The Tribalization of American Conservatism

Ezra Klein’s recent Vox post, “Obama Derangement Syndrome,” seems as good an occasion as any to post the following comments on a related proposition from late 2013. I submit that neither Mark Mardell, to whom I wrote the following, nor Mr. Klein is correct. Contemporary American conservatives’ inexhaustible hostility mostly is not the product of “old-school racism;” it is not the product of policy differences either. While the former is by no means extinct, we have a new tribalism in America.

Mr. Mardell,

I frequently encounter journalists like yourself (both foreign correspondents and Americans) struggling to frame the “Tea Party.” Let me help you out.

You are absolutely spot-on that “old-school racism” has little to do with contemporary Republican ire. I submit that you, like many others, go astray when you conclude that “opposition to big government and high taxation” are the answer, instead. You may be right, of course; I don’t think we can really be sure until such time as a Republican again occupies the White House, and the tea-party-within-a-party quietly evaporates, or does not.

I suspect that the former is more or less what will happen, however, because I believe the energy in modern American conservatism has less to do with small government or any other policy argument than it has to do with an updated “us” vs “them” tribalism. Quite simply, the Tea Party is the product of 20+ years of American conservatives creating their own narrative in which Democrat influence in government is inherently illegitimate.

I was there for the early days of this, as an enthusiastic young fan of Rush Limbaugh, who spent the first two years of the Clinton administration reminding his audience daily that we lived in an “America Held Hostage.” This was the beginning of a trend that has continued for two decades and, indeed, it had relatively little to do with literal issues of race; though called “our first black president” Bill Clinton was obviously a white man and still provoked conspiracy theorizing, impeachment hearings, a government shutdown, etc. The problem with Bill Clinton was not that he was non-white, but that he was non-American, from the perspective of a “real America” that by the mid-1990s firmly excluded the entire Democratic party.

On this basis, Republicans have justified a growing list of efforts to circumvent a political process that to their minds wrongly takes account of foreign views: leading the routinization of the filibuster, stopping an electoral recount, ruling that questioning the president’s foreign policy is treason (when that president is Republican), aggressively pushing to exclude Democrat votes through vote suppression and unprecedented new extremes of gerrymandering…

I believe the best evidence for my model is found in the issue of health care reform. Here we have a painstakingly market-based reform scheme, formerly championed by right-wing think tanks, and moreover implemented in one state by the very same man Republicans nominated for president just last year… and yet, before and since, for nearly five years Republicans have been outright hysterical in their rage at this legislation and their determination to stall it by any and every means. I submit that in these circumstances, a policy-based model for Republican actions is found wanting.

What else, then, can explain them? Race could work, except that this same revanchism fits smoothly into a pattern stretching back (via multiple black Republican cabinet officials) to the days of a wholly palefaced presidency. But if “governing while black” is not the issue, “governing while a Democrat” seems to work quite well as an explanation.

Plainly and simply, the Tea Party is driven by people who have been hearing for an entire generation, and increasingly to the exclusion of any alternative suggestions, that Democrats are a non-American “them” who by their very nature, rather than by adherence to any particular policy, mean apocalyptic doom for the “real” America.

Update, 7/22/16: I now feel that if my analysis was accurate, at one point, it has gone out of date. Whatever other forms of tribalism may have been feeding the hysteria of right-wing America, as of mid-2016 they seem to have been effectively merged within resentful white nationalism. Doesn’t mean that there’s nothing else there—I’ll believe that the GOP will be readier to compromise with a white Democratic president than a black Democratic president when I see it—but I think that reflexive opposition to any other categories of “other” is now subsidiary to their association with black people.

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