Tribalism On Parade

People often say left-wingers and right-wingers aren’t that different. Whichever side we’re on, we all belong to a political tribe. We’re all live in our own bubbles. None of us really think for ourselves. We simply go along with the rest of our tribe.

It’s not true. Left-wingers are open to more sources of information and less likely to automatically follow their side’s leaders. Compared to the Democratic Party, the Republican Party is a cult.

Here’s an example. In 2013, a poll showed that 38% of Democrats supported bombing Syria because of the government’s use of chemical weapons. So did 22% of Republicans.

Last year, when asked the same question, the same poll showed 37% of Democrats still supported bombing Syria. But, remarkably, 86% of Republicans did!

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You might say, well, 64% of Republicans must have changed their minds over the course of four years because the situation in Syria changed. Maybe Democrats were too stupid or ignorant to recognize how different Syria 2017 was from Syria 2013. 

You could say that, but, from the Republican perspective, the real difference between 2013 and 2017 was which tribe occupied the White House and which position was being pushed by Fox News.

If There Was Any Doubt

Polls indicate that Americans are evenly split regarding DT’s cruise missile attack on the Syrian airfield last week. A Washington Post poll found 51% in favor, which corresponds to results from Gallup (50%) and YouGov (51%). CBS found 57% in favor, but their poll didn’t mention the unpopular DT by name. We can conclude that the Washington Post poll was reasonably accurate.

Here’s the interesting thing:

In 2013, when Barack Obama was president, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 22 percent of Republicans supported the U.S. launching missile strikes against Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against civilians.

[The] new Post-ABC poll finds that 86 percent of Republicans support [DT’s] decision to launch strikes on Syria for the same reason. Only 11 percent are opposed.

Republican support for attacking Syria went from 22% to 86% when a Republican replaced a Democrat in the White House!

You might say that’s how people are. The Democrats probably switched sides just like the Republicans.

You would be wrong:

For context, 37 percent of Democrats back Trump’s missile strikes. In 2013, 38 percent of Democrats supported Obama’s plan.

In other words, changing Presidents didn’t matter to the Democrats at all (a 1% difference is well within the margin of error).

Do you get the feeling that our Republican friends belong to a tribe in which group loyalty is a paramount virtue? And that other values play a secondary role? For that matter, that facts aren’t as important to them as group loyalty?

Some of the explanation for their astounding fickleness is, no doubt, that the right-wing propaganda they swallowed in 2013 was anti-missile attack, while the right-wing propaganda only four years later was pro-missile-attack. But being this easy to manipulate is just as bad as putting tribal loyalty above everything else. It’s all part of the same sad and dangerous phenomenon. Millions of right-wing Americans care more about group loyalty than reality or morality. If there was any doubt.

Making Sense of Our Attack on the Syrian Airfield

What we think we know:

Chemical weapons were used against a rebel-held town in Syria this week. Up to 100 people were killed and hundreds were injured. The attack was probably launched from a military airfield used by the Syrian government and their Russian allies. DT ordered an attack on the airfield, so the Navy launched roughly 60 cruise missiles. It isn’t clear how much damage was done. The airfield was being used again within 24 hours.

In October 2012, DT predicted that President Obama would attack Libya or Iran in order to raise his poll numbers:

UntitledDT’s approval rating has been remarkably low for a new President. Based on multiple polls, the 538 site says 40% of Americans approved of him this week while 53% disapproved.

We told Russia about the attack in advance in order to minimize its effects. It isn’t known whether the Russians told the Syrians, allowing them to move people and equipment away from the airfield before the cruise missile arrived.

Cruise missiles are often used to “send a message” from a safe distance. They aren’t the weapon of choice when attacking an airfield. 

Russia did not attempt to intercept the cruise missiles, either because their defenses wouldn’t have been effective or because they decided not to interfere.

The attack was warmly received by members of Congress, including Republicans who had warned against Obama doing anything similar.  

News coverage of the attack has been extremely (I’d say ridiculously) positive. Fox News even went so far as to tell their viewers that the airfield suffered “massive damage” and was “almost completely destroyed” (despite being operational again a day later).

The Syrian government is once again bombing the town where chemical weapons were used.

Russia has criticized the American attack and taken a few steps in response.

The DT/Russia Connection; the Republicans’ failure to change the Affordable Care Act; DT’s continuing violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clauses; and power struggles in the White House aren’t leading the news, because DT replaced those stories with this one. His poll numbers are sure to rise.

This chain of events might lead one to be skeptical about DT suddenly becoming a serious person, even “presidential” as one talking head put it (the last time people said DT was suddenly “presidential” was when he was able to read a speech from beginning to end). I mean, this is DT we’re talking about. That’s why there could be more to the story. Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC raised that possibility in the first three minutes of a video that is no longer available. Here’s what he said:

It’s perfect. Just perfect. I wish it wasn’t. If, if, if Vladimir Putin masterminded the last week in Syria, he has gotten everything he could have asked for.

Vladimir Putin was essentially the man in charge of making sure that Syria got rid of all its chemical weapons under a deal with the Obama administration. And so it makes perfect sense to question whether President Bashar al-Assad would have checked with his most important patron, Vladimir Putin, before using chemical weapons that Vladimir Putin was supposed to have helped get rid of. It would be terribly embarrassing to Vladimir Putin if president Assad had exposed Vladimir Putin failed to get rid of those chemical weapons. You wouldn’t want to be Bashar al-Assad in a conversation with Vladimir Putin after that.

Unless you had a conversation with him before that. Unless Vladimir Putin said I have an idea. ‘Go ahead. Do a small chemical attack. Nothing like the big ones you have done in the past. Just big enough to attract media attention so that my friend in the White House will see it on TV.’ And then, Donald Trump can fire some missiles at Syria that’ll do no real damage. And then the American news media will change the subject from Russian influence in the Trump campaign, and the Trump transition, and the Trump White House.

It’s perfect. It doesn’t just change the subject. For most of the news media, it changes the conventional wisdom about the dynamic between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. President Trump has finally dared to do something that Vladimir Putin doesn’t like. It changes everything. As long as you never question whether Vladimir Putin wanted all of this to happen this week. And when you question that and you look at what has happened, it’s always worth remembering that if Vladimir Putin really does have ways, known or unknown, to influence Donald Trump, then every day that is a good day for President Trump, is a good day for President Putin.

Now not one word that I have just said could possibly have been said about any President prior to Donald Trump. Don’t you miss those days when if there was a chemical attack in Syria you could be absolutely sure that President Assad and President Putin did not do that in order to help the image of the President of the United States. That is the world that Donald Trump has given us.

Finally, political cartoonist Mike Lukovich of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution weighs in:

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The New Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL)

I haven’t been paying much attention to the latest crisis in the Middle East. That’s the one involving the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Levant, by the way, includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus and part of southern Turkey.

As of now, the Islamic State is more of a military force than a nation. They’re fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, mainly funded by sympathizers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Their apparent goal is to create a new Muslim empire or “caliphate”. So far, they control significant portions of Iraq and Syria. Lately, they’ve been putting extreme pressure on the Yezidis or Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking ethnic group in northern Iraq. The Yezidis aren’t Muslims. They practice an ancient religion related to Zoroastrianism. To protect the Yezidis, the United States is now carrying out airlifts and airstrikes. President Obama doesn’t see a quick end to this latest conflict or American involvement.

Here are excerpts from an article by Patrick Cockburn in the London Review of Books:

As the attention of the world focused on Ukraine and Gaza, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured a third of Syria in addition to the quarter of Iraq it had seized in June. The frontiers of the new Caliphate declared by ISIS on 29 June are expanding by the day and now cover an area larger than Great Britain and inhabited by at least six million people… In a few weeks of fighting in Syria, ISIS has established itself as the dominant force in the Syrian opposition….The Caliphate may be poor and isolated but its oil wells and control of crucial roads provide a steady income in addition to the plunder of war.

The birth of the new state is the most radical change to the political geography of the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot Agreement was implemented in the aftermath of the First World War. Yet this explosive transformation has created surprisingly little alarm internationally or even among those in Iraq and Syria not yet under the rule of Isis. Politicians and diplomats tend to treat Isis as if it is a Bedouin raiding party that appears dramatically from the desert, wins spectacular victories and then retreats to its strongholds leaving the status quo little changed. Such a scenario is conceivable but is getting less and less likely as Isis consolidates its hold on its new conquests in an area that may soon stretch from Iran to the Mediterranean.

The very speed and unexpectedness of its rise make it easy for Western and regional leaders to hope that the fall of ISIS and the implosion of the Caliphate might be equally sudden and swift. But all the evidence is that this is wishful thinking and the trend is in the other direction, with the opponents of ISIS becoming weaker and less capable of resistance…

With weapons taken from the Iraqi army and the seizure of Syrian oil and gasfields, ISIS no longer needs so much outside help. For America, Britain and the Western powers, the rise of ISIS and the Caliphate is the ultimate disaster. Whatever they intended by their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and their efforts to get rid of Assad in Syria since 2011, it was not to see the creation of a jihadi state spanning northern Iraq and Syria run by a movement a hundred times bigger and much better organised than the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden.

Calling the rise of ISIS or ISIL “the ultimate disaster” for the United States and Europe sounds more like overstatement than British understatement, but the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state that aims to forge a new Muslim empire intolerant of religious minorities certainly isn’t good news. The vacuum we created by getting rid of Saddam Hussein seems to be filling up. 

Responding to the Use of Chemical Weapons (3rd Edition)

Getting killed or maimed by a chemical weapon isn’t necessarily worse than being killed or maimed by a bullet or high explosive. Being aware of their terrible effects, however, almost all countries have agreed not to use chemical weapons. And despite the fact that we’ve been lied to before by our political leaders (for example, regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Iraq’s weapons program), it seems likely that President Obama is telling the truth and correctly interpreting the evidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons — to devastating effect.

Before the President spoke yesterday, I would have bet that he was going to tell the Navy to launch cruise missiles against targets in Syria. Other presidents have made similar decisions, without Congressional approval and certainly without a declaration of war. That can be the right thing for a President to do in extraordinary circumstances. Yet I was hoping that Obama would wait for the report of the U.N. inspectors and also seek approval from Congress. If it’s clear that the Syrian government launched this attack, there should be a response, but that response doesn’t need to be immediate. It should also be a response supported by Congress, since we’re supposed to be a democracy.

Now there will be a debate in Congress. as well as a continuing debate in the media. We’ll hear many good reasons why the United States shouldn’t do anything, and some very good reasons for doing something. Maybe this will be one of those cases in which the “wisdom of crowds” will result in a good decision, even an improvement on what the President wants to do. Unfortunately, Congress, especially this Congress, rarely does anything wise.

This is the third time I’ve written this post, after deleting it twice. There is a strong moral case for doing something to stop the Syrian government and other governments from using chemical weapons, even though that may be a difficult thing to do and there will be unforeseeable consequences. We can’t know yet whether those possible consequences tip the scale toward doing nothing. 

The truth is that I don’t know what I’d do if I were Obama or a member of Congress. What’s happening in Syria (and Egypt, Iraq, etc.) may be so sick and so irrational that there is nothing for the rest of us to do but watch, hoping that these people will get tired of hating and killing each other or that someone will eventually exert control over the situation. One of those things might happen, probably after we’re dead and gone.