According to Public Policy Polling, 51 percent of Republican primary voters don’t believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States. Another 21 percent aren’t sure, and just 28 percent are willing to acknowledge that yes, Obama was born here.
I have no grounds on which to question the accuracy of the PPP numbers. But personally, I don’t believe they mean what they seem to mean. I am not willing to accept that more than half of Republican voters truly believe something that crazy.
So here’s my best alternative explanation:
When Republican voters are asked where Obama was born, many don’t approach it as a question of objective fact. They hear it as a test of tribal loyalty — do you side with Obama, or do you side with your fellow Republicans — and they answer it accordingly. Tribal loyalty trumps all, even if it means pledging loyalty to something that on its face is ridiculous.
I think that happens on a lot of issues these days. Global warming is another. In 21st century America, global warming is not a scientific issue to be debated in terms of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere or the thickness of Arctic ice. It has become an issue of cultural allegiance. It is a tribal marker, a means of dividing us from them, and you can no more reason somebody into changing sides than you can reason a Yankee fan into rooting for the Red Sox. For that reason, it can never be resolved and compromise has become impossible.
Even conservative politicians who know better — Newt Gingrich, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, all of whom at one point have acknowledged the reality of manmade climate change — have recanted. They know what the data say, but they also know that their tribe has concluded that climate change is a fraud perpetrated by a global scientific conspiracy to bring down capitalism. So they have sided with their tribe.
Now, politics has always had an element of tribalism to it, and it always will. Any endeavor in which one group of people competes against another will at some level arouse instincts to side with “our people” and against “those people”. As human beings, we find those instincts deeply satisfying, and if you don’t believe me, take a seat in the stands at a Georgia-Georgia Tech football game.
But for some reason — perhaps because it is at root a movement of the besieged — American conservatism is particularly responsive to calls on tribal loyalty.
Just last weekend, House Speaker John Boehner was asked repeatedly whether he would challenge those in his party who believe that Obama was not born here. Boehner, the most powerful Republican leader in the country, declined to take the lead. “”It’s not my job to tell the American people what to think,” he said. “The American people have the right to think what they want to think.”
What he really meant was, the tribe has spoken.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, appearing at a CPAC forum late last week, offers a more poignant example. Hatch is up for re-election next year, and a new poll shows him with the support of just 44 percent of Utah voters in a Republican primary. Among those voters who call themselves very conservative, Hatch trails U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz by 51-35 percent.
Despite a lifetime of conservatism, Hatch is under attack from the right because in 2008, as Wall Street teetered on collapse, he voted in favor of the TARP bailouts. At last week’s forum, Hatch apologized profusely for the vote and called it a mistake.
“Not a lot of people are willing to say they’re sorry,” he said. “But I will.”
Yet in that same appearance, Hatch also felt the need to explain himself:
“Under the circumstances at that time, we were going down,” the senator said. “Let me tell you, we were going down. The secretary of the treasury said this is what had to be done…. If it had taken my vote, the 51st vote, to stop us from going into a depression, I would have done it anyway.”
In other words, doing the smart thing in order to avert a major depression was a mistake and Hatch now wants to be forgiven for it. He saw his close friend and colleague, former Sen. Robert Bennett, voted off Republican Island last year, and he doesn’t want it to happen to him. He wants back in his tribe’s good graces.
Now, maybe I’m wrong about all this. But if so, I’d like to see a better explanation. I just refuse to accept that so many Republicans truly are as daffy as Orly Taitz.
– Jay Bookman