Much like Don Quixote mistook windmills for giants and wished to do battle with them, Republicans wrongly perceive Democrats as extreme leftists and consequently work themselves into an ideological lather.
That was, essentially, one of the main points that Salon’s Paul Rosenberg made in his Saturday piece on "Tea Party phonies" pegged to the Pew Research Center’s recent study on American political polarization. Rosenberg contended, reasonably enough, that congressional Republicans as a group are far more conservative than their counterparts of fifty years ago, but also claimed strangely that congressional Democrats are, overall, no more liberal than their mid-’60s predecessors.
Rosenberg asserted that today’s GOPers “are over-responding to an increased Democratic liberalism that’s mostly all in their heads” and added that during Barack Obama’s presidency, conservatives repeatedly have freaked out over imaginary phenomena: “Death panels? They don’t exist…Massive voter fraud? That doesn’t exist, either. Using the IRS to intimidate political opponents? Didn’t happen.”
From Rosenberg’s piece (emphasis added):
Pew tells us that “72 percent of consistent conservatives have a very unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party,” compared to just 53 percent of consistent liberals who have similar views of the GOP. Pew also reports that “In both political parties, most of those who view the other party very unfavorably say that the other side’s policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.’” But once again, this is significantly more pronounced among Republicans: “Overall, 36 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners say that Democratic policies threaten the nation,” compared to just 27 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners[.]
But not only are Republicans and consistent conservatives more negative about the other side, objective reality gives them less reason.Despite right-wing fears, today’s Democratic Party is not that different from the Democratic Party of 20 years ago — or even earlier. This is particularly evident by looking at how the 90 percent Democrat level of liberalism has barely moved a whisper since the 1960s in the House, according to Poole’s DW-Nominate score. In the Senate, 90 percent Democrats are actually more conservative than they were in the early 1960s. So on both counts, Republicans have no objective reason to be so much more negative toward Democrats. The reverse is not the case, however. In both chambers, the 90 percent Republicans are substantially more conservative than they were in the 1960s and ’70s — in the House, dramatically so. Thus, Republicans are over-responding to an increased Democratic liberalism that’s mostly all in their heads, while Democrats are under-responding to an increase in Republican conservatism to levels without historical precedent — at least not without going back well before the Great Recession.
As for feeling threatened by the other side’s policies, again, we’re in need of a reality check. What sorts of things have Republicans been alarmed about during the Obama years? Death panels? They don’t exist. A foreign-born, Islamic, Marxist president? Sorry, he doesn’t exist, either. Massive voter fraud? That doesn’t exist, either. Using the IRS to intimidate political opponents? Didn’t happen. On “issue” after “issue,” as Gertrude Stein once said, “There’s no there there.”
Democrats, on the other hand, have good reason to fear that Republicans forcing the government into defaultreally would threaten the nation’s economic future. Even the GOP’s business class backers were afraid of that one. Having Bush in charge,neglecting the need to rebuild New Orleans’ levees really did threaten New Orleans’ safety — and ignoringRichard Clarke’s warnings about al-Qaida didn’t help New York’s safety, either. And then there was the little matter of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. So, again, there’s a profound asymmetry in terms of actual versus perceived threat,on top of the difference in levels of reaction.
There is an explanation for why conservatives react more intensely to perceived threats, which gets us into the field of political psychology. A wide range of findings support the conclusion that conservatives are more risk-averse than liberals, and are inherently distrustful of change. There’s no doubt that the pace of change has increased in recent years, so it’s understandable that conservatives would experience higher levels of threat than liberals would. But this does not mean that liberals or the Democratic Party are the source of the threat. In fact, the whole thrust of modern liberalism has been to make it easier to deal with a changing world, spreading values and institutions that facilitate tolerance between different groups and individuals who respond differently in the face of a changing world.
We can see this exemplified in attitudes toward homosexuality. Liberals favor adapting, by allowing gays the same marriage rights as straight people. Conservatives think that liberals accepting gays is the problem — if they’d only join with conservatives in condemning homosexuality, then everything would be just peachy. Biology, however, disagrees. And that is what conservatives are actually at war with…