Mass Transit. Common Core. Light Bulbs. Conservatives Hate These Things Because Liberals Like Them.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 22 2014 10:05 PM

Conservative Tribalism

Mass transit. Common Core. Light bulbs. Conservatives hate these things for no better reason than that liberals like them.

Participants attend a "Call to Action" rally held by various conservative organizations outside the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 11, 2013, marking the first anniversary of the attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi.
Conservatives attend a "Call to Action" rally outside the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 11, 2013, marking the first anniversary of the attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

“Common Core,” the name for a set of national education standards, is the latest rallying cry for right-wing activists. Derided as “Obamacore,” it’s been attacked as a government attempt to usurp local curriculums and impose liberal values on conservative communities. Glenn Beck calls it a plot to turn children into “cogs” under a police state, and several Republican politicians have jumped on the bandwagon, denouncing the Obama administration for supporting the standards.

Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.

If this is confusing to ordinary observers—there’s nothing totalitarian about guidelines for what students should know at the end of each grade—it’s bewildering for Common Core advocates, who just four years ago were a boring part of the American policy landscape. Common Core was a bipartisan initiative, with support from the vast majority of governors, including Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, who has since reversed course as he preps for a potential 2016 presidential run.

What happened to make Common Core an object of hate for conservative activists? The answer is easy: “The Republican revolt against the Common Core,” noted the New York Times on Saturday, “can be traced to President Obama’s embrace of it.”

Advertisement

That’s it. In his 2012 State of the Union, Obama gave a few words of support for the standards. “For less than 1 percent of what our nation spends on education each year,” he said, “we’ve convinced nearly every state in the country to raise their standards for teaching and learning—the first time that’s happened in a generation.” With that, the right-wing outrage machine revved into action, with a grass-roots campaign that has percolated into mainstream politics. The same Sen. Lindsey Graham who recently sponsored a resolution criticizing Common Core wasn’t aware it existed when the issue was raised at a GOP meeting last year. But, given his current primary fight against four Tea Party challengers, a stand against Common Core was worth its weight in right-wing credibility.

Of course, the Republican about-face on Common Core is only one of many such moves during the Obama presidency. An array of issues enjoyed GOP support until the president agreed with them, including payroll tax breaks for individuals, clean debt-ceiling increases, and immigration reform policies like the DREAM Act.

This near-senseless reaction is just one part of a growing tribalism that’s consumed the whole of conservative politics. It doesn’t matter the issue: If liberals are for it, then—for a large portion of the right—that means it is time to be against it.

Take light bulbs. In 2007, Congress approved—and President Bush signed—strict efficiency standards for incandescent light bulbs. The practical impact was to make 100-watt bulbs obsolete: an inconvenience, but not a huge imposition. In any case, the rule wouldn’t take effect for a few years, giving homes and businesses a chance to adjust.

Industry groups grumbled, but there wasn’t any outrage. That changed in 2011, after a Tea Party–fueled Republican Party took the House of Representatives in a landslide victory over the Democratic Party. This coincided with the implementation of the efficiency standards, and the result was a caterwaul of right-wing rage.

“From the health insurance you’re allowed to have, to the car you can drive, to the light bulbs you can buy, Washington is making too many decisions that are better left to you and your family,” declared Texas Rep. Joe Barton when he introduced a bill to reverse the guidelines.

“Instead of a leaner, smarter government, we bought a bureaucracy that now tells us which light bulbs to buy and which may put 16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing President Obama’s health care bill,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann in her response to the president’s 2011 State of the Union address, slamming the light bulb change and the Affordable Care Act. Mitt Romney picked up the torch of outrage during his presidential campaign, attacking the government for banning “Thomas Edison’s light bulb.”

None of this had anything to do with the merits of changing light bulbs, and everything to do with what it represented, namely, Obama and his liberal do-gooders. What’s more, as an energy conservation policy, the light bulb change was associated with climate change, which—to the conservative base—is nothing more than an elaborate hoax, pushed by dishonest scientists and funded by liberal billionaires like George Soros.

  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 29 2014 3:45 PM The Great Writing Vs. Talking Debate Is it harder to be a good writer or a good talker?