Kudos to whatever trickster thought it wise to poll Romney voters, asking them to rate how they feel about the Duggar family from TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting and how they feel about President Obama. The result—67 percent of Romney voters like the Duggars better than they like Obama—perfectly encapsulates one of the most troubling aspects of modern conservatism: the way that it’s ultimately about irrational tribal politics over everything else.
No doubt conservatives will bristle at that, but it’s hard to deny it in the face of this polling data. Recent months have shown that the Duggars are, not to put too fine a point on it, not nice people. They covered up for their son’s child molesting and encouraged him to go out there and present himself as a moral authority who lectures other people on how to conduct their consensual sex lives that involve absolutely no children at all. Whatever issues you may have with Obama’s policies, it’s safe to say he’s never held himself out as a moral scold about your sex life while covering up for a child molester.
But such is that nature of 21st century right-wing tribalism. The Duggars are religious cultists with downright weird ideas about hair styling, but because they’re white, sanctimonious and Republican, they inspire “one of us!” feelings in the conservative base. Add to it eight years of relentless fear-mongering from righ-twing media about Obama, who is treated like an interloper and a harbinger of the apocalypse, and you get creepily immoral poll answers like this.
The attachment on the right to the Duggar family told us a lot about how right-wing tribalism works even before the revelations of Josh Duggar’s past of child molestation came out. The Duggars are not exactly in step with the lives of regular conservatives, being adherents to a fringe form of fundamentalism often called Christian patriarchy. Most conservatives aren’t shunning contraception or premarital sex, and they sure as hell aren’t teaching their kids that kissing before marriage is wrong. Rates of divorce and teen pregnancy tend to be higher in more conservative parts of the country. The sex and family lives of your average conservatives look way more like those of liberals than they do of the Duggars. If people like the Duggars got their way and were able to impose their “family values” on the rest of us by law, conservatives would be getting screwed over just as much as liberals.
It goes to show that conservative identity politics are deeply irrational, with aesthetics frequently overwhelming basic common sense. You saw the same thing going on with the Duck Dynasty brouhaha. Phil Robertson, the patriarch on that show, is a moral monster whose beliefs are so odious that no amount of religious window dressing can make them look better. It’s telling that most of his conservative defenders elide discussing what he actually says in public, trying to focus their defenses on his right to free speech, which has never actually been threatened. Robertson, along with his grossly homophobic statements, endorsed the era of segregation and suggested the ideal time for girls to marry—and he means girls—is 15. I highly doubt that most of Robertson’s fan base and supporters would like it very much if he came over to their houses, offering to pull their girls out of high school so they can be married off to grown men. But he’s a white guy who says he’s Christian and conservative, so he gets these defenses, whereas liberals who aren’t gunning for your teenage daughters are treated like some kind of deviants.
Look, both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of tribalism. It’s human nature to like people who talk and dress and eat like you do, or at least the way you aspire to do those things. Liberals certainly feel their hearts soar when they see someone driving a Prius or hear that their new Tinder date went to Berkeley.
But this Duggar poll and recent events generally suggest that conservatives are going way too far with this knee-jerk tendency to believe “their” people can do no wrong and to assume “liberals” are some subversive force out to destroy everything. It’s mildly amusing when Republican voters are mindlessly preferring religious nutcases to a centrist liberal who probably gave them health care. In other cases, however, the “us good, you bad” thinking gets deeply toxic.
That much was made obvious in the furor over the McKinney pool party scandal. There is no defense for white adults screaming racist invective at teenagers, as the people who started the fight were alleged to have done. There’s especially no defense for the cop who terrified and humiliated a bunch of harmless kids by throwing one bikini-clad girl to the ground and sitting on her while threatening the rest of the party-goers with a gun. But right-wing tribalism kicked in all the same, and next thing you know, conservative media is out there trying to paint these kids as the bad guys.
Now you’re seeing it starting up again in the wake of the Charleston shooting, where conservatives are already sharpening up the talking point to claim that this was the result of an imaginary war on Christians, instead of what it obviously is: a hate crime against people based on race. Now instead of having a moment of reckoning in this country about our racist, violent history, we’re going to have to have a stupid, bad faith argument about whether this murder was “really” racist? All because of this entrenched “us vs. them” mentality that’s spun so wildly out of control on the right.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.