Tribal America and the 2012 Elections
Dr. Glenn Layne
Two weeks ago, I was not alone among conservative voters to be stunned and disappointed by the results of the presidential election. Back in the summer, I had become concerned by voter patterns were no longer being moved by issues and interests, but by a growing cultural divide in the country. How else to explain that an objectively failed president still led in the polls? By objectively failed, consider the high levels of unemployment and the decline of US prestige and power abroad. It was roughly the same combination that sunk Jimmy Carter in 1980.
The October 3 debate in Denver, where Romney won by any measure, recast the election. Romney seemed to be slowly moving into the lead. Rasmussen and Gallup had him ahead. Michael Barone predicted a decisive win for Romney. Reports on Election Day seemed to bear out their predictions.
Then evening came and the bottom dropped out. What happened?
What happened was this: while many of Obama 2008 voters didn’t show up, enough did. And Romney only got the same number of votes as McCain did in 2008. Obama won by 3%--the smallest reelection of a president in American history.
What I suspect happened was that my concern about the cultural divide being the driving factor in the election was true. There are two tribal coalitions in America. John Edwards was right—there are two Americas. But he was entirely wrong about who makes up the two Americas.
Let’s call the two tribal coalitions Old America and New America. Old America is mostly white, middle class, and church-going. They believe that America is a fundamentally just country. They recognize the nation’s imperfections but point out that we have a tremendous capacity for self-corrections.
Old America is a tribal coalition, not really a tribe. Old America consists of Protestant evangelicals, observant Catholics and Orthodox Jews. Old America consists of tribes that think first of the national debt (they coalesced as the “Tea Party” starting in 2009), while others are more moved by “traditional family values” and still others by national defense. Old America organizations include the Chamber of Commerce and the NRA.
When Old America bumps up against government, their first reaction is, “I’ll call you when I need you. And don’t wait by the phone.” Then tend to see government action in the form of regulation and spending as mostly intrusive and foolish.
New America is also a tribal coalition. It consists of union households, the very poor, Blacks, Hispanics, the religiously indifferent, gays and liberal intellectuals and marijuana advocates. While there is overlap, this is actually a more diverse—and fragile—coalition. But what they have in common is this: they believe that either their own opportunities or those of the “downtrodden” have in the past been blocked or stolen by the Old America tribe. New America organizations include Move On, most unions and (ironically) AARP. New America sees government as a tool to alter conditions in their favor; they don’t want government to leave them alone—they want government to save them from Old America.
This tribal distinction is behind the reality that an Old American looks at a New American voter and wonder if he’s lost his mind. And the New American voter looks at the Old American voter and wonders the same thing. This tribalism is a key element in the deadlocked partisanship that pervades Washington and the states. Whatever tribe you’re in, you convinced that the other tribe simply crazy, or evil, or both.
Old America is inherently more positive than New America. Old America’s appeal is to restore freedom. New America’s complaint is that Old America consists of bigots, thieves and heartless capitalists. President Obama nailed it when he quipped, “Voting is the best revenge.” And Mitt Romney’s reply, “Vote for love of country” perfectly captured Old America’s ethos.
For Old America, it’s always 1776 in Philadelphia; for New America, it’s always 1965 in Selma.
For conservatives like me, we underestimated the ferocity of New America voters in 2012. We thought the formulas of 1980, 1984, 1988 and 2004 were still valid. We were wrong.
The reason we were wrong was because we thought enough swing voters would weight Obama in the balance and find him wanting. We though enough would see him as the failed and feckless mess we saw him as. Instead, they saw the embodiment of themselves and they saw Mitt Romney as the embodiment of what they thought of as wrong with Old America. They didn’t vote for a solution to problems; they voted for their tribal leader.
Barack Obama is still Chauncey Gardiner to them. They saw what they wanted to see: a black man, an intellectual, a man with roots in the third world, a minority and some who understood their struggles and would “fight” for them.
And Mitt Romney was everything their despised. A rich white guy with a strange religion; someone who reminded them of their dad, telling them to go get a job, or perhaps even their boss—maybe the one who had to let them go.
What does this mean going forward? Republicans have to face up to a sober fact: since 1988, we have only outvoted the other side once (2004). The primary driver is no longer issues; it’s culture.
In 2008 and 2012, the democrats had an extraordinary opportunity in that had a candidate to run who is the perfect embodiment of New America. In effect, he became a cult leader for the tribe. The two good pieces of new going forward is that the Messiah isn’t on the ballot in 2016. It will be hard to conjure up the perfect storm that swept and unaccomplished junior senator to the presidency in his first term. The other piece of good news for 2016—but bad for the country—is that he will have four years to extend his disastrous policies, and there is point at which the tribe wearies and has had enough. We were several million voters closer to that point in 2012; that steam should be fully dissipated in four years. And who will they nominate? Andrew Cuomo? Does anyone think he’ll have such a tribal appeal?
On a retail level, we on the right need to study the get-out-the-vote apparatus of the left and then find ten ways to improve it. (If I were RNC chair, I’d be commissioning those studies right now.) But GOTV is nothing compared to the candidates we run and the process we follow. Limit the number of presidential primary debates, and do not let the mainstream media run them. We should only have say 10 debates, and we should have people from friendly media (talk radio, Fox, Breitbart, etc.) ask the questions. No more nonsense, irrelevant gotcha questions from George Stephanopoulos on contraception. We don’t want to poison the well for the general public and give the left fodder to come back to haunt us in the fall.
We need to sew up something on immigration reform. Personally, I think the principles embodied in Evangelical Immigration Table, which brought together leaders as conservation as Richard Land and as liberal as Jim Wallis is a good starting place.
The GOP needs to send its candidates to school, and thoroughly educate them on this tribal divide. And we need to run candidates that at least have a shot of bridging the tribal divide: people like Mia Love, and Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal and, yes, Marco Rubio.
Moving culture is hard work. But it can be done. We just have to be committed to it. As 2012 was not 1980, so 2016 will not be 2008. “Yes we can”—do it right.