Can Republicans be rational, not tribal?

Donald Trump is a strange standard-bearer for Republicans. He espouses few of the party's traditional positions and disavows most of its icons. Almost every important US conservative publication - National Review, the Weekly Standard, Commentary - opposes him, as do most leading conservative pundits, from George Will to David Brooks.

Of the five previous Republican nominees for president, three will not publicly affirm that they would vote for Mr Trump and I would bet that a fourth (John McCain) will not in the privacy of the voting booth.

And yet, amazingly, in polls Mr Trump has received around the same level of support from Republicans as previous GOP nominees - so far. The election might well hinge on one simple issue - whether Republicans prove to be rational or tribal.

The last time so many Republican leaders defected was in 1964, and Barry Goldwater was wiped out in a landslide. But polarisation is so intense in the United States today that a cardboard cutout with an "R" on it would get about 43 per cent of the vote, and one with a "D" would get about the same.


US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Michigan. PHOTO: AFP

For months now, conservative intellectuals have hoped the campaign would reveal that Mr Trump was neither Republican nor qualified. It has, on several occasions, most recently at Monday's debate which public opinion polls show Mrs Hillary Clinton winning by a huge margin. But when Republican and Republican-leaning likely voters were asked in an NBC News poll whether the debate had improved their opinion of Mrs Clinton, only 4 per cent said yes.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, used exhaustive evidence to explain that our political preferences are not the product of careful analytic reasoning. Instead, they spring from a combination of moral intuition (instinct) and a tribal affiliation with people who we believe share these instincts. We use reason, facts and analysis to affirm our gut decisions.

When the same group was asked whether it had worsened their impression of Mr Trump, just 6 per cent agreed. (Those numbers were 50 per cent and 46 per cent, respectively, among Democrats and Democratic-leaners.) Watching the same lopsided debate, people on both sides simply reaffirmed their pre-debate perspectives on the candidates.

These dynamics have reminded me of Jonathan Haidt's seminal book The Righteous Mind. Dr Haidt, a social psychologist, used exhaustive evidence to explain that our political preferences are not the product of careful analytic reasoning. Instead, they spring from a combination of moral intuition (instinct) and a tribal affiliation with people who we believe share these instincts. We use reason, facts and analysis to affirm our gut decisions.

If you think this is true of other people and not you, consider the example of billionaire technology entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and funded Facebook. An intelligent and well-read person, with mostly libertarian views, he strongly supports Mr Trump, for a bizarre reason. He asserts that Mr Trump's most significant statement during this campaign, revealing his worldview, was "to declare that government healthcare can work".

He quoted Mr Trump praising the Scottish and Canadian systems - one nationalised, the other a single-payer network - as proof of his remarkable willingness to think heretically and challenge Republican dogmas about government.

Now, another interpretation of Mr Trump's remark would be that it was a stray comment, thrown off the top of his head, signifying almost nothing. Remember that Mr Trump took five different positions on abortion in three days. NBC News calculates that he has changed his position 124 times on 20 major issues since the campaign began.

In Monday's debate, he took two contradictory positions on the "no first use" policy of nuclear weapons in 30 seconds. And most important, after that offhand reference, Mr Trump backed down from his support for government healthcare, instead only reciting Republican orthodoxy about the evils of Obamacare.

 

So an intelligent libertarian has chosen to support a man whose main - and utterly consistent - public policy positions are anti-free trade and anti-immigration and who has promised to appoint socially conservative judges to the Supreme Court, because he is convinced that Mr Trump is actually a closet admirer of Britain's nationalised healthcare system. I cannot think of a better example of Dr Haidt's thesis that we come to a decision first and reason our way to it afterwards.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has managed similar acrobatics. Mr Ryan is opposed to all of Mr Trump's major policy proposals - the wall, mass deportations, ending birthright citizenship, unilateral tariffs against China, renegotiating Nafta, total opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin - and has even publicly condemned many of them. And yet, he says Mr Trump is his man.

The signs to look for in the next few weeks are whether Mr Trump is losing any support among Republicans. That would indicate that politics is about more than tribal loyalty to a team. It would be heartening on many levels. After all, democracy depends on the ability to look at evidence and argument, to use reason and judgment, and to take seriously our roles as citizens of a great republic.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2016, with the headline 'Can Republicans be rational, not tribal?'. Print Edition | Subscribe