Monday, January 12, 2009

Tribal Loyalty

Consider the following facts:

The Clinton administration ushered in Nafta, balanced budgets, welfare reform, and occasional gratuitous bombings, and governed during a time that gave rise to massive corporate scandal. The Bush administration, in contrast, created a vast new prescription drug entitlement under Medicare, spent billions in foreign aid for Africa, signed campaign finance reform, and prosecuted all the corporate crooks of the 1990s. During both administrations, the economy grew along trend (Bush’s lower growth rates are on trend given the aging of the American population), but income inequality continued its increasing trend of increasing. Others things happened during both administrations, of course, but you’d think the mob that wanted Clinton’s head would prefer to take Bush’s, and vice versa.

A lot of the satisfaction and dismay that stems from political races is entirely unwarranted based upon a rational assessment of what any given election is likely to change, or not change, whatever the case may be. But nevertheless the irrational dismay on the other side and the equally irrational joy still apply when our guy gets elected. That this is the case stems almost entirely from what tribe you belong to in the culture war. Compare what we truly know about our guy, who in truth is a stranger to us, to what we think we know about them. Our picture of any President, because very few of us will ever have any direct personal knowledge, is for the most part a picture we fill in based upon what we are predisposed to want to believe about them. And our predisposition is based entirely upon our tribal affiliation with our guy.

Theodore Dalrymple describes the more general shift in moral judgment that correlates well with this phenomenon:

"At one time, a man probably felt most morally responsible for his own actions. He was adjudged (and judged himself) good or bad by how he conducted himself toward those in his immediate circle. From its center rippled circles of ever-decreasing moral concern, of which he was also increasingly ignorant.

Now, however, it is the other way around. Under the influence of the media of mass communication and the spread of sociological ways of thinking, a man is most likely to judge himself and others by the opinions he and they hold on political, social, and economic questions that are far distant from his immediate circle. A man may be an irresponsible father, but that is more than compensated for by his deep concern about global warming, or foreign policy, or the food situation in Africa."

In forming our opinion about Clinton, or Bush, or Obama, most of what we actually know is the guy’s opinions on political, social, and economic questions. But people are not content to judge a guy based upon his opinions, they want to go further to form an opinion about the character of the man. Having no real basis for doing so, they fill in a picture that is consistent with the judgment that stems from the policy opinions.

So a conservative looks at a guy like Clinton, sizes up what he regards to be the guy’s policy opinions, predictably condemns them, and then fills in the rest of the story – this guy must do very strange things with cigars and have no real regard for maintaining clothing purchased from the Gap. Turns out they were right about that, but perhaps only by luck. A liberal looks at a guy like Bush, predictably recoils at his silver spoon life, goes out and rents that movie where Chris Farley is the partying frat boy heir apparent to a fortune, and there they have their story.

We are told about how ideological the Bush administration is by the opposing tribe, and to the extent that those on our side might agree it is because they rightfully consider the ideology very friendly to big government. This would presumably be the ideology that the other side would be rooting for, and yet it is clear they use the term prejoratively. We are also told about how divisive the Bush administration has been from a tribe that has fantasized about his assassination in books and films, accusing him on the basis of nothing other than their “gut” that Bush has routinely lied and embarked on a war to settle a family score, and yet his proponents question repeatedly why he doesn’t respond forcefully to the low blows thrown at him on a daily basis. His approval among Republicans stands today at 54 percent, and I would say that the bulk of the disapproval stems from the laundry list of new spending that the left should applaud.

The new administration comes in the applause of a media that is as tribally loyal to the Democratic party as is possible, and it will obviously show in their coverage of the Obama administration. Whereas Bush was a cocky cowboy – i.e. exhibited an unwarranted confidence that was off-putting to our allies, or so the narrative went – Obama, who is as equally self-assured with perhaps less basis given his resume, is instead cool and unshakable.

But in the face of what? Obsequious press coverage that, whenever faced with inflammatory facts or associations (Rezko, Wright, Ayers) that they could have easily stoked into a bonfire, instead did their level best to dampen. Let us see how unshakable he is when the weight of popular opinion is against him – as it was for Bush when he orchestrated the successful passage of the surge in a Democratic congress that unashamedly pinned its hopes for electoral victory on failure in Iraq. Ask the Iraqis who has been cool and unshakable in a real test. Not to say that Obama will not be; that remains to be seen, but there are many who believe, on the basis of tribal affinity to the man alone, that it is already manifestly true.

This is precisely where the tribal loyalties of the press will effect the narrative of the coverage of Obama, as opposed to that for Bush; put simply, Obama is innocent until proven guilty, whereas Bush was presumed guilty. It is far easier to go back and connect the dots as to where something goes off the rails than it is to predict how they might go off the rails in the first place. You can connect the dots after the fact and claim that such problems could have been predictably avoided. Alternatively, you can point out the many variables and unknowns that exist at the time a decision has to be made, and point out that a good decision is often the most desirable of several undesirable options, and that there is always a probability that even the best decision could lead, with some probability, to the least desirable outcome.

The press will re-discover nuance in its coverage of Obama. Whereas a tell-all policy memoir by a former Bushite that settles internal scores is treated as a balanced assessment of the Bush administration, the same will be viewed as sour grapes for a former Obama official. The truth is that any such tell-all might be balanced and fair, or it might be sour grapes, but with only one person telling the tale, there may be no way to know for sure, but this doesn’t stop the press from treating it on a prima facie basis as one or the other as it suits them. So a bad outcome under an Obama decision will be an indication of the difficulty of the times, where even the most considered of opinions and actions can end badly, whereas a bad outcome of a Bush policy will be highlighted as entirely avoidable by finding the Richard Clarke in the room who has a score to settle.


Anonymous Jim O said... what do you attribute the abysmal approval rating of President Bush? Liberal media? How is it possible, with so many learned speechwriters, press secretaries, spokespeople, etc., that the mood and probabilities of the American public's opinion could not be predicted and catered to?

If the objective is to be praised, why is it so difficult to do that which will engender praise? If the objective is to do what you feel is right, damn the consequences, why so much concern about public opinion? Aren't the consequences to be damned anyway?

If you consider the Bush presidency a success, why does it matter what people think of the Democrats, either the incoming presidential administration or the current congress?

This post appears to me to be a partial justification and/or excuse. Why would either be necessary to a public whose opinion doesn't matter?

12:08 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Sign up for my Notify List and get email when I update!

powered by