Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., posted an anime video this month depicting him murdering Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Ordinarily, a person who revels in the imagined gruesome killing of a work colleague would soon be out of a job. At the very least, there would be a punishment, such as the censure vote that took place Wednesday in the House.
Yet, while 221 Democrats voted to hold Gosar responsible for his actions, only two Republicans did; one voted present, and three didn’t vote. The 207 other Republican votes were opposed to censure.
This isn’t the first time Gosar has done something inflammatory and reckless. He has repeatedly denounced immigrants, appeared alongside white supremacists, suggested that the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, had been planned by "an Obama sympathizer," pushed QAnon conspiracy theories and even claimed at a House hearing that his background as a dentist made him uniquely qualified to read body language. In 2018, his own family members ran an ad urging voters in his district not to vote for him. It hardly mattered. He still got 68 percent of the vote. In 2020, he slightly increased his vote total. In 2022, it would be a miracle if he weren’t elected again.
Gosar’s continued electoral success raises a difficult question: Is there anything a Republican politician can do to alienate Republican voters?
The answer, seemingly, is no. Devotion and loyalty to the Republican tribe trump all else.
This process of defining deviancy further and further down has become endemic within the Republican Party. In 2017, Roy Moore narrowly lost a high-profile Senate race in Alabama after being accused of sexually assaulting an underage girl and romantically pursuing others when he was in his 30s. Still, 91 percent of Alabama Republican votes went for him. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who’s unvaccinated, has been fined $60,000 for refusing to wear a mask in the House. If anything, that will most likely ensure that she will replicate, or even better, her nearly 50-point victory last year.
Donald Trump presided over a disastrous national response to the Covid-19 pandemic and got sick himself after repeatedly refusing to take health precautions, and in 2020 he still maintained the overwhelming support of Republican voters.
This phenomenon reflects the intense political polarization in American society, which is largely asymmetrical. Republicans have moved in a far more extreme political direction than Democrats..
But Gosar’s case and the overall reluctance of Republican voters to cast ballots against Republican politicians reflects an even more troubling phenomenon: asymmetrical tribalism. That means Republican voters are not just more extreme than their Democratic counterparts; they are more loyal.
According to Matt Grossmann, a professor of political science at Michigan State University: “Republicans are more attached to their partisan identity and associate it more with a worldview and ideology than Democrats. They will act on their partisan identity more than Democrats will.” In short, they will, for the most part, vote for Republicans no matter what.
Republicans adhere to ideology and an abstract set of conservative principles, including smaller government, traditional values and, perhaps above all, dislike and suspicion of liberals and progressive values. That encourages a sentiment of tribalistic loyalty that Democrats simply can’t match.
It reminds me of a reporting trip I took in 2016 to Delaware County, Ohio, one of the reddish counties in that state. I attended the county state fair and spoke to a man working the Republican Party’s table there. I asked him whether he considered himself a Trump supporter. He shrugged, exhibiting little enthusiasm. I ticked through a series of statements that Trump had made and asked him whether he agreed. On virtually all of them, he didn’t. When I finally asked whether he was still planning to vote for Trump, he said simply, “He’s a Republican.”
That’s it: Tribe trumped all else.
Conversely, Democrats are unified by their advocacy for a series of group benefits — civil rights laws, Social Security and Medicare, environmental protection, support for abortion rights, etc. For them, interests and specific group benefits trump ideology. The Democratic Party is more likely to be for them a means to an end and not a key aspect of their personal identities.
Indeed, as Grossmann and his co-author, David A. Hopkins, point out in their book, “Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats,” Democrats are far less likely than Republicans to say their loyalty to the Democratic Party is because of ideological or clearly liberal reasons. They are also far less likely to define themselves as liberals. For rank-and-file Republicans, their group identity is as conservatives and members of the GOP, which in recent years have become practically synonymous.
For Republicans, symbolic or cultural issues are more resonant than the usual transactional nature of government. The dislike that wealthy businesspeople and white working-class laborers feel toward the federal government may originate in different places, but the result — a preference for small-government conservatism — exerts a similarly powerful political pull over both.
Yet, as Grossman points out, that ideological viewpoint, which has animated Republican politics for decades, is overly tribalistic, as well. “People think that Republicans don’t trust government as much as Democrats, but the actual pattern is that Republicans flip a lot from not trusting government at all under Democrats from trusting the government a lot under Republican presidents.”
Consider that consumer sentiment among Republicans, which during the four years of the Trump presidency was fairly high, dropped off a cliff this year ... as soon as Joe Biden became president.
Asymmetrical tribalism also offers a possible explanation for the underperformance of Democrats in this month’s elections in New Jersey and Virginia, two largely blue states. Since Democratic voters don't feel as strong a sense of loyalty to their party, they were perhaps more inclined to stay home or vote for a Republican.
But in red-state America, as we saw in 2018 and 2020, there is little that can get core GOP voters to question their support for the GOP and its standard-bearer.
This creates a unique political problem for Democrats: It makes it all the more difficult to win over voters with transactional or interest-based arguments.
Take an issue like paid family leave. Republicans may individually support the policy (and it polls quite well) but, based on the ideological priors, hold negative views toward Democrats’ expanding the role of government.
Indeed, Republican voters would likely be inclined to support a paid family leave bill, but only if it’s passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Republican president. As part of the infrastructure bill, rural broadband access is likely to increase significantly. But, to assume that this advance will translate into votes for Democrats is to believe that government benefits will trump culture and identity — and that just isn’t likely to happen.
Bashing Gosar and the Republicans who refused to censure him Wednesday might rile up Democrats and perhaps peel away a handful of swing voters. But when it comes to Republicans, it seems more likely than not that the primal urge to defend a member of one’s own tribe would cement the support of Republican voters for Republicans politicians. As we’ve seen repeatedly over the past years, with Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, loyalty matters far much more to Republicans than displays of personal integrity.
All of this leaves Democrats facing a near-insurmountable political obstacle. America’s constitutional system already leaves them structurally disadvantaged, and they are facing off against political rivals who are happy to change the rules to benefit themselves politically. But, even worse, their own supporters are less likely to be with them through thick and thin. In American politics, tribalism is increasingly endemic — and it favors one party over the other.