Thursday, May 18, 2017

Readings on tribes & tribalism — #4: Charlie Sykes, “Where the Right Went Wrong” (2016)

Here come two readings in a row by two conservatives: Charles Sykes, and Ben Shapiro. They show that conservatives can recognize their own side's tribalism (albeit after each decided to leave his media job under some duress). 
Remember, all I am trying to show with this series is that analysts across the political spectrum are increasingly realizing that the tribal form is in play, having powerful effects on thought and behavior. I am not going to say much — only a little — as to where I may agree or disagree with the authors, or what I think they get right or wrong.
First up is Charlie Sykes on “Where the Right Went Wrong“ (2016). It explains why he'd just stepped down from his popular daily talk-radio show — partly because of verbal assaults he'd received for not backing Trump, but mainly because his experience showed him that "The conservative media is broken and the conservative movement deeply compromised." 
His explanation is all about excessive tribalism. Sykes himself is a reasonably thoughtful conservative; he's not a tribalist. But he sure found out what malignant tribalism is like.
In particular, he was struck by a growing predilection in his audience for binary either/or, us/them beliefs — indeed, "the gravitational pull of our binary politics is too strong." Thus he experienced the destruction of middle positions, the subordination of objective fact to tribal truth, the appeal of conspiracy theories, the exaltation of identity and loyalty, and an indulgence in aggressive nastiness not only toward the other side but also toward him as an independent questioning conservative who had not joined the tribe.
It's an insightful piece about dynamics that continue to trouble and distort our politics. Here's an excerpt:
"What they did buy into was the argument that this was a “binary choice.” No matter how bad Mr. Trump was, my listeners argued, he could not possibly be as bad as Mrs. Clinton. You simply cannot overstate this as a factor in the final outcome. As our politics have become more polarized, the essential loyalties shift from ideas, to parties, to tribes, to individuals. Nothing else ultimately matters.
"In this binary tribal world, where everything is at stake, everything is in play, there is no room for quibbles about character, or truth, or principles. If everything — the Supreme Court, the fate of Western civilization, the survival of the planet — depends on tribal victory, then neither individuals nor ideas can be determinative. I watched this play out in real time, as conservatives who fully understood the threat that Mr. Trump posed succumbed to the argument about the Supreme Court. As even Mr. Ryan discovered, neutrality was not acceptable; if you were not for Mr. Trump, then you were for Mrs. Clinton. …
"In this political universe, voters accept that they must tolerate bizarre behavior, dishonesty, crudity and cruelty, because the other side is always worse; the stakes are such that no qualms can get in the way of the greater cause. …
"And this is where it became painful. Even among Republicans who had no illusions about Mr. Trump’s character or judgment, the demands of that tribal loyalty took precedence. To resist was an act of betrayal. …
"We destroyed our own immunity to fake news, while empowering the worst and most reckless voices on the right."
To read for yourself, go here:

[I posted an earlier write-up of this reading on my Facebook page, on March 28.]

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