April 26, 2020


There's a Question My Confederate Ancestors Taught Me To Ask: On the incredibly powerful pull of tribe over truth. (David French, 4/26/20, The Dispatch)

Slavery was a monstrous evil. Yet generations of Americans grew up in communities that accepted it, defended it, and even celebrated it. How many abolitionist arguments did a child of the antebellum South ever hear? If they heard abolitionist arguments, did they hear them portrayed fairly, accurately, and sympathetically? 

Putting aside the power of argument, did the witness of their own eyes and ears--the brutality that was plainly before them--provide them with sufficient cause to say, "No. I shall not defend such evil"? 

Let's put the question differently. Looking realistically at human nature, at the tidal forces of tribe and history, and the immense fallibility of our own hearts, how would each of us answer this question: "If everyone around me is wrong, would I have the wisdom and courage to know and do what's right?"

My Sunday newsletter last week--arguing that Trump-supporting white Evangelicals had abandoned the character test for candidates and were now even abandoning even the expectation of competence--sparked an immense amount of discussion, debate, and even more than a little bit of anger. Some of that anger centered around my repeated use of the term "white Evangelical." Why racialize religious Trump support?

I used the term to be precise and fair. If we want to talk about religious Trump support, we are talking about a distinct American community--not all Evangelicals, but white Evangelicals. I linked to polling showing that most other Evangelicals oppose Trump, even if they have the same theological beliefs as their white brothers and sisters. The disparity is so great, that it raises the question--when speaking of white Evangelical support for Trump, is the truly operative word "white" or "Evangelical"?

I've been thinking a great deal about the incredibly powerful pull of tribe over truth. I just last week finished the final edits of my new book, called Divided We Fall. The theme of the book is simple--our national divisions are growing so great that we cannot take for granted our continued national unity. I spend an extended amount of time talking about a sociological reality that is ripping our nation to shreds--the law of group polarization.

The concept comes from a Cass Sunstein academic paper, published all the way back in 1999. Surveying the relevant social science, Sunstein said, "[I]n a striking empirical regularity, deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgments."

In plain English, this means that when like-minded people gather, their views get more extreme. Our arguments reinforce one another to such an extent that the entire group will sometimes become more extreme than the most extreme person at the start of the deliberation. Think of it like this--when gun rights advocates (or gun control activists) gather, do they tend to leave the meeting doubting their positions or redoubled in their commitment to advocacy? How many people leave a good Bible study loving Jesus less? 

It's a nonpartisan, human phenomenon, and what's so seductive about it is the fact that we can't perceive the sheer tribalism because it's accompanied by deliberation--by discussion and thought. We fool ourselves into believing our ideas or our intellects are in control when it is often our identity or our history. 

There are plenty of warning signs for the GOP about the danger of organizing its national politics around a single tribe--white men.   That this is an eventual demographic dead end is too obvious to require much comment.  Even the way in which the tribalism makes the party to extreme for voters needs little beyond what Mr. French and many others have pointed out--Jonah Goldberg often has guests who discuss this negative polarization.  

No, the underdiscussed problem is that, while Donald has moved the racial concerns of a single extreme cohort of Americans to a central position within the national GOP, the Democrats, who already have the advantage of being a coalitional party, which prevents such extremism, reap the benefits of obtaining moderate whites (suburban, college-educated, married women, etc.) at the same time that the various groups become cemented into their party infrastructure.  Were you to start with a blank slate and have two typical political parties organized around ideas--one more right-leaning and one more left--members of the various tribes would sort themselves along the lines of their beliefs.  The GOP might lose the white working class voters who want a National industrial Policy, Protectionism, and the like, but would pick up socially conservative blacks, Jews, Asians, Latinos, etc., none of whom could maintain self-respect while voting for a party that hates them.  Instead, they are forced to vote Democratic, joined by decent white conservatives, and they create such a counterweight to the ideological roots of the Democrats that the party is rather moderate at  the national level.  The past three Democratic presidents have governed as virtual Republicans and a moderate Joe Biden saw off his Progressive challenger even more handily than Hillary had.  [Note that they are the wife and the vp of quasi-Republican presidents respectively.]

The removal of moderates from the GOP naturally accelerates its group polarization and drives it ever further to the extreme and--as the National Emergency and impeachment votes prove--answers Mr. French's question in the negative: "If everyone around me is wrong, would I have the wisdom and courage to know and do what's right?"  There is one particularly tragic and illustrative example in this regard, Ben Sasse scores Trump endorsement after biting his tongue and keeping his head down (James Hohmann, September 11, 2019, Washington Post)

 Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) voted to uphold President Trump's declaration of a "national emergency" to divert money from the military for a border wall that Congress refused to fund. Doing so ran counter to many of the principles he espoused not long ago as a self-identified "constitutional conservative," specifically his outspoken calls for checking the power of the executive branch. Now, it's paying political dividends.

Sasse refused to vote for Trump in the 2016 general election, comparing him to white supremacist David Duke and announcing that he'd write Mike Pence's name in on his ballot. Now he says he'll support the Republican ticket in 2020 and effusively praises the president's judicial nominations. Last night at 9:23 p.m. Eastern, Trump returned the favor, tweeting that "Ben has my Complete and Total Endorsement!"

"Ben Sasse has done a wonderful job representing the people of Nebraska," the president wrote. "He is great with our Vets, the Military, and your very important Second Amendment. Strong on Crime and the Border..."

For Sasse, the past several months have represented something akin to surrender in the war for the soul of modern conservatism. More significant than his voting record is the evolution in Sasse's tone about Trump and his increasingly long periods of silence. He's gone to apparent pains not to be perceived as a Never Trumper or to become a face of the Republican resistance, mostly by flying below the radar and not speaking out against the president on Fox News. His once prolific personal Twitter account has been dark since May. He rarely engages with reporters seeking comment on the story of the day in the corridors of the Capitol.

During the first year of the Trump presidency, Sasse was often snarky about Trump's apostasies. His office has released fewer such statements to the press over time, increasingly avoiding the president by name unless it's a compliment. Last year, Sasse blasted Trump's tariffs as "dumb." Back home during the August recess, he was quoted by small-town papers speaking in a more cautious and measured way about the trade war. Sasse also didn't speak out after Trump tried to bring the Taliban to Camp David on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, for example, nor as the president fired fellow hawk John Bolton.

Instead of critiquing Trump, Sasse has trained his ire on Nancy Pelosi.

The last line is dispositive, as the Senator has abandoned everything he believes in he can still find comfort in partisanship for its own sake.  Such is the cost of staying in the tribe.  


Posted by at April 26, 2020 8:31 AM