My Latest Column: Is the Enemy of My Enemy My Friend?

by Reihan Salam

My latest column for The Daily is a tricky one to describe. Basically, I’m trying to explain the dilemma facing Republican presidential candidates regarding whether or not to participate in the ION/Newsmax debate to be moderated by Donald Trump. Trump is (a) not a conservative and he has (b) made a number of extremely irresponsible claims that should prevent him from being taken seriously as a political candidate. Though the conspiracy theories, the trade-bashing, and the populist-caricature-windbaggery is no more egregious than those that spring forth from the fertile mind of Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn, the subject of an informative new profile by Michael Moynihan of Vice, mainstream political candidates aren’t exactly lining to take part in an Adbusters-sponsored debate.

So what gives? The issue is that most voters don’t follow politics in minute detail. Rather, they follow the political fray in broad outline. And to some degree, political affiliation is driven by suspicion of and even antipathy towards “the other side,” which is often identified with rival groups competing for prestige and for scarce social resources. One of the great advantages of the GOP coalition is that its relative — emphasis on relative — ideological and cultural homogeneity makes it easier to get behind a more-or-less unified platform. Democrats, in contrast, has a coalition that is divided along ideological, cultural, and class lines. This wasn’t always the case. Republicans used to be divided between conservatives and a large, rich, and influential moderate faction. Now, however, the GOP is more homogeneous and more united, and there is a tendency for conservatives to be much more distrustful of outsiders — whereas Democrats can’t afford to be quite so distrustful of outsiders, because the distance between Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Rep. Barbara Lee of California is so vast. 

Conservatives thus have a tendency to rally around figures hated by the political left. After Sarah Palin’s debut on the national stage, one of my best friends, who was also a co-worker at the time, were incredibly enthusiastic. In a room full of liberals, gathered around a small television, we verbally and then literally high-fived each other. We had a similarly positive reaction to her 2008 convention speech, despite, or perhaps because of, the extraordinarily harsh response from her increasingly vocal liberal detractors. Over the next few months, Palin’s charm waned considerably. Yet our initial reaction — or, I should say, my initial reaction — was very much a tribal, instinctive reaction. Regular readers know that I make a not-always-successful effort to be fair-minded towards those with whom I disagree. Part of this is because I am keenly aware that I am, in Jonathan Haidt’s terms, a person who prizes in-group loyalty very highly. This has defined my personal relationships, and also, I increasingly realize, my mental model of partisanship.

Among writers and thinkers, independence of mind is generally prized while “teamsmanship” is not, at least not explicitly. Another view, which I associate with Yuval Levin, is that there are enduring disagreements in a democracy, and that broad coalitions organize around these enduring disagreements — about the relative weight of freedom vs. equality, etc. While we might disagree with our coalitions about discrete issues, coalitions are the vehicles through which we achieve durable change. So it could be that working through coalitions, by trying to improve the way a coalition thinks through an issue, to promote change in the policy manifestations of underlying beliefs, etc., is actually the public-spirited approach. This is a rough description of how I look at partisanship: it can be a very good thing if our goal is to make a (small) difference in the world. 

To give a different view due consideration, however, it could also be that we should strive to only speak for ourselves rather than for larger coalitions and communities, and that we should thus forcefully disavow beliefs that we don’t share, as not doing so might somehow taint us.  

Bill Wasik asks a related question

I get it about loyalty being an intrinsic human trait, @reihansalam, but would *anything* prompt you to judge, instead of explain?

The post so far has offered one potential answer to this question. I also think that judgment is not as interesting, to me at least, as trying to explain how and why people reach certain conclusion. I assume that Wasik is suggesting that I only explain rather than judge conservatives. But I do much the same for non-conservatives, hence my insistence that as much as I oppose the efforts of organized public workers to defeat the rollback of collective bargaining rights, they do have a coherent story to tell. The confusion might stem from the fact that different “pundits” do different things. Some serve mainly to rally their allies, or to provide them with ammunition. I see my own role as devising frameworks and narratives to interpret familiar and not-so-familiar facts. Many of the cognitive communities I interact with are so culturally and politically monolithic that they fail to recognize that the facts they work with and assemble into frames and narratives can be assembled, just as plausibly, into different, less-familiar frames and narratives.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.