The faith-based, ideological insularity of the GOP is perfectly captured in this stunning new poll statistic: Only 43 percent of Republicans believe in evolution.
I kid you not. That’s a stat from the Pew Research Center, which asked Americans whether they believe that humans and living things “evolved over time,” or “existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Roughly two-thirds of Democrats and independents said that humans and living things “evolved over time,” while only 43 percent of Republicans agreed. But here’s the key finding:
The share of Republicans who believe in evolution has actually plummeted by 11 points since Pew asked the same question in 2009. Back then, 54 percent of Republicans believed in evolution – you know, science – but in the ensuing four years, the party’s rationality caucus has precipitously shrunk. This is indeed a fascinating trend, given the fact that the science era is now in its fifth century, having been launched by the Enlightenment.
What are we to make of this? Denying evolution is akin to believing that gravity is a myth and that the earth is flat. How is it possible that the GOP – allegedly a national party that aspires to win another presidential election some day – has come to be dominated by reality-deniers who abhor Charles Darwin?
It would wrong to assume that 11 percent of Republicans have simply changed their minds about evolution in just four years. Rather, it’s far more likely that the people who identify as Republicans today are strikingly more conservative than the people who identified as Republicans in ’09. This is not about changed minds, it’s about a changed makeup. Some of the ’09 pro-science Republicans have probably bailed on the party. The new member mix is more conservative and more evangelical Christian than in ’09. The insularity has worsened; the bubble has gotten smaller.
And there’s probably another dynamic at work, a behavioral trait called “cultural cognition” – the tendency of people to conform to the prevailing values of their partisan group. In this case, many Republicans who still believe in evolution are likely to become more science-averse, if only to conform with the “team” stance in favor of creationism.
This ever-ardent embrace of theocracy helps to explain why so many Republican politicians increasingly thump the Bible. In a debate on the eve of the ’08 primaries, three candidates raised their hands to signal that they didn’t believe in evolution. Last time around, Michele Bachmann said there was “reasonable doubt” about the origins of humans, and contended that evolution merely had “a cult following.” Rick Perry said that evolution was just a “theory that’s out there” with “some gaps.” And Rick Santorum (you knew he’d make this list) echoed Perry when he insisted there were “legitimate problems and holes in the theory of evolution.”
That’s fine and dandy for the red-meat Republican primaries (I’d love to see what the audience boobirds will do if Chris Christie says he believes in evolution). But it’s hard to see how an increasingly theocratic party can hope to win a presidential election, in a nation where landslide majorities – including swing-voting independents – view science as a given.
Jon Huntsman Jr. said it best in 2011: “The minute that the Republican party becomes the anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people who would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012. When we take a position that isn’t willing to embrace evolution…I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position.” Huntsman’s White House bid had a lot of problems, but he truly sank himself by talking up science. At this point, party diehards think the s-word is a synonym for liberal.
Indeed, party will likely become ever more faith-based and insular. Just take a look at what happened on January 1: the Boy Scouts began to accept openly gay members, Colorado began to sell legal weed, and Obamacare officially kicked in. If Republicans can’t swim in the 21st-century mainstream, they can always drift in denial, cocooned in the realm of magical thinking.
At 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 13, at the Free Library of Philadelphia auditorium, I will be “in conversation” with James Carville and Mary Matalin. Tickets went on sale today. Join us.
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