Roy Moore is putting tribalism to the test
So much of the Alabama Senate race, like so much of our politics today, comes down to this question: Who do you hate?
In a Senate race already far more, shall we say, colorful than most, this development in the special election in Alabama stood out: Apparently, voters have been getting robocalls in which someone putting on an obviously fake, nasally impression of Woody Allen says, "Hi, this is Bernie Bernstein, I'm a reporter for The Washington Post calling to find out if anyone at this address is a female between the ages of 54 to 57 years old, willing to make damaging remarks about candidate Roy Moore for a reward of between $5,000 and $7,000."
As political dirty tricks go, it was pretty ham-handed. But I must confess, I couldn't help wonder whether it was really a two-bumper bank shot, in which the forces behind of the robocall made it ludicrously anti-Semitic on purpose, knowing it would get a bunch of media attention and outrage from liberals, spreading farther the rumor that the D.C. media are looking for phony stories, which would only reinforce to Republican voters exactly who is out to get Roy Moore.
We may never know. But so much of this race, like so much of our politics today, comes down to this question: Who do you hate?
That's the essence of tribalism, the division of the world into us and them, and it's the thing that until his predilection for teenage girls was revealed, was almost sure to carry Moore to the Senate.
Moore has always been a tribal political figure, one whose identity was built on standing up to godless heathens from Washington, D.C., or wherever else they might be found. He was a star on the fundamentalist Christian circuit, telling audiences that a war is being waged against the followers of Jesus, and in that war, considerations like the opinions of man's courts or the words of man's law sometimes have to be put aside. He was kicked off the Alabama Supreme Court twice for refusing to abide by lawful court orders. He has suggested that 9/11 might have happened because America allows abortion and sodomy. He wrote that Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress. He believes that there are communities in Illinois and Indiana living under Sharia law.
In other words, Roy Moore was already an extremist loon before any of the charges about teenage girls emerged. And he was all but guaranteed to become a United States senator, because there's one identity that can't be abided in Alabama, at least among its white voters: Democrat.
In one of his campaign ads, the narrator attests that "Moore fears God, stands for the Constitution, fights for what is right, and believes what we believe." Meanwhile, his Democratic opponent Doug Jones doesn't want national Democrats coming down to help him, lest he get the taint of his own party and its assumed northeastern elitism about him.
In many campaigns like this one, geography becomes a stand-in for identity, a way of determining who's us and who's them. You see it constantly in the South, where seldom does a campaign go by in which one or both candidates don't insist that they have "Alabama values" (or "Georgia values" or "South Carolina values" or "Mississippi values") and their opponent most certainly does not. Southern resentment of condescending Yankees goes back a couple hundred years, but when there's an election, we're reminded that it has never gone away.
That doesn't mean they're wrong when they say that coastal elitists look down on them, because they often do (I say that as a card-carrying coastal elitist). And liberals have their own forms of tribal politics. That was why Barack Obama was such a thrilling candidate for them: As a young biracial highly educated cosmopolitan who hailed from a city, he was the embodiment of everything they wanted to see themselves as, or at the very least the kind of guy they'd love to have as a friend (remember "I've got a crush on Obama"?) After years of feeling beaten down by conservatives, his 2008 win made them feel at last like their kind of folks were the American majority.
And then came the (perhaps inevitable) backlash, in which a candidate who put white identity politics at the center of his campaign managed to win the White House. But now Roy Moore is testing the limits of tribalism. Almost any other candidate would have exited the race by now, but Moore remains defiant, because defiance isn't only who he is, it's the essence of his brand. He tells voters that on their behalf, he will defy the D.C. establishment, defy the media, defy the Democrats, defy Hollywood, and defy even modernity itself and the inexorable march of social progress.
Confronted with multiple women who have made similar charges against Moore, his supporters have a couple of choices to resolve their own cognitive dissonance. They can decide it's all lies, an orchestrated campaign to take down a godly man (which is Moore's position). Or they can decide that even if it might be true, casting Moore out of the temple isn't worth allowing a Democrat to take his place. Or they can decide they have to vote against someone who did those things, whether he's from their tribe or not.
A few will make that last choice, and combined with those who decide to just stay home, it might be enough for Jones to prevail. But among Republicans they'll be outnumbered by those who stick by their guy. And don't be surprised if after all this, Roy Moore still wins.