It’s been clear that the long-running radicalization of the Republican Party, both at its highest reaches and among its rank-and-file membership, has sharply intensified since the Jan. 6 insurrection—reflected in the GOP’s simultaneous embrace both of denialism about who was culpable and conspiracist claims that Trump was the victim of “election fraud.” It’s the kind of radicalization into an anti-democratic entity that raises serious doubts that the Republican Party can be a reliable partner in a viable democratic system.
So the Southern Poverty Law Center set about to determine just how deeply this radicalization process has been, as well as its effects on the larger body politic, by partnering with Tulchin Research to poll 1,500 Americans about their political beliefs and attitudes. The findings are disturbing: Nearly 70% of Republicans believe in the “Great Replacement” theory—claiming that liberals are plotting to replace white Americans with brown immigrants, a belief that fueled the recent mass shooting in Buffalo—and even more of them believe that the 2020 election was “stolen.”
The GOP’s radicalization has manifested itself in numerous ways—both in the numbers of far-right candidates who are seeking office in 2022, as well as in studies examining the spread of such belief systems among officials who already hold public office. We’ve seen state Republican parties overwhelmed by extremists in places like Oregon and Florida.
Other studies have demonstrated the saturation of QAnon conspiracist-cult beliefs into the Republican power structure and its voting base. Most of all, the largest component of the growing Republican radicalization has been the permeation of the far-right Patriot movement into its rhetoric and belief systems, the source of many of the extremist beliefs now common with the GOP mainstream.
Among the SPLC’s findings in the recent poll:
- Nearly 7 in 10 Republicans believe that America’s ongoing demographic changes are being purposefully driven by liberal and progressive politicians intent on “replacing conservative voters”—a partisan variation on the long-running “Great Replacement” theory that’s been the basis of white-nationalist recruitment and rhetoric for a decade, but has increasingly found a home among conservative pundits like Tucker Carlson.
- These beliefs correlate strongly with the belief that the 2020 election was “stolen” promoted by Donald Trump, and that the government is now using the Jan. 6 insurrection to persecute conservatives. Over 75% of respondents who agreed that the 2020 presidential election was “fraudulent, rigged and illegitimate” also subscribe to replacement theory—the same percentage of belief in the theory as what they found among those who agree that conservative Americans are being politically persecuted for the insurrection.
- While most Americans overall view the country’s changing demographics positively, Republicans decidedly do not, with 67% viewing it as a threat to white people. In contrast, some 64% of Democrats responded that they find the country’s increasing diversity to be at least a somewhat positive development, while 25% say demographic changes represent a threat to white Americans.
- The majority of Republicans perceive the 2020 racial-justice protests as an attack on white people. Their preferred response when asked about the protests was that they were destructive and an “overreaction that has unfairly made white people the enemy in America.”
- The poll also found a growing sentiment among right-wing Americans that transgender people and “gender ideology” constitute a threat to children and the larger society. While 52% of Americans overall agree that discrimination against transgender people is a serious problem, 39% of Republicans (and 23% of Democrats) agree that they are a threat to children. Some 63% of Republicans believe that transgender people “are trying to indoctrinate children into their lifestyle.”
The overall picture is one that makes clear that American democracy is being seriously challenged by anti-democratic forces from within. Notably, the increasingly violent and threatening nature of right-wing extremism is instilling a like-minded response throughout the populace: “Across the political spectrum,” the report warns, “we found substantial support for threatening or acting violently against perceived political opponents.”
A majority of both Republicans and Democrats believe their political opponents pose a threat to the country and want to harm their political opponents. That kind of animosity could fuel partisan violence — a possibility that our results suggest we should take seriously. When we asked respondents if they approved of threatening or assassinating a politician, for example, roughly one in five said they at least somewhat approved.
The polling found that Republicans more often agree that “some violence may be necessary to get the country back on track.” Many Americans are increasingly pessimistic: 44% of the respondents—53% of Republicans and 39% of Democrats—say the “U.S. seems headed toward a civil war in the near future.”
“Each side has radically different visions of America: On the right, a large faction is invested in pushing back against pluralism and equity, while the left largely embraces those values,” the report observes.
There’s also a stark difference in the two sides’ views of the viability of democracy:
Just over half of people overall agree that the government “has become tyrannical,” including 70% of Republicans and 78% of those who consider themselves “very conservative.” Only 29% of Republicans say they have even a fair amount of trust in the Federal government, compared to 60% of Democrats. Significantly more Republicans have faith in their state and local governments—51% and 59%—while Democrats’ level of confidence remains steady across those institutions.
Earlier this year, the SPLC’s annual report on hate groups in America noted that, while the sheer numbers of such groups have been in decline in recent years, the underlying extremist beliefs that have always fueled them have spread widely into the mainstream under the aegis of the Republican Party. There are fewer hate groups because their beliefs are no longer contained to hate groups. These numbers tell us not only how far these beliefs have spread, but are ample warning that democracy itself is nearing a crisis stage.