According to progressive pundits, scholars and politicians—and even some former supporters of the GOP—the Republican Party is now a party of the far right. This is not a new claim. Many have made this case since Barry Goldwater won the 1964 presidential nomination, against the preferences of the “Eastern Establishment”. The charge was leveled against Ronald Reagan. A generation ago, George W. Bush was accused of much the same thing.
After Donald Trump became the 2016 presidential nominee, however, the assertion that Republicans tipped over the line into extremism was almost universally accepted by the left. The Republican Party, we are regularly told, has become the party for violent white supremacists, revanchist Christian nationalists, oafish Proud Boys, and conspiracy theorists completely disconnected from reality.
Politics is an ugly and unfair business, and conservatives can expect their opponents to describe them in the most unflattering light – they do the same. Unfortunately, a survey of current events seems to indicate that progressives have a point. Donald Trump was elected president despite breaking numerous longstanding taboos. During the Trump era, we witnessed the rise of the Alt-Right. QAnon and related conspiracy theories attracted a shocking number of adherents, despite the implausibility of their claims. The January 6th riots indicated that a disconcerting number of the G.O.P. rank and file have rejected basic democratic norms.
While the left expresses horror at these events and apparent trends, some on the right see opportunities. From their perspective, the Republican base is justifiably angry. The Democratic Party, the media, academia, much of corporate America, and even the military has been conquered by “wokeness.” Left-wing identity politics, they argue, is a cancer that must be annihilated to save what remains of the republic. According to this growing chorus of right-wing intellectuals and activists, the conservatism associated with writers and politicians such as Frank Meyer, William F. Buckley, and Ronald Reagan is outmoded. In an age of militant left-wing radicals pursuing the “Great Replacement” of white Americans, they contend, talking points about natural rights, the blessings of liberty, and the importance of constitutional government and the rule of law are no longer sufficient. It is said to be time for middle America’s defenders to take the gloves off, even if that means embracing their own forms of identity politics.
This is an important period of intellectual ferment on the right, and we should welcome robust discussions. It is important for conservatives to have debates about their guiding principles and policy objectives. Some newcomers are more reasonable than others, however. A few voices, growing louder and more prominent, are insistent that the American conservative tradition should be overhauled completely, replaced by a more aggressive right-wing agenda, one that is more expressly identitarian in its appeals to ethnic, cultural, and religious criteria. A superficial look at the direction of the electorate seems to indicate that they have the public on their side.
The end of an anachronism?
Rather than arguments and policies developed in the early Cold War, an element of today’s New Right wants a more assertive variety of right-wing politics. In place of “Zombie Reaganism,” some new voices would substitute right-wing populism, and in some cases even explicit white identity politics. According to this argument, a more belligerent right, taking inspiration from paleoconservatives like Sam Francis, needs to take the reins and wield political power, rewarding their friends and crushing their enemies. Voters are tired conservatism’s “beautiful losers.” The genteel conservatives, who fight with one hand behind their back to stay in the good graces of enemies that hate them, need to be put to pasture.
These New Right thinkers, activists, and aspiring politicians agree with apoplectic progressives on one major point: the Republican grassroots have taken a sharp turn to the right, especially on questions related to immigration and identity. Even if moderate Republican politicians wanted to retake their party, their own voters would not allow them to do so. Whether you welcome or fear this development, a new variety of right-wing politics seems to be ascendant, and to have the Republican electorate’s blessing.
Although this narrative is accepted by commentators across the political spectrum, it is rarely tested empirically. Such strong claims about trends among the Republican rank and file should not be taken for granted. In fact, few signs indicate that any of these new voices – whether under the banner of national conservatism, populism, New Right, post-liberalism, or the Alt-Right – are better positioned to win elections, or even to align with Republican voters’ wishes.
The real trends in Republican attitudes
When making claims about Republicans becoming “radicalized,” we must ask: compared to what? Has the Trump era pushed the Republican Party in the electorate sharply to the right? Did Trump really smash the “Overton Window,” the line separating the politically possible from the impossible, giving a free hand to radicals? Are Republicans now far more skeptical of immigration? Has race become more central to their identities? Survey data suggests otherwise.
Immigration is the signature issue for right-wing populists and nationalists. To be clear, immigration is an important issue, and we should have open debates about border security and how many legal immigrants the U.S. should admit every year. Restrictionists deserve a seat at the political table, and I am not here discussing the merits of different immigration policies. I will further acknowledge that, historically, if immigration rates were determined by public opinion, the U.S. would have experienced much less immigration.
People on both sides of the ideological divide have suggested that the rise of right-wing populism, in the U.S. and other countries, is the result of growing frustration with high levels of immigration. Progressive analysts warn of a growing “white backlash.” Restrictionists argue that voters are revolting against elites that flood the country with immigrants in pursuit of their own cultural or economic interests. Both sides seem to take it for granted that nativism is a growing sentiment, especially among Republicans.
There’s no need for speculation because this claim can be easily tested. For many years, the General Social Survey (GSS) has asked respondents their attitudes toward current immigration rates on a five-point scale. From this, we can compare the trend for both parties over the last two decades, beginning in 2004.
The GSS data show that the parties in the electorate are a bit more “polarized” on immigration than they were when George W. Bush was president. But this is not because Republicans have become more nativist. Instead, Democrats have been moving in a more liberal direction on this question. “Radicalization” implies movement, and on this issue, we see very little change among Republicans between 2004 and 2022. If Trump turned ordinary G.O.P. voters against immigration, they are hiding this sentiment from public opinion survey researchers.
The results from the GSS are not outliers. In the most comprehensive recent examination of public opinion in immigration, political scientists Jack Citrin, Morris Levy, and Matthew Wright found that consistent nativism across multiple questions is rare among Americans, including Republicans, and “nativism, negativity, and polarization do not describe how the majority of Americans think about immigration.”
Some of the more histrionic voices on the left insist that Republicans have turned in a more racist or even white nationalist direction. Social scientists have spent decades developing and fine-tuning different measures of racial attitudes. Survey questions that measure what is sometimes called “old fashioned racism” have largely fallen out of favor because of concerns that people are not giving honest answers – a problem called social desirability bias.
As a result of such concerns, a new battery of questions measuring so-called racial resentment has become popular. There are also reasons to question the validity of this measure, but, regardless of its merits, in my own examination of trends in the racial resentment scale used in the American National Election Survey (ANES), I find negligible change among white Republicans in any direction in recent decades. Progressives may think that Republican scores on the racial resentment scale are concerningly high, but I again insist that we look at the direction of the trend. When we do so, the claim that Republicans have become more prone to racial resentment is supported by scant evidence.
A different approach to racial attitudes, measuring feelings of “white identity,” has become increasingly popular in political science, largely thanks to work by the political scientist Ashley Jardina. She describes white identity as “a sense of commonality, attachment, and solidarity with their racial group.” Strong feelings of white identity, she found, are not synonymous with hostility toward non-whites, but they are associated with more conservative views and support for the Republican Party.
White identity is exactly what the racialist right has attempted to foster. The failure of white Americans to develop and express strong feelings of racial identity has been a perennial complaint among white nationalists. The Trump Administration, progressives feared, and the racialist radical right hoped, would usher in a new age of racial politics, one where white Americans overtly and unapologetically promoted their own racial interests.
Direct measures of white identity are relatively new in survey research, but we can look at the direction of the trend since 2016. In answer to the ANES question, “How important is being white to your identity?,” about 33 percent of white Republicans in 2016 reported that it was “extremely important” or “very important.” In 2020, about 24 percent gave this answer. This is a sizable decline.
We can also measure feelings of white solidarity from the question, “How important is it that whites work together to change laws that are unfair to whites?” In 2016, about 41 percent of white Republicans responded that it was “extremely important” or “very important.” This was also lower in 2020 – at about 33 percent. Both surveys also asked, “How likely is it that many whites are unable to find a job because employers are hiring minorities instead?” In 2016, about 26 percent of white Republicans considered this very or extremely likely; in 2020, it was about 18 percent. The Trump years did not increase the average importance of race to white Republicans’ identities or increase their sense of racial grievance.
Critics may argue that I should not draw conclusions about feelings of racial resentment and white identity based on 2020 data. It is conceivable that, in that year, when Trump was still the president, white Republicans were still in a positive mood and thinking less about race. Since President Biden took office, perhaps the trend toward greater racial tolerance has reversed.
We will have more information after the 2024 ANES is completed and released, but we can get hints from the 2022 ANES pilot study. I am less confident in that survey because it has many fewer observations than the 2020 study (615 Republicans were surveyed in the latter study, compared to 3,441 in 2020). That 2022 survey does, however, suggest feelings of white identity have increased since 2020. About 40 percent of white Republicans in that survey suggested being white was “very” or “extremely” important to their identity. That is still a minority position, but if these data are correct, the trend is in a concerning direction. This will be an important variable to watch as future datasets with more observations are released. The other questions related to white identity were not included in that pilot survey, which means we cannot yet say anything about the direction of the trend. On racial resentment questions, we see very little change between 2020 and 2022.
Many progressives have suggested that we are entering a new era of overt Republican hostility toward LGBT people. However, if we use support for same-sex marriage as proxy for these attitudes, we once again find that this argument does not hold up. In 2004, the ANES asked respondents the following question: “Should same-sex couples be allowed to marry, or do you think they should not be allowed to marry?” Respondents could choose between allowing them to marry, allow them to form civil unions but not marriages, neither, or some other option. In that year, almost three quarters of Republicans stated that they did not support same-sex marriage or a system of civil unions.
By 2020, attitudes among Republicans had shifted. In the more recent survey, just under 50 percent of Republicans favored full marriage equality for same-sex couples. Approximately 28 percent of Republicans in the survey favored some form of civil union that was called something other than a marriage. Barely one-in-five Republicans continued to oppose any kind of legal recognition for same-sex unions. This is a remarkable change that has received insufficient attention.
The January 6 riots, and the shameful refusal by too many Republican politicians and conservative opinion leaders to denounce the rioters–in some cases even excusing them–raises the question of whether the Republican Party in the electorate is becoming increasingly comfortable with violence as political tactic. Once again, we can look the survey data. The 2020 American ANES asked respondents the following question: “How much do you feel it is justified for people to use violence to pursue their political goals in this country?” Among Republicans, almost 91 percent argued that violence was “not at all justified.” About 78 percent of Democrats gave this answer. Furthermore, in 2020, Republicans were slightly less likely to say that violence was ever justified than they were in 2016 – in the 2016 ANES, about 87 percent of Republicans held this opinion. If Republicans are so angry with the direction of the country that they are ready to man the barricades and engage in revolutionary violence, they are once again keeping that opinion to themselves.
To be clear, political violence is a real danger, whether coming from the left or the right. It only takes a small minority, or even a single unhinged person, to cause catastrophic harm. Law enforcement absolutely needs to be on the watch for dangerous radicals. However, without support from a substantial percentage of the population, the odds of significant, organized, and sustained political violence becoming common in the U.S. is low. The notion that civil war is on the horizon is risible.
One might reasonably object that these results are also untrustworthy because of social desirability bias. However, most claims about Republican radicalization are based on the premise that the Trump era normalized rhetoric that was previously considered unacceptable. If that were true, social desirability bias should have lessened in recent years, not become stronger.
Republican hostility toward minorities is declining, but hatred for Democrats is on the rise
These findings may seem at odds with what we see on the news and online every day, so I should note that radicalization is not entirely a myth. The anger in American politics is real, but for most Republicans the growing anger is not toward ethnic, racial, religious, or sexual-identity groups. Even as Republican attitudes toward other groups have softened, their dislike of Democrats and liberals has only intensified.
The ANES measures attitudes toward different groups with “feeling thermometer scores.” In this series of questions, respondents are asked, on a 0-100 scale, how favorable they are toward different groups and individuals. Once again, I am most interested in looking at the direction of change over time. In this case, I look at the size and the direction of change among Republicans toward different groups between 2000 and 2020.
Over this twenty-year period, Republicans, on average, have become more favorable toward minority groups. The change in their attitudes toward gays and lesbians is especially substantial – that mean score rose from about 42 to about 54. Despite rising concerns about antisemitism among Republicans, the score for Jewish Americans increased from what was already a high mean (from about 66 to about 72).
At the same time, Republican attitudes toward white Americans dropped slightly, though the change was so small we cannot reject the possibility that they have not changed at all. This provides additional evidence against the claim that white racial identity has become more important to Republicans. Declining feelings toward big business and slightly improved feelings toward unions are consistent with the idea that Republicans have become somewhat more populist in their attitudes toward the economy—but not that they are embracing racist “welfare chauvinism” in the process.
The most dramatic change is in Republican attitudes toward liberals and the Democratic Party (a decline of about 17 and 23, respectively). Republicans, on average, intensely dislike the opposing party. This is a reason for concern, and it may explain why the most hostile, uncompromising, and angry partisans often do very well in Republican primaries.
The increasing salience of partisanship is one of the more fascinating recent developments in American politics. Even as other group-based hostilities seem to be on the decline, partisan anger has only increased. To be sure, political scientists have long known that other social group identities (race, religion, etc.) are strong determinants of our partisan identities. So it may be the case that Americans’ other forms of prejudice and anger are increasingly being sublimated into our party identities. Henry Adams once described partisan politics as the “systematic organization of hatreds.” Perhaps, as U.S. party politics has further matured, party politics has simply become a proxy for other kinds of prejudice and distrust.
I nonetheless consider these results, as whole, a positive sign about the future of group relations in the U.S. I wish fewer Americans hated each other because of their political party preferences, but this a better than a situation in which they are hostile to each other specifically because of their race, ethnicity, or religion. I would prefer to live in a political era characterized by civility, bipartisanship, and pragmatism and I fear today’s political climate dissuades competent, civic minded Americans from standing for office. What well-adjusted person would want to step into the arena at this moment? However, hostile partisanship is not the same thing as extreme nativism or overt racial prejudice. The former does not require the latter.
Angry partisanship is here to stay, but most Republicans do not want a far right party
There is no doubt that Republicans like candidates who are unabashed pugilists – this explains much of Trump’s popularity. That does not mean they require their standard bearers to be substantively far right. Many observers understandably thought Donald Trump’s mean-spirited remarks about Mexican immigrants and Muslims explained his popularity among the Republican electorate in 2016. Yet, we must note that, when he stood for reelection in 2020, he scarcely talked about immigration at all. Nor did he bring about many tangible, long term changes to the U.S. immigration system while he was president. On issues that touch directly on race, criminal justice reform was his most notable achievement. These facts did not seem to weaken his core supporters’ enthusiasm.
Most of Trump’s devotees loved him because they viewed him as fighter, someone who made Democrats and the mainstream media apoplectic, not necessarily because he promised to deport immigrants or sent Tweets that could be interpreted as antisemitic dog whistles. The people on the left and right that considered Trump a repudiation of Reagan-style conservatism misunderstand Republican voters. A conservatism focused on providing prosperity for the American people, with a little social conservatism and a lot of rhetorical “owning the libs” mixed in, will be sufficient to make Republican voters happy.
To be clear, my analysis here is only focused on one element of U.S. politics: the Republican Party in the electorate. The direction of a political party and American politics more broadly is determined by many factors. Elites matter. It is plausible that a significant percentage of Republican congressional staffers, media personalities, and young conservative activists are personally committed to a far-right agenda. These people will have an outsized role in determining the future of U.S. politics.
But on the question of whether ordinary Republican voters are demanding the party abandon its traditional commitments in favor of a more radical right-wing ideology, they are not. If the Republican Party, and the conservative movement more broadly, is moving to the far-right, it is not a bottom-up phenomenon.
George Hawley is an associate professor of political science at the University of Alabama. He is the author of seven books, including Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism (2016) and Conservatism in a Divided America: The Right and Identity Politics (2022).