In-Group/Purity: the Distillation of the Republican Party

Recently, one of my friends and a reader of the blog sent me a link to a Ted Talk by Jonathan Haidt, titled, “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives.”  It’s actually a super interesting video, and I recommend everyone watch it, because it does a good job of explaining that we need both liberals AND conservatives to make society work.  That being said, there are some HORRIFYING implications if we accept what Haidt presents.

In the talk, Haidt shows a chart where people rank how they feel about certain values: harm, fairness, authority, in-group, and purity.  Conservatives, across all cultures, ranked all five values of similar importance, whereas liberals ranked harm (as in we shouldn’t harm others/things) and fairness above the other three.

First, let’s be clear: the data that Haidt presents is flawed, because if we really think about it, in-group and purity are basically the same thing.  So essentially, his study presents four values, and conservatives were able to split their hate for people that are different into two groups.  Therefore, I think it’s quite safe to say that even though it might not be statistically correct to add the two together, if we were to present conservatives with four choices—in-group/purity, authority, fairness, and harm—they’d probably rank in-group/purity higher than any other value; and if this is the case, Haidt’s politically correct sermon becomes quite irrelevant.

Second, and to prove the point, it’s clear that, at least in the U.S., modern conservatives DO value in-group/purity above any other political motivation.  And here’s the trick: even though they rank authority, fairness, and harm about equally on Haidt’s scale, they don’t accept facts, opinions, or information about these values unless they pass the in-group/purity test first.  In other words, if it’s not from Rush Limbaugh, Ted Nugent, Bill O’Reilly, or any number of other lying idiots, it doesn’t count, and so, even if they really do believe that harm, fairness, and authority are equally important, their beliefs ABOUT these values are so warped by in-group/purity that it doesn’t even matter.

The best example of this happened the other day at the South Carolina Republican Debate. Donald Trump–GASP–told the truth about George W. Bush not protecting us from terrorists on 9/11, and lying us into the Iraq War. Yet how did the Republican crowd react? They booed him. Booed him, as in, “we don’t want to hear the truth about the incredibly expensive and unnecessary war our Republican President lied us into.” Fantastically stupid, but a clear indicator that for Republicans, in-group/purity trumps all (rimshot please).

But wait, there’s more.  Consider the fact that immigration reform stalled in the Republican-controlled House, or that Republican state legislatures and governors are pushing deeply unpopular voter ID and anti-abortion laws—why?  In-group/purity.  Being anti-abortion is a litmus test for today’s Republican Party, as is the belief that voter fraud is widespread, even though wink-wink, nudge-nudge, restricting voting usually impacts poor and/or non-white people most, who wink-wink, nudge-nudge, usually happen to vote for Democrats.  Finally, passing immigration reform that makes previously illegal, brown, Spanish-speaking people citizens, even if it’s after jumping through several hoops, and even if it helps the economy and the wins over some Latino and Hispanic voters to the Republican Party, goes against their belief in in-group/purity, and therefore any immigration reform along these lines is unacceptable.


tar feather

Even the widespread Republican belief in trickle-down economics can be explained by the dominance of in-group/purity as their number one virtue.  For the evidence is clear: wealth disparity has never been more pronounced than in today’s America.  So if trickle-down economics worked, our economy should be booming from all the investments being made in the U.S. by rich investors, business owners, and entrepreneurs; indeed, the true irony of the trickle-down theory is that those who believe in it most—the people just mentioned—could make it work if they wanted to.  The unfortunate truth is that they’d rather sit on the cash, duck taxes in foreign bank accounts, invest it overseas, or use it to influence elections so that they can make even more money, almost always backing Republicans.

In other words, there’s no rational explanation for what continue to be the hallmark economic policies put forth by Republicans: lower taxes—especially on corporations and the rich–fewer regulations on businesses, and a continued assault on unions and the concept of a living wage.  Thus, the only rational explanation for the continued belief in such policies is that the belief itself is so widely held—and so beneficial to the corporations, business elite, and obscenely wealthy people that fund the party’s elections—that it’s become another way to separate the wheat from the chaff; another litmus test that true Republicans must pass to be considered in-group/pure.

The tragic takeaway from all of this is that the Republican Party cannot possibly govern this country effectively, at any level of government, because they’re so focused on in-group/purity they can’t solve any problems that don’t deal with that particular value.  Worse, their allegiance to in-group/purity blinds them to reality, because if what is truly happening in the world doesn’t fit their orthodoxy, the orthodoxy makes denying it an additional fee for admission into the Republican Party.  So even if they wanted to govern effectively, even if they wanted to solve the problems of ordinary Americans, they can’t.  Republicans may not understand it, but helping ordinary people and governing effectively is now AGAINST THEIR CORE BELIEFS. It is an affront to their very identity.

And that identity, as we clearly see, is all that matters.

And that’s what Jonathan Haidt fails to recognize; that when awful things happen in human societies, it’s almost always because of this dynamic: conservatives get so riled up about in-group/purity that nothing else matters, not even when members of that group start doing things that would normally be considered awful.

Which brings us to Ted Nugent–because people of his ilk (deranged, gun-wielding hate mongers) present a really horrifying choice for conservative politicians.  On the one hand, their base, who they absolutely have to have in order to win elections, considers crazy, right-wing nuts like Nugent to be in-group/pure.  So if a Republican politician comes out and says, correctly, that what the crazies say is crazy, it’s going to piss off their base.  On the other hand, if they lionize people like Nugent, they alienate everyone else.


And in this way, the Republican Party is distilling itself.  See, beer and whisky are made, roughly, out of the same ingredients (minus the hops)—it’s just that whisky is distilled (heated to evaporate out the water) to much higher levels of alcohol.  Coors Light, even though it’s barely discernable from water, is not something most people would hold their noses at, but as things get more potent, say a double-IPA, and then on up to whisky, more and more people pass, until, eventually, you get up to moonshine or everclear—almost pure alcohol—at which point no one in their right minds would drink it without mixing it with something else first.

The problem now is that basically, the morons that actually will drink the strong stuff—the extreme right wing, aka, the base of the Republican Party—is suspect of anyone who won’t.  Or, if we’re following the metaphor, Ted Nugent and the other crazies are the alcohol, and anyone less conservative/crazy are the water, sugar, etc.  And because in-group/purity is all that matters to Republicans, the party becomes ever more extreme.

The scary thing is that this often happens with conservative groups that rank in-group/purity over any other moral value; the Nazis started out as a group of like-minded individuals that drank together, got rowdy, and blamed others (Jews, etc.) for Germany’s problems.  But as they distilled themselves, they got more and more extreme.  Why just yell about Jews when you can intimidate them publicly?  Why stop there when you can make them wear a star so you know who to intimidate?  Ultimately, we all know where that distillation led, but the Nazis are not an anomaly.  The KKK and the Jim Crow South, the Salem Witch Trials, the Spanish Inquisition, the Rwandan genocide—all of these horrific events were possible, at their core, because the conservatives in a society believed that in-group/purity was more important than anything else, and in such a dynamic, the more extreme voices took over.

Hopefully, the realization that this dynamic is, in fact, exactly and undeniably what we see at play in the Republican Party, the Tea Party, and in modern conservative politics in general, will be enough to cause some conservatives to abandon ship and serve as a warning to everyone else in society to do everything in their power to stop this movement, but don’t hold your breath.

Because much of the press, and even smart guys like Jonathan Haidt, want to give them a pass.

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About The Author: Jay Scott


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