The right's paranoid tribalism: New poll reveals how the left should attack extremists

A new Pew poll has key lesson for liberals. Here's how to game right's knee-jerk reaction to certain words (UPDATE)

Published April 30, 2014 4:45PM (EDT)

                        (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

As the right's tribalism grows, with the party faithful dutifully expelling moderates and demonizing "RINOs," extremist elements gain an increasingly outsize influence that is hard to both ignore and dismiss. This extremist push has led to a right wing of American politics deeply beholden to an impulse bordering on paranoid tribalism, a development in our politics that contributes to -- and supports -- Washington's crippling intransigence.

There is hardly any policy that liberals can support these days, no matter how bipartisan or trivial, that the right won't then summarily abandon. (If the Democratic Party ever took on a pro-life platform -- even as an April Fool's joke of monumentally poor taste -- a rift in the space-time continuum would likely emerge directly above the Capitol building.)

While plenty of ink has been spilled exploring this problem in our politics, even just a brief summary of recently supported Republican policies that they've since abandoned will highlight the problem's magnitude. As Jamelle Bouie notes, whether it's Common Core education, energy-efficient light bulbs, solar power or mass transit, any moderate policy idea that's connected with the left now causes an immediate shift in the right's position. There's been no clearer example of this tendency in our contemporary politics than Mitt Romney's reversal on his own healthcare plan in 2012. (And was he for it before he was against it?)

But what's the liberal politician to do? When Democrats moderate in an attempt to reach common ground with the right (because, for instance, some healthcare reform, no matter how imperfect, is better than no healthcare reform at all), the right simply move their goalposts further rightward, denouncing their previous favored policy and leaving the Democrats less liberal and no better off. It's hardly an accident that Democrats are losing ground among millennials, but it's not like Republicans are seeing a comparable rise in their popularity: These young people abandoning the Democrats are likely to the political left of the modern Democratic Party.

Perhaps Pew Research has found a way to break the fever -- or at least reveal its absurdity: What if liberals and moderates could use this extremist tribalism against the Republicans Party itself, gaming the rank-and-file's knee-jerk reactions to certain words and ideas to paint them as irrational extremists? (Which, to be fair, seems accurate when describing the majority of hardcore Republicans these days.)

In their newest poll about the causes of growing inequality, Pew has brilliantly (and unintentionally) employed this strategy.

Pew Research publishes plenty of good polls, and I cite them frequently in my writing ... this is not one of them.

First of all, let's consider the sample group. As the poll notes, "Question was asked of those who said there has been an increase between the rich and everyone else in the U.S. in the last 10 years." We shouldn't draw too many broad conclusions from these results, as Pew only polled individuals who agreed with the basic question. What's so interesting here is what that self-sampling reveals about the mind of the tribal Republican: while many are willing to concede to inequality is a real and growing problem, they see the reasons for its existence entirely differently (as other recent poll results have borne out). The main responses that the American people provided for our growing inequality are actually fairly accurate, as long as one considers each of them as part of a larger tapestry [editor's note: This post initially stated that Pew provided potential answers, when in fact the question was open-ended]. But the final response, popular among Republicans, attributes our growing inequality to "work ethic of poor/gov't assistance programs." If this poll aims to help us parse the opinions of the American public, it is suspect at best -- but as a piece of blatant political theater, created for the express purpose of painting Republicans as insane and unreasonable, it's quite brilliant.

Consider the strategy: You take a topic like income inequality, which is already a part of our tribal political debate, and then provide a predictable subset of extreme Republicans with an easy, pre-coded answer ("work ethic," "government assistance"). Letting people blame income inequality on the poor for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps well enough is just too easy; it gives these mouth-breathers a venue to express their tribal rage.

This is not to excuse Republican leadership, who are largely to blame for putting their party in this trap. For decades, they've encouraged and supported the worst voices in their movement. The Southern strategy, which aimed to exploit white Southerners' disdain for the Civil Rights Act and all it seemed to represent, quickly became the original sin of modern conservatism.

The Southern strategy essentially codified a tribal paranoia into right-wing politics; for decades, Republican politicians cynically exploited this advantage against Democrats, starting with the Civil Rights Act, up to Willie Horton, and on to gay rights in our own era. But times (and demographics) are a'changin', and the bigotry and implicit racism that is still so prevalent among the right's base is quickly becoming a political liability, an ugly feature of their politics that they can neither contain nor destroy.

Updated, 4/30/14, 1:40 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the Pew poll question about inequality was open-ended and the answers were given by respondents.

By Tim Donovan

Tim Donovan is a freelance writer who's work has appeared in various publications including VICE, Al-Jazeera America, AlterNet, and Mic. He lives in Queens, New York. Follow him on Twitter at @tadonovan.

MORE FROM Tim Donovan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Democrats Gop Inequality Language Pew Polls Public Assistance The Left The Right