Last Wednesday, the House voted to censure Representative Paul Gosar for tweeting an animated video depicting him killing his fellow member of Congress, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Although the punishment vindicated the values of basic decency and decorum we should expect from our public officials, the vote fell almost strictly along party lines, with only two Republicans, Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, joining Democrats to vote in favor of the sanction. Taken in isolation, it might seem astonishing that more Republicans would not want to condemn behavior that, if repeated or acted upon by others, could encourage violence against them. But the truth is that Gosar is a necessary vehicle in the larger Republican strategy to hold on to power, and seeing this bigger picture is crucial to understanding why the party is willing to tolerate such destructive behavior within its ranks.
In their book, Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson examine what they call the “conservative dilemma”: How a party can continue to have wide electoral appeal, while pursuing policies that benefit only a small minority of voters. Specifically, when conservative parties, who are traditionally aligned with economic elites, pursue increasingly plutocratic economic policies — like, say, a $1.7 trillion tax cut in which over 80% of the benefits will ultimately accrue to the top 1% of Americans — they have a political problem, because it gets harder to sell those policies to large swaths of their voters. At this fork in the road, conservative parties have two options. One is to soften their economic policies so that they benefit a broader segment of the population, thereby attracting more voters to their tent. In fact, having to compete for voters based on policy, the authors argue, is what has tempered the conservative agenda in many other countries. Unfortunately, when parties respond to the conservative dilemma by doubling down on their narrow economic interests, politics takes a dark turn. This is because the party has to resort to other means to ensure electoral victory, which the authors call the “three Rs”: Resentment, Rigging, and Racialization.
We’ve seen the Resentment prong of this strategy play out in many arenas over the past few years, and they typically fall under the term “culture wars.” Some of these involve manufactured controversies over trivial, and often idiotic, issues — things like the decision by the Dr. Seuss estate to stop publishing one book that had outdated ethnic stereotypes, or Big Bird promoting the COVID-19 vaccine on Sesame Street. Others involve mobilzation around larger legal issues, like transgender rights, abortion, and gun control. The key feature here is moral outrage and group identity: When people react emotionally, they aren’t reacting rationally. And when they identify with an in-group, they are pitted against an out-group. This wedge prevents constituents from finding alliances with voters with whom they have other things in common, like shared economic interests. In other words, resentment ensures that people will vote against their own economic well-being, if it means that their side will “win” on cultural issues to which they are emotionally attached.
Culture wars can energize voters to get to the polls, but in some areas, they might still not be enough. That’s where Rigging comes in, and we’re seeing that prong come out in real time. So far this year, 19 states have passed 33 laws making it harder to vote, including four states that have enacted criminal penalties that penalize election officials and citizens who assist voters in various ways. Last week, Republicans in Ohio approved a redistricting map significantly diluting the voting power of predominantly minority communities, and Wisconsin is engaged in an effort to undermine the state’s bipartisan election commission, and even have some of its members charged with felony offenses for facilitating absentee voting in the 2020 presidential election. Wisconsin is only one of several states seeking to dismantle bipartisan control over state election results and turn them over to Trump loyalists.
It’s against this background that we need to analyze the Republican response to Gosar, who falls squarely in the Racialization prong of the electoral strategy. Racism has long been an undercurrent of the Republican Party, going back to Nixon’s Southern strategy (though, as Hacker and Pierson note, Nixon also offered populist economic policies as a carrot to attract voters). It also intersects with culture war themes, such as the current use of the term “Critical Race Theory” to embody any academic attempt to address the history of race. But with Trump, it has also become more explicit and central, as Gosar’s video was: It depicted the killing of hordes of immigrants trying to invade America. Gosar, who openly associates with white nationalists, isn’t an outlier; he’s now mainstream. Gosar’s base is the same one Tucker Carlson appeals to when promoting white supremacist narratives like the “great replacement” theory, or that January 6 truthers are rallying behind when they defend members of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers as “patriots.”
In the debate before the censure vote, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez offered a have-you-no-decency moment for our time, asking the Minority Leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, “What is so hard about saying, ‘This is wrong’?”
The reason that the Republican Party can’t condemn Gosar — at least publicly — is that he helps mobilize crucial votes. And because he does, the party is caught in a vicious shame spiral: The more that it appeals to and normalizes the most extreme fringes of its base, the more it alienates traditional Republican voters and politicians from its ranks…which only exacerbates the need to engage in the three Rs…which only makes the party more extreme…rinse and repeat. This cycle makes democratic governance impossible. If you believe that your culture and race is on the verge of extinction, that your vote doesn’t count, and your fellow Americans pose an existential threat, then you aren’t interested in debate and consensus. In fact, the only logical end to this path is violence. We saw that in D.C. on January 6, we saw it in Kenosha, we saw it in Gosar’s video, and we will, sadly, see more of it in the future.