the report states. Republican base voters "think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support."

This is the context of the fight against Obamacare. The basic idea -- similarly articulated by some Republican officeholders, including Texas Senator Ted Cruz -- is that Obama has extended a new entitlement to create a class of lazy, poor voters whose well-being is dependent upon the Democratic Party. Shorthand: more 47 percenters.

"Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities," the report states.

The Republican moderates were staunch fiscal conservatives, but most readily embraced new gender relations and minority empowerment, including gay rights. The Tea Partiers and evangelicals spoke as if they were in the midst of War of the Worlds. As the report characterizes the Tea-Party worldview: "Obama's America is an unmitigated evil based on big government, regulations and dependency."

It's a tough situation to rectify. A lot of Americans were not ready for a mixed-race president. They weren't ready for gay marriage. They weren't ready for the wave of legal and illegal immigration that redefined American demographics over the past two or three decades, bringing in lots of nonwhites. They weren't ready -- who was? -- for the brutal effects of globalization on working- and middle-class Americans or the devastating fallout from the financial crisis.

Their representatives didn't stop Obamacare. And their side didn't "take back America" in 2012 as Fox News and conservative radio personalities led them to believe they would. They feel the culture is running away from them (and they're mostly right). They lack the power to control their own government. But they still have just enough to shut it down.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

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