In just over a week, we will see a referendum on “Joe Six-Pack” politics. Over the past decade or two, the Republican Party has promoted a political fiction that conflates wholesomeness, independence, tradition, and common sense with anti-intellectualism and suspicion of outsiders. More recently, Sarah Palin has championed the effort to highlight the supposed division between secular liberal coastal elites and “normal” Americans. By her own words, Palin believes that small towns are “the real America” and she has warned that Barack Obama “is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America.” While it might be comforting to dismiss these efforts as a desperate appeal to emotional voters who don’t know or don’t care about the substantive issues in this election, the persistence of these “us vs. them” arguments in our current political paradigm hints at deeper reasons for concern.
Regardless of policy expertise, is there reason to think that makes a difference whether Sarah Palin is a moose-hunting, “Joe Six-Pack” conservative Christian? Yes. Humans are fundamentally social and those distinctions matter – no matter which side of them you may be on. In fact, our affinity for those with similar backgrounds provides an important means of making sense of the world and strengthening ties with others. We have such a natural predisposition for “birds of a feather” to “flock together” that even groups formed with no prior connection among the members (or no meaningful connection at all) can demonstrate a preference for their comrades over those outside the group. Social psychologists call this the “minimal group” paradigm: Individuals randomly assigned to one group over another, absent any rational justification, engage in self-evaluation that favors their new group and strengthens their affiliation with its members. In cultural, family, or political groups, our affiliation with others can provide a comforting means of evaluating the immense, complex web of incomplete information with which we are presented in everyday life. Psychologists have even found that identification of a policy proposal as being from one’s own party can be more determinative of an individual’s approval than the actual content of the proposed policy.
Because our evaluation of policies and political candidates is not purely rational, candidates like Sarah Palin can invoke existing or imagined group affiliations to reframe the political landscape and override other, more rational considerations.
All of this matters because, regardless of who draws the lines in the sand, these tactics do not uniquely manipulate one segment of the country or one end of the political spectrum. Rather they impact all of us by contributing to a situation that alters our perceptions, incites prejudice, and affects behavior across the board. When political tacticians push small town Americans to claim moral superiority over the rest of the country, the resulting climate encourages liberal, college-educated Americans to ignore the complexity in regional and local politics in favor of their own self-serving views. In short, the idea that liberals are more rational or intellectual than conservatives perpetuates a simplistic, partisan view that precludes empathy and interferes with positive change.
It is neither novel nor surprising that this presidential campaign has seen attempts to mobilize support based on identity appeals and false dichotomies. But as we decide which candidate will best face the domestic and international challenges of the next four years, it is worth remembering that our perceptions of those issues and ideas are inherently shaped by how we view ourselves in relation to those with different backgrounds and opposing perspectives. Unless we account for how “Joe Six-Pack” politics manipulate and polarize our political views, Conservatives will never be independent and Liberals will never truly be rational.
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For a related Situationist post, see “Without the Filter.”