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Monday, August 30, 2010

Tea Parties and the Ethnocentrism of the Left

The recent event to “restore honor” hosted by Glenn Beck before the Washington Monument provides an occasion to ask once more that question that occupied blogs and op-ed pages back in April: Are Tea Partiers or other attendees at these virtually 100% white and conservative events “racist”? My perverse inclination is to answer, “of course – and so are we all.” In the words, of the Avenue Q song, everyone – you, me, and, yes, the Tea Partiers – is all a little bit racist. The Tea Party’s critics are just more adept at making their targets feel self-conscious about their prejudices.

I’d qualify the paragraph above by stipulating that, by “racist,” I mean “ethnocentric” in Kinder’s and Kam’s sense of the term. The Tea Partiers – like everyone else – tend to divide human society into in-groups and out-groups and use those divisions to reinforce their own sense of identity and self-worth. (Donald Kinder & Cindy Kam, Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion at pages 31-41). As Kinder and Kam note, ethnocentrism “is not a sickness”: “Ethnocentrism is normal.” (page 8). Indeed, its ubiquity suggests that it might be hardwired into our brains by natural selection, as a way of giving ourselves a sense of self-esteem and security. Henri Tajfel’s “minimal group experiments” show that people develop group loyalties and biases from the most transient and trivial characteristics – say, their estimates of dots on a computer screen (over-estimators consistently favor their fellow over-estimators and under-estimators favor under-estimators!)

It should not be a surprise that white, middle-class, suburban and rural evangelically Protestant Christian homeowners will develop a bias favoring similar people. Their polled values and beliefs regarding different ethnic groups, – hard-working or lazy, intelligent or unintelligent, etc – seem to reflect these biases. (Incidentally, Tea Partiers do not score exceptionally higher on such measures of ethnocentrism than whites in general).

But you, Gentle Reader, do you harbor any ethnocentric biases towards those Tea Partiers whom you deride as racists?

Maybe you do not use the “r-word” in your speech, but that’s just etiquette (Tea Partiers likewise avoid the “n-word”): Do you secretly -- maybe involuntarily -- think “redneck” (or “hayseed,” “hick,” “babbit,” etc) when you read about the crowds listening to Beck and Palin in front of the Lincoln Memorial? And does this sense of those Tea Partiers’ inferior rural-ness and otherness not re-enforce your own smug sense of self-approval, as a good cosmopolitan urbanite, free from the trammels of paranoia and ignorance to which these hayseeds are prone? If so, then your attitude is squarely ethnocentric, in Kinder’s and Kam’s sense of the term.

I would suggest that the critics of the Tea Party harbor deeply ethnocentric views of Tea Partiers as rural and suburban dimwits whose political views are the result of their ill-education and isolation from cosmopolitan commercial centers. Sometimes the ethnocentricity of anti-Tea Party screeds is unbridled – for instance, when blogs gleefully deploy the “r-word.” Sometimes the anti-rural/suburban bias is subtle – for instance, mockery of misspellings on signs at Tea Party rallies. But the general tenor of the attacks revolves around the ignorance and paranoia of Tea Partiers, stereotypes that are well-calculated to inflate the self-esteem of the resident of the college town or big city who deploys them. By contrast, Tea Partiers and fellow travelers press a different sort of stereotype of their opponents – not that their critics are ignorant or unpolished but that their enemies are grade-grubbing over-achievers whose arrogance disqualifies them from the right to exercise power in a democracy.

In short, everyone seems to be re-enforcing their identity by promulgating stereotypes of each other that actually reinforce their alleged opponents’ stereotypes of themselves. It is ethnocentricity mirroring ethnocentricity all the way down.

Is this mutual, self-re-enforcing ethnocentricity a bad thing? You tell me. I suppose that it is annoying to listen to folksy poor-mouthing by affluent suburbanites railing against the alleged political dominance of eastern elites. But it is also a mite irritating to listen to bloggers sneer at the dumb opinions of Tea Party types but give equally dumb Left views a respectful hearing.

Let us put aside these tedious normative debates for a much more (to me) interesting historical question of intellectual geneology: Whatever their merits, do our contemporary ethnocentricities mirror the ethnocentricities of the 19th century? To my ears, the recriminations of the Tea Party’s critics uncannily parallel the old attacks of Whigs and Republicans on Jacksonian Democrats as comically ignorant and reactionary hayseeds. (For a vintage example, treat yourself to the words of fictional character, the Rev. Petroleum V. Nasby, the Civil War-era creation of the 19th century writer David Ross Locke who apparently left Abraham Lincoln in stitches). Perhaps the ethnocentricities of both Tea Party and Tea Party Poopers have long American pedigrees, stretching back perhaps to 1832 or even before, to the western Anti-Federalists like Matthew Findley and their eastern financial opponents like Robert Morris or congregationalist enemies like Timothy Dwight. On one side, there was the Appalachian diaspora of (often prosperous) hinterland residents spread across the sunbelt -- Jackson territory -- expressing anger at the snobbery of what they take to be a cosmopolitan cabal of New England brahmins and New York financiers. On the other side, there were those Yankees and New Yorkers’ deriding Andrew Jackson’s bad spelling and bigotry. Their great, great, great, great grandchildren may still be at it, aided by the more recent immigrants who lined up on the "populist-periphery" side or "elitist-center" side of the old debate.

In the 19th century, the two sides needed each other for their own self-definitions. Perhaps they still do: Maybe their endless mutual recriminations about their counterparts' various prejudices somehow hold the country together and define what it is to be an American.

Posted by Rick Hills on August 30, 2010 at 03:46 PM | Permalink


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Really interesting post. I think it's right that racism can be seen as a particular iteration of ethnocentrism (as it's defined and used in this post), and that ethnocentrism is natural and something many of us exhibit. Two reservations about this, though.

First, isn't this an instance of the old naturalistic fallacy? Sure, we all have instincts to divide the world into subgroups, and then disparage other groups as a way of making our own group look better by comparison. But this doesn't mean this is a good tendency, for the familiar reason that lots of natural phenomena and instinctive tendencies are destructive. I think the point has to be not "we're all ethnocentrists, so it's all good," but rather "we all have a proclivity toward ethnocentrism, so we should be suspect of it."

Second, are all divisions equally harmful? I'm skeptical. Race may be a more pernicious dividing line along which to slice the world than others, due to its long and problematic history in the US (and the world), and the fact that the numbers skew strongly against ethnic minorities (smaller groups may be more vulnerable, perhaps on a Carolene Prods theory). Red v blue state, or dem v republican, may not be ideal, but I suspect they're less systematically harmful.

Still, to the extent that the point of the post is that we should all be careful of letting our ethnocentric tendencies lead us to unfairly disparage any group, racial or otherwise, I think it's right on.

Posted by: Dave | Aug 30, 2010 9:25:17 PM

Having just read Jane Mayer's New Yorker article on who owns the Tea Party (and increasingly the Republican Party), I would say my descripter is not the "r"-word, but the "d" for dupe word.

Since the days of Lee Atwater, the Republican Party has built its membership along lines that have little, if anything, to do with the real ends the Party owners want to achieve. So, perhaps, the "d" word has been appropriate for a very long time. It has just recently come into sharper focus.

Posted by: Mike Zimmer | Aug 30, 2010 10:35:30 PM

I am a (former?) hayseed from the heartland, but I still tend to categorize Tea Partiers as a certain type of people - just not as "rednecks." I think that, in general, many of them tend not to think very deeply or carefully about the issues they claim are so important. Nor do they always carefully consider the evidence available on certain points (e.g., Obama's several proclamations of his Christianity). Not that if you think deeply about the issues you will necessarily arrive at the liberal position or always agree with the Democratic party. Of course, many deep thinkers frequently advocate conservative positions. You are a good example of that. And many people who don't think deeply about policy issues blindly advocate liberal positions, too. I don't really care if Tea Partiers come from the country or the city. I don't care if they know how to spell - although an inability to do so might correlate with a lack of careful thinking on the issues. I just wish they would stop saying things like Obama is a muslim arab socialist nazi. That's not very helpful in advancing the debate over policy initiatives.

Posted by: J. Bent | Aug 30, 2010 11:41:40 PM

So because racism is ubiquitous, we should just acquiesce to organized manifestations of racist politics?

Posted by: Matt | Aug 31, 2010 9:42:13 AM

"Are Tea Partiers or other attendees at these virtually 100% white and conservative events “racist”? My perverse inclination is to answer, “of course – and so are we all.”

I don't think you meant to say that we are all 100% white.

Posted by: AF | Aug 31, 2010 10:48:23 AM

I certainly think liberals - and others - should be called out for generalizations of tea partiers as "rednecks" or other classist stereotypes. I don't think that failing of liberals should be used to excuse racism. Nor, amusing as Avenue Q is, is "everyone is a little bit racist" a useful argument either. The answer may very well be yes, everyone is, that's why nobody should excuse themselves from working on or rationalizing their own issues.

Posted by: anon | Aug 31, 2010 12:12:04 PM

I tend to find leftists' stereotyping of the right a bit more annoying than the reverse, largely because of the hypocrisy factor. It's especially rich when some writers commit the wrong they condemn in the same paragraph or even same sentence, blissfully unaware of how stupid they sound. "I can't stand how right-wingers always over-generalize." "What's with those over-the-top attacks calling Obama socialist? I hate when the fascists do that."

I, along with many of my friends, drifted rightward or libertarian-ward not because of attraction to the right, but from being repulsed by the pretentious left, especially the academics. I didn't fully appreciate Buckley's line about the Harvard and Boston phone books until law school, but he was spot-on.

Posted by: cynic | Aug 31, 2010 4:25:53 PM

You seem in some way to confuse 2 distinct issues. That is, you seem to imply that what I mean when I say, "I don't like people who think that way," is, "I don't like those people, and therefore don't like what they're saying."

Sure, ad hominem attacks are silly and might well be intended to self-aggrandize by contrast, but by swapping the order of the effect, you seem to avoid the notion that arguments alone can have merit... and that there really are people who deserve less esteem.

In fact, the true irony might be in the possibility that you've muddled the distinction between "content of character" and "color of skin" (as though divisions by race are just as meritorious as divisions according to ideas, given that you call both "ethnocentric" - the etymology of which suggests you're misusing the term).

If you'd like an empirical test of your hypothesis about the relative weight of possible in-group/out-group determinants, perhaps you could try this: Ask people to rate their preferences for different individuals. You could vary the descriptions (and photos) of rated individuals by race, age, sex, region, and other demographic parameters as well as by opinions on certain issues. Link all of those variables to the same information about the raters. Then, a relatively simple statistical model could give you the relative weights of the determinants (including interaction effects). I have my own suspicions not only about your findings, but also about whom would be swayed by them.

Alternatively, if you're just asking if "us versus them" is new or not, the answer is no.

Posted by: ncooty | Sep 1, 2010 4:28:35 PM

@cynic: are you serious? because if you are i would just make two (related) points. (1) being hypocritical doesn't necessarily make one wrong; and (2) neither does being pretentious. i hope that you're actually thinking about these things in a little more depth.

Posted by: anon | Sep 1, 2010 7:19:39 PM

Yes, anon: Being a pretentious hypocrite does not necessarily correlate to being mistaken. But pretentious hypocrites might be untrustworthy agents for those "yeoman suburbanites" (to coin a phrase). The tendency for western Anti-Federalists, Jacksonian populists, and Tea Partiers to distrust Hamiltonian Federalists, New England Adamsites, and Obama Democrats might be rooted in the sense that the latter are faithless agents for the former. Smart, those intellectuals may be -- but are they honest agents? As the Anti-Federalist Melanchton Smith wrote (under the pseudonym "Federal Farmer"), the "natural aristocracy... possess abilities, ambition, and general knowledge" while the "middling sort" are "not so much used to combining great objects,... possess less ambition," but "a larger share of honesty."

Put another way, the non-academic rural and suburban middle class might not be the brightest bulbs, but they suspect that those pretentious hypocrites -- academics and assorted policy experts -- do not share their values (say, economic independence symbolized by home-ownership, devotion to conventional morality, a generic protestantism, and the raising of children as the highest human good).

Are the Tea Partiers and their intellectual ancestors empirically mistaken in their suspicion that their betters share their beliefs and preferences? I doubt it.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Sep 2, 2010 7:46:35 AM

wow, right on cue. rick's response is almost as "pretentious" ("as the Anti-Federalist Melanchton Smith wrote under the pseudonym 'Federal Farmer'" really? thanks!) as cynic's is "hypocritical" (generalizing the "pretentious left" in the same post--if not actually the same sentence--that he/she ridicules such behavior). good stuff....

Posted by: brett favre | Sep 2, 2010 9:21:38 AM

Ouch: Touche to you, Brett! Written like a good Anti-Federalist populist. But my excuse is that Melanchton's on my mind: I am teaching the "Federal Farmer" at 4 pm today in my Comparative Federalism seminar Gotta run and prepare.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Sep 2, 2010 9:46:41 AM

Great article. I just recently read "Us Against Them" for one of my grad classes and was somewhat amused by the choice for my course (since the prof for it is clearly guilty of being quite anti-Tea Party, anti-Republican, anti-conservative to the point where we "won't discuss their views, because they are just too ridiculous to give time to" - it is clearly very us-against-them for her!). I really appreciate your fair use of this concept. I am so sick of hearing that conservatives are utterly racist - yes, there are racist people who are conservative, but there are also liberal racists too! Ethnocentrism seems to be a more appropriate concept in many cases where the "racist" slur is thrown around.

Posted by: Rebecca | Oct 30, 2010 8:26:28 PM

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