There are two conclusions you could draw from the recent Pew Research study that found the number of self-identified Republicans who don’t believe in evolution has climbed nine percent since 2009.
The first would be that the theory of evolution must have experienced some significant intellectual discrediting over the last half-decade, justifying a growing skepticism.
But no. In contrast to say, climate change, evolution has actually had a pretty good couple of years. There have been no big scandals in which leading evolutionary scholars were exposed censoring data to fit pre-determined conclusions, nor any embarrassing UN reports stating they have consistently overestimated the strength of their evidence.
You can take or leave climate change skepticism to be sure, but I don’t think anyone would dispute it’s a movement animated by the constant release of new data. Since the global warming thesis claims we’ll be able to observe a particular sort of planetary temperature change over time, it seems perfectly logical for skepticism of that thesis to rise and fall in sync with those predictions actually coming true — and if you’re so inclined, it’s not hard to find persuasive charts and columns and scientists claiming they aren’t.
Human evolution, by contrast, is a “settled” science, in the sense it describes a phenomena that’s basically finished happening — at least in the “did-monkeys-turn-into-humans” context that concerns most people. Darwin died 130 years ago, and as no less an authority than Charles Krauthammer once noted, the “entire structure of modern biology, and every branch of it” has arisen from confirming his findings. Courts in the United States have repeatedly ruled that whatever gaps or ambiguities are present in some aspects of evolution science, the contrary creationist “theory” that man was abracadabra’d into existence, fully-formed, by God, is not science at all, just a blunt religious assertion. Well-meaning folks like Bill Nye can’t even debate creationists without getting soundly blasted for legitimizing the notion that this is even a conversation with “two sides.”
Which leads into the second possible conclusion: the fact that more Republicans are buying into creationism must mean that Republicans are getting more religious.
Actually, no, even that’s too broad. After all, the vast, vast majority of Americans are “religious,” in the sense that around 80% consider themselves Christians, yet only 33% of them accept the creationist premise that human beings “have always existed in their present form.” One has to look at two very particular religious minorities within that 80% — evangelicals, and once-a-week-or-more church-goers — to find the highest rates of evolution-rejection, and oh look, those two groups also represent the two largest factions of the GOP religious base.
There are two possible conclusions you can draw from this, in turn.
The first is the one already gleefully embraced by Democrats and liberals — the idea that the Republicans are a scary gang of religious radicals, whose very raison d’être is the systematic dismantling of gay rights, abortion access, gender equality, and the wall separating church and state in general. A fundamentally theological party with a fundamentalist, theological agenda.
The alternative, less sensationalistic explanation is that the GOP is simply unpopular. Most people just don’t want to vote for them anymore, and those that do are disproportionately drawn from small or eccentric subcultures who aren’t much popular themselves. To be sure, there’s nothing wrong per se with political parties enjoying the support of small and eccentric subcultures — just so long as they’re part of the base, and not the entirety of it.
It’s become relatively uncontroversial to observe that the easiest way for a Republican to win the presidency in 2016 will be for the party to increase its share of the white vote. But this can only be done by luring back some of the Obama whites — which is to say, liberals. Liberal whites hate the cold-hearted, downsize-happy plutocracy — whom they presume Republican economic policies are designed to serve — and the ultra-judgemental anti-gay, anti-abortion dogmatism of fundamentalist Christians — whom they assume are driving the GOP’s social policy agenda. But here we see a vicious cycle: liberal or liberal-leaning whites stop identifying with the Republican Party because they believe it’s too regressive, and their absence, in turn, makes the party even more so.
The obvious liberal advice to the GOP would to simply stop being the things they hate — ie; get more secular and left-wing — and thereby fulfil the longstanding progressive desire for America to be ruled by a robust two-party system in which both parties are the Democrats. Presumably, in such a dream scenario, evangelicals and churchy folk would just be shut out of the political process altogether, with both parties instead vying for the votes of the same, narrow base of liberal good-thinkers.
It’s a plan that’s deeply troublesome not only for spitefully seeking to shrink the scope of democratic participation in a country where over 40% of the population doesn’t vote as it is, but also because of its dubious strategic value for the Republicans. If America is to have two liberal parties, after all, what advantage is there in being the late entrant to a market that already has a trusted, established brand? How many successful product pitches begin by boasting claims of redundancy?
There’s a difference, in short, between trying to pry away some of your opponents’ base and seeking to become them altogether, and there’s a reason why the GOP needs to do the former while avoiding the latter.
For the last century or so, America’s been ruled by a two-party system in which both partisan factions comprise broad coalitions assembled from the various cultures and communities that make up the country’s enormous national population. Historically speaking, those coalitions have been a great deal more ideologically diverse than most right-wingers accept as permissible today — and there’s no reason they couldn’t return to that tradition tomorrow.
The only trouble is after a string of defeats and setbacks, the Republicans face the significant handicap of having to build their coalition outward from a loyalist core whose views are amongst the most extreme and off-putting.
And for now, there’s only one conclusion we can draw from that.