How Tribalism Keeps People From Conceding Reality

In far too many debates, actors at every level are taking absurd, untenable positions, alienating potential supporters. The reasons for this boil down to tribalism, echo-chamber thinking, and an understandable but misguided belief that any concession to reality will be used by foes, or alienate allies.

Take, for example, the Republican National Committee.    

In censuring Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, the RNC put out what has to be one of the least defensible resolutions in the history of American politics, accusing two of its own elected representatives of engaging in “persecution” of “ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse,” by serving along with their Democratic colleagues on the January 6th Congressional Committee.  

This stance is a moral horror and factually inaccurate. No rational person familiar with January 6 could think that it was simply “ordinary citizens” engaging in “legitimate political discourse.” Look at the numbers: more than 150 convictions, 38 of which resulted in prison time, with more coming. Many charges are for picketing inside the Capitol, but there are others for assaulting officers with a dangerous weapon, resisting officers, obstruction of official proceedings, of interstate communication of threats, and even of seditious conspiracy.

RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel attempted a cleanup, claiming the resolution was referring to people who were involved in the events, but didn’t personally engage in violence, who were being “persecuted.” She didn’t identify who was facing “persecution,” but event organizers who have resisted subpoenas from the committee, such as Steve Bannon (who may well already be in prison if not for a last-minute commutation from former President Trump) and other high profile political operatives are the only people who plausibly fit McDaniel’s bill. These were not “ordinary citizens” who aimlessly wandered into a protest that went awry. Her cleanup just causes more problems.

This stance is also politically toxic. According to a poll last month, 71 percent of voters support continued congressional investigation, with only 28 percent  opposing, which is a few points above what it was in a previous poll. In other words, support for the investigations is both overwhelming and growing. Saying the perpetrators of January 6 were engaged in “legitimate political discourse” while condemning that investigation would undoubtedly poll far worse.

This is more than just taking the wrong side of a “wedge issue,” i.e., an issue your base feels passionately about despite being politically unpopular. If this were merely a wedge issue, the RNC could simply take the position that Congress shouldn’t continue its investigation, citing the need to move on, something Democrats did in the late ‘90s after the Clinton impeachment. Their position would be unpopular, but might not register. Actually defending those involved in January 6 is far more damaging. 

Why, then, did the RNC take this stance?

Partly, it’s groupthink. But it’s more than that. Another part of it is the belief, as one political operative told me, “They (Democrats) are trying to use the events of January 6 to delegitimize the Republican party,” or even “delegitimize all dissent.”

In other words: This stance is being taken not because it is true, but because if we concede the obvious—specifically, that it was, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wisely said, a “violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a legitimately certified election from one administration to the next”—that it will be used by “them,” against “us.”

McConnell is a hard-nosed partisan, but he recognizes that denying the plain truth actually harms partisan interests. Telling persuadable Americans not to believe what they see with their own eyes is profoundly alienating and creates a backlash. Pointing out overreaching claims by the other side requires admitting inconvenient reality, not denying it.

Yet, in spite of this, taking indefensible stances so as not to concede an inch to the “other side” is a dynamic that is playing out across our civic discourse. It’s bleeding into religion, education, public health, and race relations.

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