Home/Rod Dreher/The ‘Malleable, Innocent’ Republicans

The ‘Malleable, Innocent’ Republicans

Among rank-and-file Republican voters, this is true (Lev Radin/Shutterstock)

A couple of readers have recommended this Tom Edsall column. As well they should have; here’s why:

Many Republican voters, including self-identified strong conservatives, are ready and willing to shift to the left if they’re told that that’s the direction Trump is moving.

Michael Barber and Jeremy C. Pope, political scientists at Brigham Young University, reported in their recent paper “Does Party Trump Ideology? Disentangling Party and Ideology in America,” that many Republican voters are:

malleable to the point of innocence, and self-reported expressions of ideological fealty are quickly abandoned for policies that — once endorsed by a well-known party leader — run contrary to that expressed ideology.

Those most willing to adjust their positions on ten issues ranging from abortion to guns to taxes are firm Republicans, Trump loyalists, self-identified conservatives and low information Republicans.

The Barber-Pope study suggests that for many Republicans partisan identification is more a tribal affiliation than an ideological commitment.

Many partisans are, in effect, more aligned with the leader of their party than with the principles of the party. (Although Barber and Pope confined their study to Republicans, they note that Democrats may “react in similar ways given the right set of circumstances.”)


While elites — elected officials and party activists — are ideologically polarized, the best the general public “can manage is a kind of tribal partisanship that does not really reflect the content of the elite discussion,” Pope wrote:

Citizens pick a team, but they don’t naturally think like the team leadership does. And when Trump tells Republicans to think in a new way, lots of people happily adopt that new position because they were never that committed to the old ideas anyway. They’re just committed to the label.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate, in Pope’s view, are struggling to come to terms with a hard truth: that much of the Republican electorate

is not really interested in the conservative project as expressed by Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell or the Freedom Caucus. They are hostile to immigrants and rather nationalist in outlook, but not consistently market-oriented or libertarian in their thinking the way that some Republican elites continue to be.

In a separate email, Barber wrote that the commonplace phrase “all politics is identity politics” is a good description “of the state of the Republican Party, and the Democratic Party to a degree.”

Read the whole thing. You won’t want to miss Edsall’s final paragraph. Or maybe you will, if you want to preserve your optimism about American politics.

In short, the future is tribalism. Reason is out the door; it’s all about instinct and group identification from now on.

With that in mind, consider these events in just the past week:

If Americans feel cut loose from any set of identifiable principles other than perceived tribal self-interest, how does the center hold? What unites us? If we continue to desecrate each other’s sacred symbols, and if we start committing crimes against each other that have clear symbolic meaning (e.g., “lynching” a biracial child), and if we begin to celebrate racist violence in popular culture (e.g., this NSFW video by an ex-con black rapper depicting the lynching of a white child; it has been viewed over 7 million times) — where does it end? How does it end?


Edsall reports that the political scientists who studied Republicans said that Democrats might well respond with similar tribalism “given the right set of circumstances.” So here’s the thing: if we are becoming tribalist über alles, and there are no strong principles around which we rally, and religion is fading … what’s left?

Race, that’s what. I do not look forward to the years ahead.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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