Has the GOP Become the Pro-Torture Party?

If you'll permit me a momentary bit of crowing, I'd like to take some credit for what we learned from Dick Cheney's appearance on Meet the Press last Sunday. Not that we didn't already know about Cheney's enthusiasm for torture, but we now understand better just how morally infantile his thinking is—and this man, don't forget, was more responsible than anyone for the policies instituted under the Bush administration. Because the blithe refusal of people like Cheney to define torture has been bothering me for so long (combined with the fact that they get away with simply saying things like "waterboarding isn't torture" without having to answer what torture is), I suggested to Chuck Todd last week that he might ask Cheney explicitly for his definition. Todd apparently thought it wasn't a bad idea, because this was how the interview began:


You can read more of my thoughts here, but it seems that Cheney believes that there is literally nothing the United States can do to prisoners that would be morally objectionable. If everyone is agreed that "torture" is bad, then he'll just insist that nothing the United States ever does is torture. Torture is only when foreigners do bad things to us.  

While it's true that there are some conservatives offering a more nuanced view of this issue, what the average person is seeing right now is an entire party mobilizing to defend the use of torture, whether they will call it by that name or not. And that looks to be having an effect on public opinion.

Ryan Cooper points us to this 2010 study examining poll results on torture, in which the authors write, "The appearance of a public majority who favors torture is a very recent phenomenon. We believe that torture may have become a partisan symbol, distinguishing Republicans from Democrats, that demonstrates hawkishness on national security in the same way that being supportive of the death penalty indicates that a person is tough on crime." They also observe, however, that when specific torture techniques are presented to respondents, support drops. In the polls they examined, which were taken between 2001 and 2009, "wide majorities oppose most of the approved techniques, especially waterboarding. Disapproval of waterboarding approaches that of electroshock, which is for many the worst and most extreme form of physical coercion."

But not anymore. The current debate about the CIA program, which is being presented to the public largely as an argument between Republicans and Democrats, may be widening the partisan differences even further. Look at the results of this YouGov poll taken last week. Seventy percent of Republicans said that torture is always or sometimes justified against suspected terrorists, and 56 percent of Republicans said that the information you get from torture is reliable. Now look at how they feel about specific torture techniques:

The coffin-specific stress position falls just short of majority GOP support, but other than that, rectal feeding is the only technique Republicans have a problem with. Waterboarding? Terrific! Punching? Sure! Threatening family members? Go right ahead!

So it sure looks like the GOP has indeed become the torture party. There were partisan differences before now—conservatives tend to be more punitive in general, and are more motivated than liberals by a kind of tribalistic morality in which different standards can be applied to Them than are applied to Us. And today when you ask about torturing prisoners, everyone knows that you're talking about Them.

But this baseline difference is being magnified by the debate we're having. Regular people take cues from the elites who represent them, and if you're an ordinary conservative, right now you're seeing all the elites you like—the politicians you voted for, the radio and TV hosts with whom you spend hours every week, the pundits whose opinions you value—telling you over and over again that the kind of torture the CIA engaged in was perfectly legal, morally unproblematic, and spectacularly effective.

So it isn't unexpected that Republicans would become more and more pro-torture as the debate proceeds. That doesn't make it any less ghastly, though.

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