‘We must be careful about what we pretend to be’: How tribal cheerleading creates new tribal dogma and changes the tribe to conform to it

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
— Kurt Vonnegut

Kevin Drum discusses wacky, irrational poll results, and I think he’s absolutely correct, as far as his argument goes. But I also think his argument needs to look a bit farther down the line, because that’s where it starts to fall apart. Kevin accurately describes and explains a single phenomenon — why people give indefensible answers to poll questions — but doesn’t locate that phenomenon within the larger process to which it belongs.

The particular prompt for Kevin’s post is just the latest of countless examples about which we could have the same discussion. Public Policy Polling enlivened its most recent 2016 presidential campaign polling with a question about the loony Jade Helm conspiracy theory percolating on the far-right fringe. “Do you think that the Government is trying to take over Texas or not?” PPP asked.

And 32 percent of Republican voters surveyed said “Yes, I think the Government is trying to take over Texas.” (Another 28 percent were “Not sure.”)

This is an opinion poll and the question is asking respondents their opinion. But the question is also about a basic matter of fact. That matter of fact is not ambiguous: The federal government is not, in fact, conspiring to “take over Texas.” This is not a matter of controversy or of probability. The 32 percent of Republican respondents who answered “Yes” to this question were, in fact, wrong — absurdly, irrationally wrong.

So what are we to make of a poll in which a third of Republican voters enthusiastically endorsed an irrational claim of absolute nonsense? Does it tell us that a third of Republicans are irrational and nonsensical?

That’s one possible interpretation of such a poll result, but Kevin argues — and I agree — that it’s not the likeliest explanation for this weird polling response. He writes:

So what do we take from this? I think there are two main interpretations:

  • Fox and Rush and the rest of the conservative media have driven conservatives into such a frenzy that a third of them really, truly do believe that President Obama plans a military takeover of Texas.
  • Poll questions like this no longer have any real meaning. This is basically little more than a survey of mood affiliation that tests how much you hate and distrust President Obama. That is to say, a yes answer has little or nothing to with Jade Helm. It just means you really hate and distrust Obama.

I’m inclined to the second interpretation myself. It’s all good fun, but no, I don’t think that a third of Republicans really believe this nonsense. It’s just their way of showing that they’re members in good standing of the political faction that believes Obama is capable of anything in his power-mad struggle to turn the United States into a socialist hellhole. The rest is just fluff.

Yes. True. Correct. I agree.

But …

I’ve seen what happens next. I’ve witnessed the longer, larger process that such expressions of “mood affiliation” are a part of. It starts as a mere gesture of tribal cheerleading, but over time it shapes and reshapes tribal dogma.

Over time, these kinds of tribal-cheerleading responses to pollsters and other catechists eventually become required responses. And thus, over time, the things that people pretend to believe as a “way of showing that they’re members in good standing” of their political faction become the things that members of that faction actually believe. The fluff becomes substance — becomes dogma. And the tribe is transformed to conform to this new dogma.

PandGIt starts as almost a joke — almost like a way of flipping the bird at pollsters, or of trying to freep the results of the poll. But then the pretense becomes habit and the habit becomes doctrine. What begins as a flippant response to express tribal membership becomes what you must say to show that you are a member in good standing of the tribe. And then, after it becomes what every member in good standing is saying and must say, it becomes what every member in good standing actually believes.

The Jade Helm Texas-takeover nonsense clearly isn’t anywhere near the tipping-point for this. Most of that 32 percent in the PPP poll were mostly joking. And I doubt this particular conspiracy theory has legs — it won’t endure as something even the conspiratorial fringe is still talking about a year from now or 10 years from now. It won’t last long enough to evolve from playful partisan pretense into mandatory partisan slogan and then into actual partisan stance.

But that 32 percent result isn’t much different from the kind of result you’d have gotten 15 years ago if you asked Republican voters about climate science. That wasn’t a matter of partisan controversy until Al Gore ran for president in 2000. But once someone closely identified with that issue became the standard-bearer for one partisan faction, some members of the opposite partisan faction began semi-jokingly expressing their “mood affiliation” by pretending to reject the clear facts of the matter. The partisan cheerleading spread and, eventually, to maintain one’s place as a member in good standing of the partisan tribe, this rejection of the facts became the only acceptable answer to the question. And now, after a decade or so of everyone in that tribe being required to pretend to believe this, it has simply become something that almost everyone in that tribe actually believes.

The same process is constantly at work in religious tribes as well as political parties. This is part of how it came to be that the white evangelical tribe is officially unanimous today in believing that a zygote is morally indistinct from a human person when very few white evangelicals would have agreed with such a claim in 1980.

Paul W. Kahn wrote about something like this process recently for Political Theology Today, in an essay titled “Speaking Power to Truth, or, The Banality of Torture“:

Where our political disputes will crystallize is quite contingent, for it is not the case that some things are, by nature, more political than others. Anything at all – guns, education, energy, religion, the environment – can become the subject of a political dispute.

Thus it is not a surprise that torture can become the object of partisan debate. This is not because torture is controversial or important but because our practice of partisanship has become so deep. Neither side in these debates is open to being persuaded by the other, because the arguments are not over what they seem. Torture, like guns or climate change, is a proxy for a deeper controversy about who belongs and who does not, about how to read and understand the American political community, about where and how to see the exception that grounds the norm.

Any fact or set of facts is fodder for an expression of tribal cheerleading. Once that process begins — once it becomes, even partly in jest, a “way of showing that we’re members in good standing” of our favored tribe — those facts will lose their facthood and become only ways of expressing tribal membership. And the identity of the tribe will change accordingly. The dogma and doctrine of the tribe will adapt. The joke becomes real — becomes a new identity, a new belief untethered to whatever the facts are or were or might have been.

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