manufacturing bipartisanship

Moderate Democrats are conservatives, and conservatives are racists. Their grip on the party is still solid: they haven’t done anything serious about Donald Trump. Their inaction and collaboration is increasingly an embarrassment, though. The premise of winning over “swing voters” to accomplish something progressive is increasingly absurd, as Donald Trump escalates and Republicans stick with him. It was already absurd when Obama spent his whole presidency trying to collaborate with Republicans and getting nowhere.

This is a problem. It’s not like AOC, Sanders, Warren, etc. are on the verge of abolishing private property, but their policies are a threat to the FIRE sector. It would be bad if the public got ideas about everyone being entitled to a decent life. It’s a big enough threat that you have to throw money at it.

Enter the Hidden Tribes Project.

America has never felt so divided. Bitter debates that were once confined to Congressional hearings and cable TV have now found their way into every part of our lives, from our Facebook feeds to the family dinner table. But most Americans are tired of this “us-versus-them” mindset and are eager to find common ground. This is the message we’ve heard from more than 8,000 Americans in one of our country’s largest-ever studies of polarization: We hold dissimilar views on many issues. However, more than three in four Americans also believe that our differences aren’t so great that we can’t work together…

We are experiencing these divisions in our workplaces, neighborhood groups, even our places of worship. In the media, pundits score points, mock opponents, and talk over each other. On the Internet, social media has become a hotbed of outrage, takedowns, and cruelty—often targeting total strangers.

But this can change. A majority of Americans, whom we’ve called the “Exhausted Majority,” are fed up by America’s polarization. They know we have more in common than that which divides us: our belief in freedom, equality, and the pursuit of the American dream. They share a deep sense of gratitude that they are citizens of the United States. They want to move past our differences.

Turning the tide of tribalism is possible―but it won’t be easy. Americans have real differences and real disagreements with each other. We must be able to listen to each other to understand those differences and find common ground. That’s the focus of the Hidden Tribes project: to understand better what is pulling us apart, and find what can bring us back together.

So they want to promote a common “American” identity.

That’s where the money comes in. You hire some academics and consultant types to do some polls, make a whitepaper with some charts and a press release, and use connections to place articles in the press. One such campaign is the Perception Gap Study. It came out in June, getting simultaneous coverage in The Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, the Financial Times, CNN, and the New York Post. I noticed it the first time around and felt annoyed, but not enough to write about it. Now the story’s back in the Guardian. This time with the headline “Think Republicans are disconnected from reality? It’s even worse among liberals”. With Republicans ever more blatantly fascist, this is how the article starts:

In a surprising new national survey, members of each major American political party were asked what they imagined to be the beliefs held by members of the other. The survey asked Democrats: “How many Republicans believe that racism is still a problem in America today?” Democrats guessed 50%. It’s actually 79%. The survey asked Republicans how many Democrats believe “most police are bad people”. Republicans estimated half; it’s really 15%.

The survey, published by the thinktank More in Common as part of its Hidden Tribes of America project, was based on a sample of more than 2,000 people. One of the study’s findings: the wilder a person’s guess as to what the other party is thinking, the more likely they are to also personally disparage members of the opposite party as mean, selfish or bad. Not only do the two parties diverge on a great many issues, they also disagree on what they disagree on.

The first paragraph already accomplishes two things: providing cover for Republican racism and reinforcing support for the police. The second misdirects focus from the important question of fascism to the trivial question of whether the progressive fringe is a bunch of rude meanies.

Notice the sophistry in the transition between paragraphs 3 and 4 in the next passage, about echo chambers:

Being home surely restores one’s spirits. But in the long run, staying home leads to trouble. It keeps the left from knowing what it needs to know, good news and bad. It further marginalizes it. After all, in the heat of battle, the most brilliant generals are not those who insult the enemy from inside their own tent. It is those who most astutely gauge the troop count, the terrain and quirks of the opposing general.

In peacetime, too, in this political moment, the best approach is to learn about what is sometimes the alternative truth in which Fox News watchers live, the class and cultural grievances it appeals to and amplifies, and to understand, as one keeps listening, a curiously hidden moderation in substance and tone.

For starters, Democrats can recognize pieces of common ground where they already exist. For my 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, I studied enthusiastic backers of Donald Trump in Louisiana – the last place on earth a Democrat might look for common ground.

But one man I talked with – someone raised on a sugar plantation, retired from a life-long career in oil, a proud member of the Louisiana Tea Party and a Trump supporter – grinned broadly at the mention of Bernie Sanders. “Free college? Free medical care? How yawl going to pay for that? He’s a pie in the sky guy,” he said. “But he’s a good man, Uncle Bernie.” Although an oil worker, he was a fan of clean energy, and liked the idea of a Manhattan Project to implement it.

It’s actually true that we need intelligence about the other side. The bullshit move is to equate that with common ground. No, we should understand the other side and NOT agree with them. The conservatives are busy making policy just to piss off liberals for its own sake. The liberals are reading fantasies about the Green New Deal motivating Trump supporters more than racism. To support Trump, you already demonstrably prioritize racism over all else.

It’s a cute idea: ask Republicans and Democrats to answer questions and guess how each other would answer the same questions. The trick is that Republicans and Democrats will interpret the questions differently and answer based on that. Surely they knew this when writing the questions. This is from the home page of the Hidden Tribes project:

Our research concludes that we have become a set of tribes, with different codes, values, and even facts. In our public debates, it seems that we no longer just disagree. We reject each other’s premises and doubt each other’s motives. We question each other’s character. We block our ears to diverse perspectives. At home, polarization is souring personal relationships, ruining Thanksgiving dinners, and driving families apart.

They know people have different premises, so they know the way they’re comparing the numbers is nonsensical. But they get so much mileage from it! In The Atlantic’s take, they even get to reinforce the idea of “out of touch liberal elitists”:

Americans who rarely or never follow the news are surprisingly good at estimating the views of people with whom they disagree. On average, they misjudge the preferences of political adversaries by less than 10 percent. Those who follow the news most of the time, by contrast, are terrible at understanding their adversaries. On average, they believe that the share of their political adversaries who endorse extreme views is about 30 percent higher than it is in reality.

Perhaps because institutions of higher learning tend to be dominated by liberals, Republicans who have gone to college are not more likely to caricature their ideological adversaries than those who dropped out of high school. But among Democrats, education seems to make the problem much worse. Democrats who have a high-school degree suffer from a greater perception gap than those who don’t. Democrats who went to college harbor greater misunderstandings than those who didn’t. And those with a postgrad degree have a way more skewed view of Republicans than anybody else.

That’s some high-quality disinformation, an impressive false equivalence. In reality, Republicans are as extreme as we think, and Republicans traffic in hateful caricatures of their opponents. For liberals, the questions with the biggest perception gap are precisely the ones where education will change your understanding of the terms.

Note that there isn’t a gap for “Trump is a flawed person,” or even about climate change. Obviously, Democrats and Republicans have different ideas of what “properly controlled immigration” means. Without defining it, the question is equivalent to asking if you believe America should have borders at all. Most Republicans agree. The gap comes from Democrats knowing that, for Republicans, “properly controlled” means xenophobia, not routine background checks. Likewise, when you ask Republicans if racism still exists, many will answer “Yes, against white people.” That doesn’t mean Democrats are wrong about half of Republicans denying racism. Under Jim Crow, many white folks would’ve agreed that there are “good niggers”, so the question about “good Muslims” is equally meaningless. Conservative defintions of sexism will include “discrimination against men.” Conservatives don’t want “the bad people” to have guns, meaning the Black Panthers. The militant left is ultra-taboo for liberals, so they probably wouldn’t think of that.

In short, every “perception gap” is probably coming from incompatible premises more than Democrats actually misunderstanding what Republicans think. The items are specifically issues conservatives gaslight about.

These items are all misperceptions deliberately cultivated by conservative media. It turns out Democrats aren’t cop-hating Trotskyists, for the most part.

In short, we haven’t learned anything. Republicans fight bogeymen and pretend to be the victims of social injustice. They think minorities should know their place. In fact, this pattern of behavior suggests working with them would be counterproductive.

A liberal think tank used two Republican disinformation strategies (straw man Democrats and race/sex gaslighting) to make everyone talk about how much we have in common with the right wing extremists running things.

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