2022 and ‘the passion gap’ — why Republicans are more fired up


The culture war in the U.S. has been raging for more than 50 years, ever since the 1960s when divisions over values (civil rights, diversity, sexual liberation) began to emerge. Those divisions have intensified to the point where today, the defining issues of American politics involve race, sex, religion and education more than economics.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, the question that best defined partisanship was, “Which side do you favor more — business or labor?” Today, the defining questions — at least for white voters — would be, “Do you have a college degree?” and “How often do you go to church?”

Liberals dominate American culture. According to statistics recently cited by Elisabeth Zerofsky in the New York Times, “Conservatives compose a minimal percentage of Silicon Valley; their influence is declining in the corporate world; and they are all but absent from mainstream media, academia and Hollywood.” All institutions dominated by educated elites. 

Conservatives are using their political power to challenge liberal domination of the culture. Left-wing populism has always been economic, driven by resentment of the rich. Populist hero and three-time Democratic nominee for president William Jennings Bryan once called Republicans “the party representing nothing but an organized appetite.” Right-wing populism is cultural, driven by resentment of educated elites and their cosmopolitan values — especially educated elites who tell them what to do, like get vaccinated or mask their children, or obey quarantines and lockdowns.

Liberals sometimes feed this resentment by showing condescension. Barack Obama criticized small-town voters who “cling to guns and religion.” Hillary Clinton called Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables.”

Conservative political power is based on two things: structural advantages and intensity of opinion.

A lot of Democratic House votes are wasted because Democrats are more likely to live in densely populated urban areas. In the 2020 election, the average margin of victory for House Democrats was 31.5 percent and for House Republicans, 26.0 percent.

The fact that every state elects two senators creates a disadvantage for large urban Democratic states like New York, California and Illinois. Article V of the Constitution provides that “No state, without its consent, shall be deprived of equal suffrage in the Senate.” It is the only provision of the Constitution that can never be amended (something insisted upon by southern slave states, which feared becoming outnumbered by northern free states).

Following the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections, when the popular vote winners lost the electoral vote, Democrats protested the undemocratic nature of the electoral college. But no move was taken to change the system. 

Right now, gerrymandering is aiming to ensure Republican control of the U.S. House and most state legislatures. Republicans control the redistricting process in 20 states, with 187 U.S. House seats. Democrats control redistricting in eight states with 75 House seats. (The remaining House seats are in states with one at-large seat or divided party control, or independent redistricting commissions.) 

Conservatives usually have another advantage — intensity. Polling has a dirty little secret: Polls don’t measure intensity of opinion very well. Typically, polls can tell you how many people are on each side of an issue, but not whether they feel so strongly about the issue that it’s likely to drive their vote. And that’s what really matters to politicians. 

Let’s say you take a poll and show a politician that his constituents divide 75 to 25 percent in favor of gun control. The politician knows what will happen if he votes for a gun control law: Maybe 5 percent of the 75 percent majority care enough about the issue to vote for him for that reason alone, but he may lose 20 out of the 25 percent on the other side. Gun owners may be a minority, but many of them see gun control as a threat to their Second Amendment rights. It drives their votes. And they make sure politicians know it.

On a lot of social issues, the right is more intensely committed than the left. Call it “the passion gap.” That’s why conservatives have often won battles over gun rights and abortion and immigration. They are more watchful, better funded, better organized — and angry. They let politicians know that if they dare to take the wrong position, a posse of voters will come after them.

“Why are gun owners so politically powerful?” a pro-choice activist once said to me in an interview. “There are more uterus owners than gun owners. And when uterus owners begin to vote this issue, we will win.”

The left typically gets passionate over anti-war issues. That’s when the passion gap tilts in their favor and Democrats win (2006, 2008). But when there is no Vietnam or Iraq war controversy, the right is typically more angry and intense. That’s what sustains the talk radio industry.

Right now, conservatives feel like a persecuted minority because of the cultural dominance of the left. It has radicalized the right. Donald Trump did something that has never been done before: He brought the radical right to power and gave them (temporary) ascension over the cultural left. Neither he nor his supporters have any intention of giving that up without a fight.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

Tags 2022 midterm elections Barack Obama Conservatism in the United States Donald Trump far right Gerrymandering grievance culture Hillary Clinton passion gap Politics Radical Right Republican Party Right-wing populism Trump base trumpism voter enthusiasm

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