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This diary is for the purpose of presenting (and codifying) my theory of the American conservative movement as it currently exists.  I'm hardly the first person to come up with most of these ideas, but I feel like they aren't necessarily universally presented.  These theories are based on some basic amateur history of the movement, my experience as a Democratic political organizer and volunteer, online interactions with conservatives, my background in game theory, and interactions with conservative family and community members.  The purpose of a theory is to describe something and to provide predictions, and I hope that this diary and the discussion which follows will allow just that.

To me, the place to start is with observation.  What are the things which we see as "conservative," and what are some of their consistent effects?

1) The conservative movement is always wrong on the merits, and is always attractive nonetheless.  Since the Great Depression began, every crisis the US has faced has had a set of solutions which was advocated for by the conservative movement which, if tried, end up being disastrous.  Even when the liberal movement hasn't yet had good answers for a particular problem, the conservative answer has always been, somehow, worse.  From the conservative economics that magnified the Great Depression in the early 30s and in 1937, to US non-involvement in WWII (and advocacy for joining on the German side along with persecution of Jews), to McCarthyism, to our educational system, to the oil crises, through decolonization and our deindustrialization, and to our current unraveling of the social contract, every time conservative ideas have been implemented, they have been shown to be failures on every metric.  And yet, they remain attractive to a large proportion of our population.

2) American conservatism has always rewarded frenzy and paranoia, and neither political nor policy victory calms its adherents.  There is a direct line from Father Coughlin through McCarthy and into Nixon, Reagan (especially Iran-Contra), and Bush 43.  And yet, despite a near-decade of total political dominance in the '00s, conservatives remain increasingly unhinged and insistent on causing harm.

3) Conservatives themselves describe their constituencies as myopic, incapable of grasping irony, and bigoted on every level, yet complain when they are described as such by liberals (or anyone else).  Indeed, in the conservative lexicon, calling someone a racist is a harsher sin than putting on Klan robes and burning crosses.  Nevertheless, conservative conversations are rife with coded (and uncoded) racism, classism, sexism, and any number of other isms which are too numerous to mention.

4) Modern conservatism is experiencing a level of epistemic closure even within the mainstream of the movement which is relatively new.  Conspiracy theories are the default now, and those theories find deep resonance in conservative adherents.

My opinion is that the thread which binds these ideas is that American conservatism is defined by in-group/out-group dynamics which have come to be referred to as tribalism.  An American conservative (or someone who leans conservative) is someone who buys into the tribal outlook, and who resolves the tension between the manifest falseness of this outlook and the evidence of their daily lives in one of a few often predictable ways.  As the distance between reality and the ideas required by tribalism widens, there is an iterative process which pushes conservatives toward increased emotion and activity.

The Tribal Outlook

The essence of the tribal outlook is the concept that there exists a group, of which one is a member in some standing, which is in all fashions better than all other sets outside the group, to the point where the only meaningful characterization of people is "in" or "out."  This is a hypertrophy of an ordinary process of identity, including language, ethnicity, and/or moral outlook.

One's "tribe" is the group of people with whom one is swiftly comfortable, whether or not one knows them, due to a commonality of shared experience or mores.  Everyone of course has one or more of these tribes to which they belong, due to their life experiences and personalities.  "Tribalism" is the process of ascribing meaning to this fundamental human characteristic which does not exist -- exalting one's tribe over all others in every way imaginable.  If you know you will be comfortable in a room full of public school teachers, that's your tribe.  If you believe that public school teachers are the only people who should be allowed to hold positions of public trust, then you are tribal.

The basic result of the tribal process is that one's interactions with all other persons are defined by two sets of dynamics -- in-group and out-group.  That is, to a tribal person, the first measure of public morality is loyalty.  This is because compared to group membership, all other measures of human worth are tiebreakers.

The American conservative "tribe" is at its core White male American Anglo-Saxon Protestants of some means.  Other groups have been added to this "tribe" at various points -- central, northern and southern Europeans, Catholics, women, and even some Hispanic and African-American people -- but the core requirement of membership is the exaltation of the conservative White Anglo-Saxon Protestant nuclear family and belief system as the ideal of how human beings should live, even if one cannot personally attain it.  That is, if one is too far from the ideal, one should know one's place, which can only possibly change over lifetimes.

Of course, different factions within the conservative movement add their own flavors to the tribal mix.  But they all agree that there is such a thing as an "ideal American," that that group is roughly WASPs, and that all other people are inherently inferior, or at least deeply incompatible.


One of the most baffling memes which periodically crops up in conservative circles is the idea that there is a danger to America of adopting laws influenced by Islamic concepts of Sharia, and that liberals are willing or unwilling dupes of a worldwide powerful conspiracy to impose these laws.  This concept is, of course, incomprehensible to any vaguely educated person.  A group of people which isn't thrilled about a Christmas creche on public property is not going to be a part of the imposition of outdated religious law from societies with poor human rights records.

Nevertheless, this meme has traction among conservatives, leading to such idiocies as the Oklahoma ban on reference to religious law and passionate opposition to the Park51 Community Center.  One possible way to square this circle is the idea that to the conservative mindset, all persons who are not in-group are an undifferentiated mass of unpersons whose characteristics are a bizarre amalgam of the various characteristics of the groups making up the out-group category.  

This is, of course, a deeply confusing way to look at the world, and those who adhere to it will find themselves constantly buffeted by contradictory stereotypes.  It does, however, explains some particularly strange aspects of conservative thought -- the inability to distinguish the Chinese from the Russians, for example.  Or the birther belief that Barack Obama was simultaneously born in Indonesia and Kenya, since the two places are roughly equivalent.  Or the recurring McCarthyist concept that Josef Stalin was a fellow-traveler with the American trade union movement, despite Stalin's concerted efforts to ban unions.  


If the only group of people which is important is your tribe, then logically, the most important social status is status within that tribe.  So tribal people prize status within their unit, and will take even very costly actions to acquire or maintain their status.  Indeed, the most important imaginable status is membership in the tribe itself, and the first order of business is to establish oneself as a member in good standing.

In the American Conservative tribe, this means rigid adherence to a set of rules which identify themselves as members of the tribe.  One has to constantly signal one's commitment to the conservative group as a whole.  This is signaled through a combination of policy beliefs (opposition to Affirmative Action, control of female sexuality, militarism, and anti-poor policy) and cultural signifiers.  A good example of this is "family values."  Of course, that phrase means nothing, but that's the point -- a liberal demands that policy discussions have some sort of content, and that said content can be quantified.  A vague phrase which simultaneously claims an easy moral high ground (nobody views themselves as anti-family) and is meaningless is conservative by definition.  When liberals complain that they don't even understand what the phrase is supposed to mean, they push themselves out of the group.  And grossly anti-traditional-family actions (a married man having unprotected sex with other men while on meth, for example) don't necessarily carry the enormous penalty one might expect.  This is because appearing to want to adhere to the vague value set is far more meaningful than actually doing so.  This is why the multiply divorced Newt Gingrich is held up as an exemplar of conservative values over the staid, honest, and committed Barack Obama.

If status and membership in the group are not based around a shared set of ideals, but rather an amorphous commitment to protecting and advancing "the group" at the expense of other groups, then you can get some surprising results when different conceptions of who is in-group come into conflict.  For example, the GOP assault on unions, a method of attempting to destroy an organization which is viewed as out-group by most Southern and wealthy members, is astonishing to strongly conservative union members, who themselves would prefer to spend energy harming African-Americans and Hispanics, groups which are held to be at least possibly in-group by Christian evangelicals.  Indeed, much status and jockeying within the conservative coalition is centered around these amorphous and constantly shifting definitions of who is in-group, who exemplifes the group, and to whom one has loyalty.

In-Group vs. Out-Group

Any conflict which takes on tones of being unambiguously In-Group vs. Out-Group will excite conservatives, both inherently (due to their worldview) and as an opportunity to signal loyalty.  This explains (for example) the consistent conservative excitement and delight over the 9/11 attacks and our increasingly absurd responses to them.

What has to be understood, though, is that the fundamental in-group vs. out-group conflict in American society is "them" vs. "us."  This is why "pissing off liberals" is a major conservative policy priority.  To a conservative, a white middle class liberal (especially) is a traitor to the basic conflict, and they (we) need to be punished to be pulled back into the field.

Conservative attitudes of this sort help explain the conservative insistence on using US foreign policy as an excuse for domestic action.  If conservatives viewed liberals and, say, the Soviets, as an undifferentiated out-group mass, then sacrificing advantage in fighting one group (the Soviets) is a reasonable cost to weaking the out-group members in their own country.

It is possible to get conservatives to believe anything negative if it pertains to brown people.  Barack Obama born in both Kenya and Indonesia?  No problem.  Mexican drug gang controlled ranch implementing sharia law?  Why not?  Anything is possible when it involves brown people and you smell like a conservative.

This is also why conservatives are so susceptible to colonial fantasies.  What could be more seductive than converting an entire nation full of brown out-group members to accepting their proper place?  An infinite occupation is quite acceptable, and -- more importantly -- one can signal one's allegiance to the tribe by stridently supporting an indefinite occupation, thus differentiating yourself from liberals who think that out-group members have ridiculous things, like human rights.


Each generation of conservatives grows up in the context created by the previous generation, and so they develop their own set of tribal signals and responses.  This means that once the movement got completely separated from reality, each generation signaled its commitment through more and more insane action.  Thus, we go from Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to George W. Bush to Sarah Palin.  Each iteration is successively more detached from reality, and each iteration drops some aspect of obsolete conservatism to add new layers that are arbitrarily attractive to the new members of the tribe.

This is similar to a result called a "rat race" in economic theory.  Essentially, in a winner-take-all tournament (like a competition for leadership positions), people end up collectively investing far more effort than is necessarily efficient, given the stakes of the position.  I think a similar result pertains for conservative leaders and The Crazy.  Each of them has to out-crazy the others, and so a sort of Overton Window bidding war ensues.

The Tribal alternative to the Enlightenment

It is said that fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity.  The world is too large, and so a comprehensible supreme being who sets a social hierarchy is developed to keep it at bay.  By contrast, The Enlightenment is a reaction to conservatism.  The pointless wars and conflicts of the 16th and 17th century led to thinkers abandoning old ways of organizing and positing a new way of looking at the world, where individuals were the basic unit of society.  But this mode of thought is inherently artificial; when human beings are not trained in it, they automatically create tribes and conflict along lines of loyalty.  Conservatism is the exaltation of this older method of organization; by adhering to a tribal worldview, you protect yourself from competition with talented outgroup members, you spare yourself the difficulty of judging people individually, and you have the psychic wage of privilege.  Instead of controlling and managing our prejudices, conservatism teaches us to decide with them.  And in our tremedously diverse nation, no social contract, not even the one from the Gilded Age which they've been pushing, could possibly survive.

My next diaries will discuss some of the predictable ways which conservatives resolve the conflict between their views and reality, then take on specific policy issues from a tribal politics perspective.  I hope this has been helpful.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (7+ / 0-)

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity

    by Punditus Maximus on Sat Apr 09, 2011 at 11:05:49 PM PDT

  •  tribe is a bad word choice to describe xenophobia (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    James Allen, trashablanca, Gooserock

    With or without scare quotes.  Tribe has a well defined meaning in anthropology, and is, in my opinion, not appropriate in this context.  The basis of the American Conservative movement is wealth and privilege, not kinship.

  •  Cycles of growing extremes (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gooserock, neroden, semiot, OHdog, Tam in CA

    The craziness bidding wars and evolving Overton window acceptance of growing social insanity runs in cycles. Proving loyalty or primacy in the tribe steadily takes the group farther and farther away from what works to allow most to have a decent life. The sustainability or minimal functioning of a society subjected to a ramp up of tribal craziness will adapt as much as it can incrementally until it cannot adjust any more. All the slack in the system that allows contra-realities to persist gets stretched to a breaking point just like an economic "correction" does. Reality intervenes in a wider "social  correction" as things break down...instead of adjusting via acceptable conflict levels in mostly non-destructive ways... policies are finally taken to the extreme dysfunction point. And any culpability for the chaos and breakdown that ensues in a delayed "correction" will be denied and blamed on the enemies of the "Tribe"...

    So the only good news is that the Tribe's rulers cannot succeed in changing reality indefinitely or delay the inevitable swing-back. But when their fantasy society quest for themselves in the name of their tribe breaks down the question is always how long will saner more inclusive and  viable policies have support, how long will it take to recover a wider society to successful and sustained function before the tribal conservatives work their way into overall control again and start the ramp up to crazy times again?

    One crucial  factor in the duration is what their "chiefs" can learn from their previous implosion and loss of influence, wealth share and power. More recently, unlike more feudal eras, they have new think-tank driven strategies on how to manage the chaotic interludes for their own gain and for the most part still come out personally on top at the expense of both the "enemies" of the tribe and the rank and file members of their own tribe after a shortened interlude. And even those in the tribe's upper hierarchy that are destroyed in the process have loyalty to the tribe.

    Their short-sightedness is that to actually recover a healthy more democratic balance for a longer period with the national wealth shared out more fairly is an important part of a true recovery (and would benefit the majority of their own tribe of conservatives). But that would weaken the tribal rulers too much for too long. This time around the tribal chiefs employ a whole bag of new tricks, control of the media, improved election fraud, faux populism to bleed off the natural support for real populist reaction. Plus new ways to increase funding of their hired candidates and choking off funds to their opponents. The plunder is only increasing as if they want to put off the plutocrats' out-phase as long as possible. But in doing so they will make the fall harder and the correction more drastic. And their loyal tribe members will always blame non-tribe no matter how much misery they endure.

    The lords of wealth at the top of the conservative tribe sustained false prosperity through the mid 00s and thereby made the delayed recession all the worse. They reaped bubble profits from the bubble they inflated and when it burst they triumphed over their tribal rivals and impoverished millions (even among their own) and parlayed it all into an even greater share of the wealth for themselves. They will foster even greater extremes justified with illusory notions that these changes will get them closer to a social and economic nirvana for their tribe... but the reality is that they have stretched what works, what is viable way over into unsustainable and destructive and reality and the growing needs and awareness of those whose privations and suffering make the temporary situation possible. But they in turn will (if they can escape making it all about the tribe) be the force behind the correction.

    In the past places like pre-revolutionary France, the "Ancien Regime" dug in their heels and delayed healthy beneficial adjustments and distorted the rewards system far beyond what people would stand for for too long and the growing middle class and the new emerging working class turned on the uber tribe there known as the nobility... and the same process repeats in so many other places again and again. It may happen in different superficial guises but the underlying pattern has always been the same... pushed to extremes the push-back from the have-nots and victims is equally extreme... to the point that it introduces far too many counter extremes for a smooth transition and effective reforms to take root.

    From what should have been minor course corrections with everyone at the table in some way... it become a hugely damaging reaction that ricochets social upheaval shrapnel back and forth for an extended period... and for some places there is a tribal tug of war over the same chewed up area century after century in a bistable reaction and counter reaction. In those situations rival tribes just swap hegemony back and forth with their ruling groups taking too much gain and undermining their own support and power...

    Like some sort of Darwinian social process the rival sides evolve new strategies to prevail.... greater democracy breeds ploys to subvert it and thwarted majorities must educate themselves to see what is being used to take away their ability to bargain with those who are doing the taking... those who accumulate too much power and wealth share... the internet and people's awareness and participation is one area the powers that be are battling to take overall control of. Hard to say what the overall cycle is on a graph.. but the US and a good part of the planet may be in the midst of a larger scale re-balancing. There are too many out of control billionaires and corporations plus their enablers the short-sighted investor class hogging and accumulating too much wealth...

    At some point the reaction to the dysfunction the tribal oligarchy engenders will force them to retreat and retrench. They inevitably find new ways around the coming readjustment to a temporarily more equitable social bargain. It will come in new forms as the basis of wealth and its protections evolve to function in the new reality.

    The greedy and selfish always align with the tribal alignment that tends more to value loyalty, emotion and fear because these people have a need for a feudal type relationship. Protection from the "powerful" and rich with a faint hope of ascending to their level and an inbuilt attraction to loyalty over facts makes the tribe members the perfect support group... the enablers of their tribal masters. And since they seem to be a genetic constant in any society - a percentage with different emotional balance and brain patterns who largely function in an us vs. them reality they will always be there for the inherent monarchist types to take advantage of.

    Is there any hope to effectively counter those behind the conservative tribe who take advantage of it and use it to protect and extend their own prerogatives and power?  What will delay or minimize the extent of their ascendancy if not make the interim more democratic periods longer? Education and wider participation in public affairs seems to be the most powerful tool against this tendency. We are not inherently all one way or the other... Some are strongly tribal and some only weakly so. There are plenty in the middle who will go with the side that makes the most sense to them... and if they do not care enough or know enough they will side with the tribe that actually impoverishes their lives since it is in overall control too often due to the blind allegiance of the loyalty first tribe. That hardcore cannot be swayed but others can learn why their best interests are not aligned with the powerful the conservative tribe gravitates to and serves.

    Pogo & Murphy's Law, every time. Also "Trust but verify" - St. Ronnie (hah...)

    by IreGyre on Sun Apr 10, 2011 at 03:55:40 AM PDT

    •  It's Crushingly Simple. Arith. Not Rocket Science. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      neroden, semiot, IreGyre

      There is simply so much money to be made, so fast, at the top of the economy that it is irresponsible for top leadership to run society or even their own enterprises for medium or longterm health.

      It's that simple.

      All you have to do is allow most of the largest incomes to be taken home, no matter how large, and the entire rest of the collapse writes its own script.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Sun Apr 10, 2011 at 05:55:45 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Analysis is absolutely accurate. Next steps? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tam in CA, mike101, IreGyre

    I see two problems here to solve:
    (1) How do we avoid creating tribal conservatives?  If we assume that conservatism is a reaction to not understanding Enlightenment thinking, then training children with Enlightenment thinking is job one.  How do we pursue that, when they're dead set against their children learning critical thinking?  (I think there's an opening due to their internalization of the rhetoric of the Enlightenment.)

    (2) How do we convert existing ones into sane people?  This seems similar but harder.

    (3) Assuming that they remain a large, powerful, aggressive, and aggressively demented group, how do we get them out of power so they will stop wrecking the country and the planet?

    Read pp. 1-7 of Krugman's _The Great Unraveling_ (available from Google Books). NOW.

    by neroden on Sun Apr 10, 2011 at 06:15:27 AM PDT

    •  Why do we assume (0+ / 0-)

      that they don't understand?

      The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity

      by Punditus Maximus on Sun Apr 10, 2011 at 08:35:59 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  So, they are some combination of (0+ / 0-)

        greedy, fearful, cynical? If we assume they DO understand. That's plausible.
        There could well be a range of understanding there, each eventually  finding his or her place in the tribe.

        -- We are just regular people informed on issues

        by mike101 on Sun Apr 10, 2011 at 02:33:19 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  It is only necessary for some to know (0+ / 0-)

          some at the top and the next rung down are at least quasi aware and are fine with that because tribe  and "good guys" comes first... They being the good guys.  All the rest (even quite a few at the top) buy into the justification myths, point to exceptions to explain things and impugn the needs and privations of those they impoverish and ignore.

          The wise leading the selfish poor... making the Tough decisions for their own good.

          Pogo & Murphy's Law, every time. Also "Trust but verify" - St. Ronnie (hah...)

          by IreGyre on Mon Apr 11, 2011 at 01:53:02 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Aw, dang, down with only a few ripples. (0+ / 0-)

    I worked pretty hard on this one.  :)

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity

    by Punditus Maximus on Tue Apr 12, 2011 at 08:25:39 AM PDT

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