On Monday night, Jon Stewart said something I’ve heard a lot of lately: “These people are crazy.” The “these people” in question are the Congressional Republicans who have refused to allocate appropriations or enact a continuing resolution for the 2014 fiscal year until Democrats agree to defund Obamacare. As we all know, the disturbing consequence has been the government shutdown due to get worse next week if the current debt ceiling isn’t raised. Of course, Stewart doesn’t mean that they are literally insane. Like most Lefties who use that term, he means that their ideology is radically outside the mainstream and their tactics are unusual and highly risky. But Republicans rarely use “crazy” to describe Democrats, instead using “dangerous,” “radical,” or “socialist.”

Explaining Conservatives

It seems that the world according to Democrats is more comprehensible to Republicans than vice versa (an assertion supported by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s controversial studies of the moral foundations of political views). So, in recent months, Left-leaning publications, commentators, and academics have begun to ask, What has happened to the Republican Party? Paul Krugman makes a moral claim, arguing that “an almost pathological meanspiritedness” has infected “the soul” of the GOP. Others have written about the radicalization and politicization of institutions of conservative intellectualism like the Heritage Foundation, once a legitimate think tank and now the propaganda wing of the GOP. Some commentators like Slate’s Dave Weigel and the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza have argued that the extremism of the Republican Party stems from gerrymandering that produced disproportionately white, conservative, Christian, low population districts all too willing to elect radical anti-government congressmen. This perspective is certainly supported by a fair amount of empirical evidence showing that most of the partisan polarization of recent years is on the Republican side.

Conservative intellectuals (who tend to be more moderate) have also gotten in on the act of explaining the current crisis by pointing out the weakening of party power and the simmering resentment of “forty years of failure” in overturning the “New Deal-Great Society Leviathan.” As The New York Times’ Ross Douthat writes in an usually thoughtful op-ed, “So what you’re seeing motivating the House Intransigents today…is not just anger at a specific Democratic administration, or opposition to a specific program, or disappointment over a single electoral defeat … it’s a revolt against the long term pattern.”

What Can Sociology Tell Us?

This mad scramble to understand what’s going on in the Republican Party is reflective of the fact that we (perhaps especially sociologists) have done too little to theorize and document the dynamics of the American conservative movement. That is one of the central claims of an outstanding 2011 review by Neil Gross, Thomas Medvetz, and Rupert Russell. Here are three key take-aways from the article that can help us understand current developments:

1) Be careful defining “conservative”: Gross et al. reject three common definitions of conservative. The first sees the conservative movement as a “backlash” against progressivism (“attempting to stuff a rapidly changing American society back into the box of a white, theologically conservative small-town vision of the good”). They argue this definition assumes static definitions of progressive and conservative, which don’t match the historical reality. The second flawed definition is that conservatives are “supporters of free market capitalism” who simply exploit race and religion to secure working class support. Gross et al. claim that this definition gives short shrift to the sincerity of social claims of the conservative movement. A final definition holds that conservatives have different assumptions about human nature (it’s unchanging) and the moral order (there’s objective morality) from progressives. This definition assumes homogeneity and intellectual coherence within the movement.

Instead, they offer this definition: “conservatism is not a fixed category of belief or practice but a collective identity that evolves in the course of struggles…over meaning…” But it is an identity that is organized through social structures like social networks and formal organizations like the Republican Party or Tea Party groups. So, in analyzing the current situation, we must keep in mind that while conservatives tend to share an identity, ideology is not and never has been uniform either within the movement at any given moment or over time.

2) Framing Matters: One the main points of the article is that sociologists have not sufficiently recognized the contributions of conservative intellectuals to the movement. One of the main tasks for conservative intellectuals was to “[carve] out a viable identity for the movement” that would bridge the divide between libertarians (limited government in both fiscal and social issues) and traditionalists (social issue conservatives with free market concerns). Conservative intellectuals addressed this problem by reframing the concept of “elites” in a way that would satisfy both groups of conservatives:

“The danger in America lay not in great concentrations of wealth but in the growth of a political and cultural elite…that was more cosmopolitan than patriotic, soft on communism, driven to favor ill-fated social engineering schemes, and supportive of pernicious social trends like secularization.”

The success of this particular framing of “elites” help us understand how House Republicans would see themselves as taking a stand against elite power, while their liberal opponents also see themselves as standing up for the little guy.

3) Institutionalization Matters: As a movement almost entirely encased in the Republican Party, unlike, say, Occupy Wall Street, the American conservative movement has typically adopted electoral solutions. In other words, they’ve tried to back candidates and take control of the institutions of government. At the same time, seeking to counter “the dominance of liberal elites” in academia, the media, and policy institutes, conservative intellectuals encouraged the business community to help fund a “conservative counter-establishment.” This meant think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and media outlets like Fox News. Today, Occupy has left behind some taglines (e.g., “the 99%”), but the radical wing of the conservative movement has a powerful place in Congress. The institutionalization of conservative views in media and think tanks have shaped the prevailing ideas among the conservative movement constituents, but also helped frame debates more widely. In other words, the effort to institutionalize as succeeded.

Taken together, the American conservative movement should be seen as an ever-changing and heterogeneous movement that has adopted effective framing and has been wildly successful in institutionalizing the movement. In other words, the movement has been anything but “crazy.” Holding aside the question of whether the movement’s ideas or tactics are good for society, they have been successful at doing what all movements aim to do: gain power.