Tribal Politics

Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen.

I’m writing this as Mitt wins big in Nevada, and there are some press reports to suggest Newt might be considering getting out of the race. I don’t think those are accurate, but the writing is on the wall, and Mitt Romney is well on his way to being the Republican nominee.

I have very, very mixed feelings about this.

During the 2010 election cycle, my guy lost early, and the Republican standardbearer was a lunatic. Quietly and behind the scenes, therefore, I decided to help the only reasonable person who remained in the race.

The problem was that he was a Democrat.

He was a pro-life, fiscally conservative Democrat, to be sure, but there was no escaping the D by his name. Due to my own party affiliation, I was very reluctant to publicly assert my support, but I was “outed” by a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, and soon I was getting as much press as my candidate, along with hefty criticism from party stalwarts who saw my betrayal as the height of treason.

It was then that I discovered firsthand how tribal politics really is.

With few exceptions, my Republican friends privately and quietly let me know that they agreed with me that the GOP guy was a loon, and that the Democrat was the only reasonable guy left. But just as often, they told me they couldn’t vote for him, let alone publicly associate themselves with him.

Why? Because he was a Democrat, of course.

The tribal identification is very powerful, and it’s impossible to recognize just how powerful it is until you dare to step out of bounds. I could write thousands of words about this, like how many who are disgusted with the Clintonian sleaze of the other tribe but are willing to overlook Gingrichian sleaze in their own, or how the first instinct of the tribal partisan is to justify the political sins of one of their own by citing similar behavior in someone from the rival tribe. (“Obama’s a big spender, huh? What about Bush’s unfunded wars? And remember a guy named Ronald Reagan?”)

But, alas, such a piece does not interest me, mainly because I have no love lost for my own political tribe. The Utah State GOP has made it clear that I’m really no longer welcome, and the national GOP has made it clear that their largest voting bloc despises my faith, which leads me to my real point, a point which I have tried to avoid and is painful for me to make.

I’m concerned that my support for Mitt Romney, and the support of many members of my faith, is based largely on tribalism. This time, however, the tribalism is religious, not political.

Indeed, if Mitt Romney were not a Mormon, I wonder if I would be supporting him.

His asinine comment about “not being concerned about the very poor” is all kinds of terrible, even in context with the idea of the “safety net” that takes care of them. All the so-called safety net does is keep people poor. The goal should not be to strengthen the net keeping them poor; the goal should be to make them unpoor.

Then there’s this crap about indexing the minimum wage to inflation. And don’t get me started on immigration, where Mitt is way out of line with the public statements of his/my church.

He is, in many ways, a truly crappy candidate.

But he’s very much a Mormon. And for a good chunk of us Mormons, it’s very hard not to look at Mitt and see our faith on the ballot.

Evangelicals who hate my faith recognize the same thing, and, in South Carolina particularly, they voted “no” the minute Newt gave them a credible reason to do so. Nevadans, on the other hand, came pouring out to vote “yes.” Although Mormons make up less than 10% of the Nevada populace, they made up 25% of caucus goers tonight. And of that 25%, 95% voted for Mitt.

So how is voting for someone because of their faith any better – or any different – than rejecting someone on the same basis?

I don’t have an answer, although I still feel like I can make a case that Mitt, Mormon or no, is the best Republican running. Newt is nothing but baggage; Santorum seems whiny and petulant, and Paul’s nuts.

I just think, however, that it might be helpful if more of us were willing to question whether our support for any candidate, any position, or any party is a tribal reaction and not a reasonable one. That doesn’t make the two mutually exclusive, but it should be enough to get us to view things with a broader perspective.

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