Evil disguised as common sense is as American as Thanksgiving, and now we have research to back it up. An international gaggle of well-meaning researchers spent a year talking to Americans and have produced a study called “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape.”
They asked a big question: why is America so polarized? That large question has a pretty simple answer: because some people are fine with racism and fascism, and some people aren’t.
In a heroic effort to make the simple complex, an organization called More in Common divided Americans into seven groups, labeled each one a tribe, and gave each one specific characteristics. It’s depressing reading for two reasons.
One, it ignores the fact that tribalism is a function of privilege. Black people, Hispanic people, poor people, and other groups marginalized by mainstream America have never had the luxury of sorting themselves into tribes because they’ve always been defined as The Other by white middle-class America. The tribal sorting has already been done for them.
Two, and by far the most depressing, is that the Hidden Tribes study clearly shows that this country is profoundly right-wing and segregated. Millions of Americans disguise their enabling of corrupt policies and our slide toward being an authoritarian society run by the rich by claiming to be disgusted, befuddled, and turned off to politics.
Silence is consent. And the study shows a majority of people in the United States are remaining silent about Trump’s white nationalist horror show. The study shows they’re upset by the country’s “partisan tone,” that they’re turned off by “negative politics” and that they’ve become passive in the face of the biggest threat to American democracy since the Civil War.
But it’s actually worse than that. Examine their answers, and you find a toxic theme of both-sidesism, where the Trumpistas trying to turn this country into a mash-up of the Russian Federation and the Confederate States and the people fighting them are equally guilty of poisoning the American spirit. It’s like walking into a 19th century critical care ward and talking to sick patients who blame both smallpox and the smallpox vaccine for their illness.
In the Hidden Tribes study, researchers from More in Common lumped 67 percent of Americans into what they call the Exhausted Majority. But their descriptions of the subgroups included under that heading share one big trait: they don’t see Trump’s authoritarian racism as something that has to be opposed, but as something they can either compromise with, or simply ignore.
First among the Exhausted Majority are what they call Traditional Liberals, described as “cautious, rational, and idealistic. They value … compromise.” In plain English, they are cautious about opposing Trump, and think that they can compromise successfully with a GOP that’s become a white nativist party.
Next are what they call Passive Liberals. These people “feel isolated from their communities. They are insecure in their beliefs and avoid political conversations. They feel ... their lives are beyond their control.” In other words, they’re so scared of fascism’s rise that they’ve crawled back into their holes and pulled the holes in after them.
Then there are the Politically Disengaged, who the study’s authors claim make up 25 percent of all Americans. Their description reads more like a sketchy psychiatric evaluation: “untrusting, suspicious about external threats, conspiratorially minded … pessimistic … and detached from politics.” These “disengaged” people are actually very engaged. They think immigrants are a threat, believe Facebook conspiracies, and believe others are out to get them. Those are precisely the scams Trump pitched, and they believe them.
The final member of the Exhausted Majority coalition are what the study’s authors label Moderates. These people start out seeming reasonable and then degenerate quickly, described as “engaged in their communities, well-informed, civic-minded. Their faith is an important part of their lives. They shy away from extremism.” Since Trump repeatedly used “faith” as a pitch to the gullible, and “extremism” seems to make Trump support and Trump opposition equally bad, these “moderates,” like the rest, don’t see the threat of the collapse of American democracy as something that needs to be fought tooth and nail.
The study tries to make the point that the meanness and callousness of American politics have left the common-sense people of the Exhausted Majority behind, and that restoring their trust means we need to be more civil, kinder, and more compromising with each other.
That is a lie, wrapped in conservatism, and neatly packaged in a dangerous misreading of history. Fascist totalitarians came to power in the 20th century by harnessing the power of exhaustion with the system. People were fed up and disengaged so, what the hell, how bad could Mussolini, Franco, or Hitler really be? It’s the same pitch Trump used: “What do you got to lose?”
When a majority of a nation’s population refuse to see an autocratic authoritarian racist as a threat, but instead use it as an excuse to disengage and blame both sides, that nation is circling the drain pretty rapidly. But the implicit premise in Hidden Tribes is that there’s no special danger here, that things are still more-or-less normal, and that there’s nothing wrong that a few please and thank-yous can’t fix.
The actual truth was summed up by a Tweet from German filmmaker Werner Herzog, tweeting under his nom du Twitter @WernerTwertzog: “Dear America: You are waking up, as Germany once did, to the awareness that 1/3 of your people would kill another 1/3, while 1/3 watches.”
That’s the gut-punch takeaway from Hidden Tribes. The authors implication is that kinder, gentler politics will enable us to reclaim our brethren lost in the wilderness of disengagement and despair, and bring them back into civic life. The reality is that the “disengaged” are shoving us toward the authoritarian abyss by claiming both sides are wrong and that decent people can compromise with fascism.
It was progressive activists who got out the vote and flipped the House to stop Trump. We need more of that, and fewer hand-wringing studies that try to justify sleepwalking toward disaster.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.