Hatred of Foreigners and Hatred of Government Are Not the Same Thing.

Politico has an interesting article titled "The New Battle: What It Means to Be an American," that manages to say barely a word about what it means to be an American, or what different people believe it means to be an American. But anyway, the point of the piece is that the right is losing interest in its old standby social issues like abortion and the threat of national gayification in favor of its new fears of socialism.

Which is all well and good as a short-term strategy. But the thing about it is that it is necessarily short-term. Once the economy turns around, President Obama's approval ratings will rise, and most of the country will no longer be concerned about most of the things Republicans are yelling about. And even Republicans themselves will stop being outraged by big government the moment the next Republican president takes office.

The handy thing about social issues, on the other hand, is that they're eternal. That couple down the street with the washboard abs and tastefully appointed home might force you to divorce your wife and turn all gay, no matter who the president is. Women will continue to have sex, demanding your righteous punishment for their evil ways, no matter who controls Congress.

But the current tribalistic turn on the right -- declaring, in essence, that the First Amendment shouldn't apply to Muslims, and the Fourteenth Amendment shouldn't apply to Latinos -- has real promise as the next long chapter in the culture war. There will always be people who have different skin colors, different religious creeds, and the gall to believe they can be Americans too, for the right to get mad at.

But we should understand that tribalism and anti-government sentiment are two entirely different things. The fact that they are growing in volume at the same time doesn't mean they're one and the same, or even logically related. Right now there are a lot of elite Republicans who are willing to cynically exploit the tribalism, even if they don't really care all that much about it, in the hopes that it will serve the anti-government agenda (or its most important feature, tax cuts for the wealthy). Insofar as it works to weaken Democrats, it might. For a while anyway. But in the end, it's not going to be easy to convince people that the only way to make America safe for white Christians and keep out the alien horde is to cut the capital-gains tax.

-- Paul Waldman

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