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

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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.”

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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.

Indeed, the same dynamic is at work in the world of solar energy, where conservatives—led by the Koch brothers and anti-tax activists—have launched ferocious attacks on states that favor green energy. In Kansas, for instance, the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity has led the effort to dismantle a green energy mandate, which requires the state to obtain 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources. As the Los Angeles Times reports, conservative activists are comparing the energy mandate to the individual mandate in Obamacare.

Obviously, there are material interests at work here. The Koch brothers are oil magnates with a financial stake in stopping the spread of solar technology, which is cheaper and more effective than it’s ever been. At the same time, there’s nothing especially political about solar energy; it’s an issue with wide appeal to a variety of different groups and interests. If you want clean air, you can support solar. If you want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil—a rallying cry of presidential candidates on both sides—you can support solar, too.

But solar is also a tool in the fight against global warming, and to conservative conspiracy-mongers, that’s enough to condemn it as a step on the road to serfdom, hence claims from Fox News that the Bureau of Land Management is going after rancher Cliven Bundy to make space for a solar energy project. Totalitarianism on the march! Or something.

This tribalism is easy to mock, but it has real consequences for our ability to solve problems or do anything constructive, and not just on a national scale. In Nashville, Tenn., local officials wanted to lay the groundwork for a high-speed bus project that would connect neighboring areas and reduce the pressure on roads and existing buses. The $174 million proposal, called “The Amp,” would cut commute times for Nashville residents and had support from business groups and transit advocates. But last week, after sustained activism from the state branch of Americans for Prosperity, the Tennessee Senate passed a bill that—if approved—would kill the project and “prohibit metropolitan governments and any transit authorities created by a metropolitan government” from constructing a bus rapid transit system.

Treat this as a technocratic dispute, and it doesn’t make any sense. If state lawmakers had a problem with The Amp, they could ask local officials to re-evaluate the proposal and look for ways to reduce costs and improve safety. It goes beyond overkill to block the project and preclude Nashville from considering mass transit.

But if you treat this as a local front in an unending, all-encompassing culture war, then it’s easy to understand. To the right-wing, mass transit is just another liberal attempt to force Americans into a kind of brutalist conformity. “So why is America’s ‘win the future’ administration so fixated on railroads,” wrote conservative commentator George Will in an attack on Obama’s push for new transit infrastructure. “Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.” Tennessee lawmakers weren’t crippling Nashville’s attempt to manage its future growth, it was defending its residents from the creeping socialism of public transit.

At this point, the tribalist hysteria of the conservative movement is a fixture of American politics, and there’s a good chance it gets worse before it gets better. Not only is 2014 an election year, but it’s followed by the official start of the Republican presidential primary, and then—in 2016—a full-fledged presidential contest.

For the next three years, Republican politicians will be fighting to win support from a conservative base that’s rabid for red meat. And if there’s an easy path to the prize, it’s to find something a liberal likes, and denounce it.

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