Politics, US

Tribalism in American Politics

Sunday, 28th May 2017

From May 28 2017

I agree with everything in this op-ed. And yet…

I still wait to find a single instance of anyone on the Trump side of the aisle say the same thing to their people. I look in vain to see anyone willing to say that those who did not vote for Trump are people too, and they are Americans too, and they deserve to be treated with basic dignity. I have never seen that said by anyone on the right to anyone else on the right.

Why does this matter? Well, mostly because it underscores a couple of things that still run through US politics. Some are obvious, some are less so.

First, politics in the US is tribal. Obvious. But tribal in what way, and how? Tribes historically traded with other tribes. They were groups which had strong internal cohesion, but which also sometimes intermarried, sometimes even shared land. They were not always warring factions.

It’s fairly clear by this point how this came to be in the recent history. Fox News and its allies are rightly blamed for a great deal. Turning our pictures and stories about reality into entertainment – comedy, horror, mystery, intrigue – means that we we can’t tell the difference. Sure, reality always had all of these things, it was always narrative, but it wasn’t always genre fiction. Now it is.

But the reasons for this tribalism have other roots in the deeper past. One can certainly put some of the blame on a particular kind of fundamentalist/evangelical story about the world, in which difference is only a moment on a path, in which those who don’t look or sound like me are welcomed as long as we think they are on a path to salvation. As soon as that’s not the case anymore, as soon as someone says “Thanks but no thanks, I’m fine as is”, that person is out of the tribe. So, this version of Christianity does not have openness, it has a project.

Many many forms of Christianity do not start from that kind of story, and are truly open whether or not someone is on a path to salvation. But in public life, this evangelical story has taken over. And it means that there is a deep narrative basis for tribalism, of a particularly intractable sort. The “other tribe” is not just different, but wrong and bad and evil and to be obliterated.

Are there other roots for tribalism? Sure. The loss of faith in public and shared education is part of it. The American addiction to a particular kind of individualism is part of it. It’s the kind of individualism in which we suppose that everything that happens is traceable back to conscious choices of individuals, and there is no appreciable context in which those choices make sense. There is no society other than that created through the contracts of individuals. And a corollary of this is that you have to know the character of those individuals. Everyone has a reality about them, a real self, and operating in society means knowing what others are really like. Part of that knowledge is moral – we know whether others are good or bad, in the tribe or out. And so, what looks like mental gymnastics to accept someone like Trump as “one of us” is really the inner light seeing his true self, past the things he says and does, and seeing that his heart is in the right place. And, also, seeing that scientists and university professors and gay people and illegal immigrants – their hearts are not in the right place. Their individual character is bad, and they all belong in the other tribe.

There’s one other thing that bothers me about an op-ed like this. If we buy the central argument, which is that we have to stop belittling those on the right (and, I’m fine with that, btw, although there’s a difference between making fun of who someone is and analyzing the ideas and positions being advocated, and a lot of the second is mistaken for the first), it reinforces the idea that those on the left can and should do that, and those on the right might then respond to reason. In other words, the agency is on the left. We can do something, but nothing is expected of those on the right. They can’t act, they can only act out of emotion and impulse. Their reasoning ability remains bound in a childlike state, and we remain the parents. Maybe we’ve been bad parents, trying to change behaviour in all the wrong ways, but now we have to be better. We are the actors, and they are not.

So I guess I wonder – is there anything we can or should do at all? Stop belittling people – sure. No problem. But there is as much or more belittling on the right of those on the left, as the other way around – a quick look at Fox or Breitbart or Infowars, or any of those sites will make that clear. But is it the responsibility of anyone to change anyone’s mind? Will finding a way to build jobs in rural areas help? Apparently finding ways to give health care to those who didn’t have it didn’t help. Apparently saving the auto industry with a bailout didn’t help. Flawed thought the last president was in some ways, his central mission was to make life better for all Americans, not just those who voted for him. That is not the mission of this president.

So, I’m starting to wonder whether any kind of dialogue is desirable at all. We now have tribes, whether we like it or not. We don’t have a united country. And, as far as I can tell, there is zero desire on the right to have a unified country, except through the destruction of all other tribes.

But there are better and worse ways of being tribes. The right’s way is to turn tribalism into warring factions. Like I said earlier, there are other ways of being tribes. But this is the hard road. I don’t yet know what this means, and most of us don’t. Politics and public life in this country has so much been modeled on football games, which has a winner at the end, that we have a hard time thinking of it in any other way. Tribes have coexisted, and had concepts of mutual benefit and cooperation, for millennia. But our ideas about how tribes should work are intellectually stunted, as are so many of the formative and sustaining concepts we have in American public life today. It’s why we need #abetterstory.

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