The GOP’s Tea Party Astroturf Has Sprouted Roots and Grown Into Fringe Crazy

When the Tea Party emerged four summers ago, many of us dismissed them as a corporate-seeded astroturf movement. We were wrong. The GOP’s grassroots are the fringe.

Talking Points Memo‘s Tom Kludt reported that Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC) was grilled by Tea Party activists at a town hall meeting on Monday night:

The exchange was captured and posted by the tea party website A man off camera can be heard asking Pittenger about the defunding effort spearheaded by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT).

“Do you want the thoughtful answer?” Pittenger asked.

“I want yes or no,” the man said.

Pittenger then said “no,” a clip that the tea party website re-played in slow-motion.

The lawmaker then had a back-and-forth with the man and a woman, who was also off camera.

“Do you think Harry Reid is going to pass that in the Senate?” Pittenger asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” the man fired back.

“We need to show the American people we stand for conservative values,” the woman shouted, drawing a smattering of applause.

Conspiracy theories about conspiracy theories describe themselves as:

… a website and grassroots organization focused on saving lives, protecting our freedoms, pushing for lower taxes, demanding smaller government, and defending the Constitution of the United States of America. Our mission is to bring every freedom loving group together to meet these goals. Unanimity is not required.

The site also includes a dead link to the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory that began on the far-right fringe, then made its way into the 2012 Republican Platform, and fueled by a fearmongering bestseller by Glenn Beck.

Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones authored a conspiracy theory of corporate-backed anti-environmentalist groups manipulating the conservative grassroots into believing the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory. That fits the a common progressive pattern, like the oft-repeated claims that the Tea Party is an astroturf movement funded and run by the Koch brothers and other conservative organizations. The Guardian and even Paul Krugman joined the chorus. But progressives should be as skeptical of our astroturf conspiracy theories as we are of conservatives’ absurd tales of George Soros as The Liberal Puppet-Master.

The like-minded fringe

As we’ll see this week in discussing Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, the radicalization of today’s Republican Party is not a top-down, corporate-funded and -run movement. It is instead the predictable result of our increasingly ‘sorted’ society and the 30-year process of conservative Republicans moving to conservative Republican communities while progressive Democrats moved to progressive Democratic communities.

Clusters of like-minded people produce what social scientists call group polarization, holding ideas that become increasingly extreme over time:

Political extremism is often a product of group polarization and social segregation is a useful tool for producing polarization. In fact, a good way to create an extremist group, or a cult of any kind, is to separate members from the rest of society. The separation can occur physically or psychologically, by creating a sense of suspicion about non-members. With such separation, the information and views of those outside the group can be discredited, and hence nothing will disturb the process of polarization as group members continue to talk. […]

So why do like-minded people go to extremes? The most important reason for group polarization, which is key to extremism in all its forms, involves the exchange of new information. Group polarization often occurs because people are telling one another what they know, and what they know is skewed in a predictable direction. When they listen to each other, they move.

Standing out while fitting in

It’s tempting (and comforting) to believe that movement toward extremes is pushed by the stories the group are hearing from elected leaders and partisan pundits. But the research shows groups don’t need a top-down push. Members of like-minded groups will migrate toward extremes, all on their own, through a process of standing out while fitting in.

Let’s say you’re a member of the Green Tribe, opposed by the Orange Tribe. You want to prove yourself as not just a middling member but a stalwart of your tribe. You want to stand out while fitting in. But how do you do that?

Well, you certainly won’t do it by advocating a position that is more Orange than your tribe’s norm. You would stand out, but you wouldn’t fit in. Fellow Green Tribe members might wonder if you’re really one of them. But what if you take a position that is More Not-Orange and thus More Extremely Green. Advocating that position lets you both stand out and fit in, proving your bona fides.

So let’s say you’re a conservative Republican in a community of conservative Republicans, a local Red Tribe. And let’s say you want to be a stalwart and prove your bona fides to your local Red Tribe. If you know progressive Democrats advocate renewable energy, better urban planning, mass transit, and other policies for more environmentally sustainable communities … then you can stand out while fitting in by telling stories that describe renewable energy, urban planning, mass transit, and other such policies as part of an evil, Blue Tribe conspiracy.

Your original story may be vague, but if the idea feels true to other members of your local Red Tribe, they’ll help fill in the details. In fact, other members who want to stand out while fitting in will supply details that are more extreme than you had in mind. Renewable energy, better urban planning, mass transit, and such policies are not just a Blue Tribe conspiracy, but an international plot to destroy the U.S. Constitution and put the world under the totalitarian thumb of the United Nations. And stalwart that you are, you’ll probably agree …

… and that becomes the new ‘middle’ position for your local Red Tribe. People in your Red Tribe then share that idea with other Red Tribes on the internet, talk radio, etc. Eventually some fossil fuel executive hears about this new idea and recognizes that it fits his agenda, even if he doesn’t believe the details. So he puts believers who tell the best stories in touch with conservative think tanks and pundits, and finally Republican party leaders hear the story bubbling up from their grassroots base.

Astroturf … or the grassroots fringe?

If you only hear about the story once that last sentence has happened – and as a member of the Blue Tribe, you probably won’t hear the story until then – it’s easy to assume the story was astroturfed: that fossil fuel executives, conservative think tanks and pundits, and Republican Party leaders duped the grassroots into believing this bizarre and ridiculous tale.

But the social science suggests that’s what not usually true. The fringe ideas begin in the grassroots and grow as homogenous, local political tribes push each other ever farther into that fringe through group polarization. And if Republican Party leaders try to respond sensibly – as Rep. Pittenger did Monday night – you see the reaction.

That’s not astroturf. That’s the actual grassroots … at the fringe.

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