Tribal Politics

Much of politics is visceral rather than intellectual.

Jonathan Chait has long thought that Mitt Romney’s moderate stances and refined temperament put him out of step with the mood of the Republican faithful. He’s come to think that Romney has a better take on that mood:

Three moments during the last two debates captured the mentality of the Republican base. The first came in the previous debate, when some crowd members shouted that an uninsured man with a fatal illness should be allowed to die. Another occurred when a gay soldier serving in Iraq appeared on the video board to ask if he could be allowed to continue serving and was booed.

These expressions clearly reflect the straightforward policy implications of conservative principles. At the same time, I don’t think they ought to be taken purely at face value. I believe few conservative Republicans feel visceral hostility toward sick, uninsured people or gay soldiers. Rather, their booing is an expression of tribal partisan solidarity. These people are presenting challenges to the Republican dogma — living, breathing examples of the failures of their stance. They represent a challenge to the tribe, and the crowd is booing them for this, but not necessarily thinking through the substantive merits of their position.

This is essentially the way Romney is treating the conservative mood. Yes, conservatives have developed a series of policy stances — say, that subsidizing and regulating private health insurance is the greatest threat to freedom in American history. Rather than treat this as a principled view, Romney simply treats it as an atavistic expression of hostility toward Obama.

[…]

I had assumed that Romney would face insurmountable obstacles because he is not, at heart, a true conservative. But this turns out to be something that allows him to pander to the base more effectively. It allows him to treat conservatism as a psychological condition, one he can pander to without the complicating burden of taking it seriously.

Amid this contempt and condescension, I think Chait’s on to something.

It’s no secret that I have gone from being a staunch Republican to a frustrated critic of the party over the last few years. While by no means a Democrat, I’m more comfortable with the style of that party’s leaders these days than I am with that of my own party’s leadership. At my core, I’m a policy wonk and analyst and therefore accustomed to fact-based arguments. Alas, the GOP is increasingly the home of faith-based assertion and shibboleths.

Unfortunately for Republicans, much of what they’ve believed for years simply isn’t true in today’s world. The United States actually doesn’t have the best health care and education systems in the world. There are limits to what American military power can accomplish. There comes a point when cutting taxes doesn’t increase productivity or result in more money flowing into the treasury. Everyone in our prisons–or even on death row–isn’t guilty.  Homosexuals aren’t disgusting perverts hell bent on converting your children and subverting your marriage.

If you’re over 50, especially if you’re not living in a major metropolitan area, the world we live in simply isn’t recognizable as the one in which you grew up in. I’m a bit younger than that and it’s shocking how much different things are than when I started high school. Married women now routinely have careers outside the home. Our industrial base, at least as we used to understand that concept, has moved to China, India, and elsewhere. Our social mores have changed radically on issues ranging from the coarsening of the language to gender rules to the widespread acceptance of homosexuality.

This all has a whole lot of people afraid, angry, and confused. Things they’ve believed all their lives are now socially unacceptable or even demonstrably untrue. And they’re surrounded by people going through the same thing and, increasingly, have their fears and anger stoked by self-selected media outlets who reinforce rather than challenge their worries.

Having spent most of my life around these people, it’s my sense that they’re decent folks who just need a little more time to adjust.

Most Americans, even in the rural areas, are coming around on the gay thing, for example. There’s a cultural lag, of course, but it’s actually relatively minor, with those folks about five years behind the rest of the country. But that’s both manageable and understandable: people who live in areas where gays can exist openly are more likely to meet gays, period, and more importantly to meet gays who are people pretty much just like they are apart from their sex lives.

Similarly, support for the death penalty is declining as the evidence pours in that we’re convicting innocent men on a regular basis. It’s taking longer for that evidence to seep in among social conservatives, because of a combination of cognitive dissonance and less emphasis on that information from their chosen media outlets. But it’s coming.

If that’s Romney’s understanding, too, then his approach makes sense. It would be a failure of leadership to pander to these people’s worst instincts. At the same time, it would be counterproductive to challenge them directly and forcefully, since it would just be met with defensiveness and cognitive dissonance. (See: Huntsman, Jon.) The middle approach of emphasizing common cultural touchstones while nibbling on the edges of the areas of disagreement has a chance of success.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    What did you think would happen when the Republican party created a base of ignorant and superstitious people and continued to feed them the red meat they craved.

  2. john personna says:

    It is true that many of the new/old world disconnects you see have also been the party’s “wedge issues.”

  3. Tano says:

    I guess Romney would need to hope that most Republicans are not nearly as smart as you James, because I don’t think that they would react very well to the realization that they are being pandered to by a cynical and insincere manipulator.

    Actually, I guess he just might pull it off. As I recall, it took Republicans at least 5 years into his presidency to figure this out about Richard Nixon.

  4. Hey Norm says:

    shibboleths
    fear
    cognitive dissonance
    The GOP has become a religion, and not a political party. Throughout history religions have always held society back. Indeed one of Islams major problems is an inability to deal with a modern world. The Tea Party motto…”Take America Back”…is actually more about chronology than possession.

  5. john personna says:
  6. Hey Norm says:

    @ JP….
    See also:
    Bruce Bartlett
    David Frum
    Andrew Sullivan

  7. john personna says:

    I like the Lofgren piece for its jaundiced view of both parties.

  8. Hey Norm says:

    @ JP….
    Brilliant piece of writing.
    Thanks for the link.
    I too appreciate the jaundiced view of both parties, that doesn’t degenerate to the omnipresent and simple-minded pox-on-both-your-houses.

  9. James in LA says:

    “If you’re over 50, especially if you’re not living in a major metropolitan area, the world we live in simply isn’t recognizable as the one in which you grew up in.”

    This will only worsen in time. The cure is simple enough: go back to school, and for good. And this may as well be Mt. Everest for many, because the same mentality that makes the world “unrecognizable” means you probably aren’t into learning as a way of life, either.

    Because the “unrecognizable” argument is no excuse. If you are “over 50” these changes have been happening right under your nose, even if you live in the Hollar. It’s a choice, at all times, this mental state of “being offended,” and it is validated by religion. The choice has been to cram fingers into ears and pray the gay away. The blame is always somewhere else.

    Politics requires statesmanship and compromise, both tools necessary to build the coalitions needed to move the agenda. Our world is now too complex and — paradoxically, too small — for this tribal nonsense.

    We have now is a circus.

  10. Fiona says:

    . . .because I don’t think that they would react very well to the realization that they are being pandered to by a cynical and insincere manipulator.

    This is Romney’s biggest problem with the GOP base. He is seen as a cynical and insincere manipulator who’d sell his mother if it could get him into the White House. That, and the Mormon thing, is why I have a hard time believing he can win the Republican nomination. He’s not part of the evangelical GOP tribe.

  11. Herb says:

    That, and the Mormon thing

    Honestly, I don’t think “the Mormon thing” is going to hurt Romney at all. I hear “People won’t vote for Romney because he’s a Mormon” all the time. But I have yet to hear anyone say, “I won’t vote for Romney because he’s a Mormon.”

    Of course, if people start saying “I won’t vote for Romney because he’s a Muslim” then we should all be worried…..

  12. James in LA says:

    @Herb: I tend to agree. If the Perry collapse is actual, Mitt then has to gather the flock behind him. That is a HUGE challenge. The chief change in the GOP has been the dispensation of the lock-step mentality. In the past, they NEVER would have permitted a vote on the House floor without knowing the outcome in advance. Boehner is not the leader of the whole party.

    These folks do not want to be united. They want to “take their country back,” and it’s quite clear who they do not want to take with them, and that’s most of us. They want no part of politics, and yet are managing to control it. They brook no compromise by tradition and principle.

    If and once Mitt unites them, he must keep them together during the general in which they are going to demand he be a complete asshole to the President. When Mitt balks EVEN A LITTLE, they will dump him, and stay home, especially as the electoral map comes into focus, and they realize the math is against them. They are loyal to no one. Tribalism isn’t built on loyalty. It’s built on intimidation.

    Prior to the southern strategery, they usta stay home in droves…

  13. john personna says:

    @Herb:

    Honestly, I don’t think “the Mormon thing” is going to hurt Romney at all. I hear “People won’t vote for Romney because he’s a Mormon” all the time. But I have yet to hear anyone say, “I won’t vote for Romney because he’s a Mormon.”

    It might be the unspoken driver behind “anybody but Romney.”

  14. Fiona says:

    @Herb:

    Nobody is going to come right out and say “I won’t vote for Mitt because he’s Mormon,” but look at who the Republican base is. Plenty of evangelical Christians who not only don’t believe Mormons are Christians, but see them as some kind of dangerous cult. If the GOP base were rational, Romney and Huntsman would be the frontrunners because they’re the only GOP candidates with some degree of sanity.

    I don’t think Mitt’s Mormonism poses a problem for the GOP business class, nor with the independents he’d need to win a general election, but they’re not the drivers behind the GOP this go round.

  15. ponce says:

    While James’ apology for the poor behavior of the over 50 Republican crowd is heartfelt, I must disagree.

    They are mean-spirited bigots because they enjoy being mean-spirited bigots.

  16. michael reynolds says:

    James:

    Nice piece. But here’s where I have a problem:

    It would be a failure of leadership to pander to these people’s worst instincts. At the same time, it would be counterproductive to challenge them directly and forcefully, since it would just be met with defensiveness and cognitive dissonance.

    It’s not counterproductive, it’s leadership. It’s what Hubert Humphrey did with Democrats and race, for example. How is Romney a fit leader if he lacks the integrity to speak the truth?

    Yes, most Republicans will come around on issues like gay rights. But because no one has forced them to confront reality there will remain within the GOP a substantial residue of unreconstructed bigots. That’s why you still have a party infested with racists: because the GOP never talked honestly about race.

    You want to have it both ways. You want political power and to get it you’ll compromise on principal. But the result is you lose people of principal and are left with those you’ve pandered to. You end up with what you have now: a party of fringe loons and hate-mongers. And you’re proposing to continue the exact practices that have brought you here but somehow expect different results.

    It’s not going to work. Your “base” which is now dominated by superannuated ignoramuses will die off. And you’ll have no core of principled conservatives to reconstitute a party.

  17. john personna says:

    So … no one has really spoken for the GOP thus far … any takers?

  18. rodney dill says:

    A lot of the comments above serve to underscore the title “Tribal Politics” and the tagline “Much of politics is visceral rather than intellectual.” This behavior is not just one party or the other.

  19. Ron Beasley says:

    @michael reynolds: Well said.

  20. john personna says:

    @rodney dill:

    Yeah Rodney, only us(?) independents can stand apart.

  21. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: The Republican and Democratic Party both represent roughly a third of the country and routinely put together national governing coalitions. That means they’re both pretty diverse and, almost by definition, comprised primarily of centrists.

    The polling on interracial marriage I pointed to the other day shows the nature of the lag. It’s true that Southerners, Republicans, and the elderly lag the rest of the country in approval. But it turns out they’re only four to five years behind. Given how visceral this issue was for so long, that’s actually amazingly good news.

    Again: younger people and people who live in the big cities are naturally going to be faster to adapt. It’s both the nature of those groups and the fact that they’re surrounded by more diversity that flies in the face of preconceptions. But the word gets out even to the hinterlands rather quickly.

  22. Dave says:

    There’s an easier solution than waiting for a ho-hum politician to nibble at the edges of Republican party ridiculousness:

    Become a Democrat.

  23. john personna says:

    @Dave:

    My Senators are Diane Feinstein and Barbera Boxer. Somehow when they mail me their accomplishments they give me reason not to do that 😉 They remind me that I’m not at all that far left.

  24. anjin-san says:

    Diane Feinstein

    Not sure how you define Feinstein as “left”. After PG&E blew up a neighborhood full of people last year, her response was to act as a PR shill for them.

  25. john personna says:

    @anjin-san:

    I guess it’s just a feel that I like 1 in 4 things in their accomplishments … and I might blur the two.

    I did like Feinstein’s proposal to end ethanol subsidies. That was a good one.

  26. john personna says:

    But here’s a bad one:

    Feinstein Seeks To Block Solar Power From California Desert Land

    (That’s probably enough of a thread-diversion though)

  27. rodney dill says:

    @john personna: Sorry john personna, I didn’t mean to exclude anyone when I said ‘This behavior is not just one party or the other.’…. it’s a big tent….

  28. @Fiona:

    Plenty of evangelical Christians who not only don’t believe Mormons are Christians, but see them as some kind of dangerous cult.

    The problem is not that they think Mormons aren’t Christians (I would defend that view myself), but the fact they won’t vote for a non-Christian. Mormonism is certainly derived from Christianity, but it has significant differences with regard to the nature of God.

    It’s similar to the distinction between Christianity and Judaism. There’s certainly a connection between the two, but Christianity changes the nature of God so profoundly it can’t be said to still be the same religion. If Rick Perry was running claiming to be Jewish, there would be nothing wrong with a Jewish voter saying “No, you’re Christian. That’s not Judaism.” unless they also added “and I will not vote for a Gentile”.

  29. john personna says:

    @rodney dill:

    But neither did you really embrace any other path. The nice thing about being independent is that you can listen, analyze, and choose. People who are ‘loosely attached’ to their parties do that too, but I think the nice thing about independence is that you don’t give anyone your default endorsement. You make them make the case.

  30. G.A.Phillips says:

    Nobody is going to come right out and say “I won’t vote for Mitt because he’s Mormon,”

    I won’t vote for Mitt because he’s Mormon :)…..

  31. john personna says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    The “enlightenment values” upon which this nation were founded went a bit beyond “I’ll vote my religion.”

  32. Ron Beasley says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I agree. It’s probably big enough no to be considered a 4th Abrahamic religion or a 5th Zoroastrian religion depending on how far you want to go back..

  33. Brummagem Joe says:

    I’m not quite sure what’s being celebrated here? The default Republican candidate for president is a relentless panderer? Nor do I share JJ’s confidence that Republicans are slowly changing their attitudes on social issues. The country maybe changing it’s attitudes but this has largely passed the Republican heartland by. If anything it’s intransigence on everything connected with god, guns and gays is becoming more entrenched. JJ’s conclusion that the path to redemption lies not criticising the quality of the food being offered but rather the design of the flatware or the shape of flowers on the dinner plate seems highly suspect.

  34. An Interested Party says:

    I won’t vote for Mitt because he’s Mormon :)…..

    How shocking…

  35. G.A.Phillips says:

    How shocking…

    I didn’t vote for Obama because he is a marxist puppet and abortionist and a Bear fan….

    Oh, and because he sucks!

    lol….

  36. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @G.A.Phillips:

    and a Bear fan….

    I hate the Bears….

  37. Moosebreath says:

    James,

    Interesting theory. Two questions for you (assuming your reading is correct):

    1. if you think you see through Romney and feel he does not really believe in the shibboleths necessary to be acceptable to the Republican primary voters, do you think that you are the only one who does? Do you think the primary voters will not see through him? From my vantage point, the last 6 months of the nomination process are easiest explained by a sense that Romney is not acceptable because his true beliefs are different than the base’s, and searching for someone, anyone to surplant him.

    2. do you think a President Romney, if he were to be elected, would be able to lead the Republicans in Congress whose vision is so different? If Boehner has such trouble keeping his caucus together in accepting 90% of a loaf in negotiations with the Democrats in the Senate, do you think Romney will be able to get anything through Congress?

  38. An Interested Party says:

    @G.A.Phillips: You don’t need to drag the President into this…you already admitted you are a bigot with your previous statement…of course, calling the President a “marxist puppet” shows you to be delusional as well, but such is to be expected…

  39. mattb says:

    If you’re over 50, especially if you’re not living in a major metropolitan area, the world we live in simply isn’t recognizable as the one in which you grew up in. …This all has a whole lot of people afraid, angry, and confused.

    This, by itself isn’t anything new. Arguably, this has probably been the case in the US since revolutionary times. In the modernized western world, it’s definitely been status quo since the industral revolution. Think about the radical changes in the life-time of George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950).

    The big problem is that we fall into this notion that this is slowing down and “we get” what the future will be (or we’ll be able to adjust). Perhaps the general rate of socio/techincal change is slowing in the West … but such an assumption would miss the fact that its accelerating in other areas of the Globe and that continues to have a radical effect on us.

    But there is one key thing that is “new” about our current moment…

    Things they’ve believed all their lives are now socially unacceptable or even demonstrably untrue. And they’re surrounded by people going through the same thing and, increasingly, have their fears and anger stoked by self-selected media outlets who reinforce rather than challenge their worries.

    Selecting media as a key change is really important in my mind. This is still — generally speaking — a radically different (if not necessarily new) media (distribution) environment that we live in. And that is still something we are wrestling with.

    Having spent most of my life around these people, it’s my sense that they’re decent folks who just need a little more time to adjust.

    I firmly believe that the are decent folks. But I’m not sure — unless things really rebound economically — that they will ever adjust. They will keep going, but pessimistically, I’m not sure they (or even we) are prepared for all the new realities of the world.

  40. G.A.Phillips says:

    You don’t need to drag the President into this…you already admitted you are a bigot with your previous statement…

    ya ya, everyone’s a bigot….

    If you’re over 50, especially if you’re not living in a major metropolitan area, the world we live in simply isn’t recognizable as the one in which you grew up in. …This all has a whole lot of people afraid, angry, and confused.

    lol I am 46 and live in the middle of Milwaukee and Chicago and did and believed in crap that many of you libs only fantasies about or watch other people do. And your so so wrong…

    Yet I will give you that indoctrination works and it works good in major metropolitan areas.I am just glad the Mormons stayed mostly in Utah and Donnie and Marie only and a limited effect!

    lol works good in over 60% economically distressed 80 thousand pop. union towns that don’t got any jobs but a stills has a bunch lib schools, and a crap load of lib TV channels because of it location too.
    Back some…
    I love Glenn Beck and most of what he spits for news and information, still it don’t keep me from thinking he is under the influence of a cult. Also believing that he wrote a book that is harming peoples salvation because I think he is still under the influence of this cult for the simple fact that he has put actual faith into a 12 step program that has been twisted away from its biblical influence.

    Would I vote for him for Prez. It would be a moral imperative!!!!!!!

  41. G.A.Phillips says:

    I hate the Bears….

    lol I feel sorry for those poor bastards guys these days, but I still hate Bear fans that was born in Wisconsin:)

  42. rodney dill says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I hate the Bears too, Go Pack!

  43. An Interested Party says:

    ya ya, everyone’s a bigot….

    No, not everyone, not even close…but definitely you…

  44. G.A.Phillips says:

    No, not everyone, not even close…but definitely you…

    Do you even know what the word means or how to use it? blah…so all you guys that hate Christians ain’t bigots? lol why do I even respond to the PC indoctrinated.

  45. Byo says:

    One of the more insightful analysis yet about today’s republican party by a conservative. Some of us have always realized that the world cannot easily be divided into the dichotomy of black-white, especially when reality staring you in the face does not fit that paradigm.

  46. William Beran says:

    James: I’m liberal, and I welcome your comments. But one reason I could never be a Republican is that my mind can’t quite get around the mindset that on one hand most (if not all) of what government does is cause for suspicion, yet when government decides to–to choose just one example–execute a prisoner on the basis of suspect evidence, it shouldn’t be questioned.

  47. Sam Penrose says:

    “The Republican and Democratic Party both represent roughly a third of the country and routinely put together national governing coalitions. That means they’re both pretty diverse and, almost by definition, comprised primarily of centrists.”

    That’s actually not true:

    http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/07/why-the-g-o-p-cannot-compromise/
    http://thinkprogress.org/yglesias/2011/08/01/284516/why-democratic-politicians-are-constantly-triangulating/
    http://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/the-democrats-are-doomed-or-how-a-big-tent-can-be-too-big/

    While I also am heartened by the findings on interracial marriage, the GOP tribe overlaps pretty closely with what you might call the Sons of the Confederacy.

  48. Eric Florack says:

    Jonathan Chait has long thought that Mitt Romney’s moderate stances and refined temperament put him out of step with the mood of the Republican faithful.

    Not just them, but a huge chunk of the country at large.
    Obama has created a huge number of what are laughingly called “disaffected Democrats”.

  49. Eric Florack says:

    And to that point, NY 9 should explain rather a lot.

  50. Moosebreath says:

    bithead,

    “And to that point, NY 9 should explain rather a lot. ”

    On the other hand, to you NY-26 explains what? Oh wait, elections only count when the conservative wins it, right?