Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Tribalism and American Politics

Those who have known me for a while know that my patience with, and interest in, American party politics over the years has gone from average (whatever that is) to low to near-zero. I think that George Washington was right when he warned in his Farewell Address (emphasis added):

All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests. 
However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

This being an election year, we're being bombarded with a greater-than-average dose of faction. With apologies for its liberal use of profanity, an author at does a good job of summarizing "5 Ways to Spot a Political B.S. Story". His style is a little different from late 18th century English, but he's making much the same point.

Some years ago I started studying ethnic politics, particularly ethnic conflict. I did this with the usual unexamined American bias - that hard-core identity conflict is something that "those people over there" have to deal with. America, I was raised to believe, is The Melting Pot (or, if you prefer the analogy, the Tossed Salad). Yes, we have racial tensions - but not nearly to the level of an Iraq or an India.

But the more I studied ethnic politics, the more I realized that ethnic groups are largely invented constructs (yes, I'm a Constructivist, albeit a 'slow' one - it takes time to build these things). The identities we choose may or may not be conscious, but they are pretty arbitrary once you scratch the surface a little. Who's "in" and who's "out" is a function not of nature, but of decisions. Bosnia broke up because people chose to emphasize their differences (religion) over their similarities (language). Germany reunited because they made a different choice to the same question.

So what does this have to do with American political parties? After all, we don't have "ethnic" parties in the US - a point of some pride to many Americans. But what I came to realize some time ago - the point that the Cracked author also makes - is that our political parties have become ethnic groups in themselves. Tribalism didn't make our political parties; our two-party system made tribes.

Consider the point: on any given issue, there is a sizable minority (30%? 35%?) that will agree with absolutely anything that comes out of President Obama's mouth. And there is an equally sizable group - maybe larger - that will disagree with the President no matter what he says. The GOP could run a soap dish against Obama and pull at least 30% of the vote; the Democrats could counter with a chipmunk and it would probably be a close race.

These tribes are also more hereditary than you'd think. The greatest single predictor of an American's party affiliation is the party affiliation of her mother, followed by that of her father. It's not universal, but it's pretty strong. And the fact that those 30%+ factions don't seem to be shrinking (and may be growing) suggests that, like stable ethnic groups, Democrats and Republicans have learned how to reproduce themselves.

The Cracked article makes the important point that media coverage of politics (whether otherwise "biased" or not) plays to these groups, because they are the most reliable customers and media is a business. While this is an important point, to me there's an underlying reality: what about the rest of us?

If 60 - 70% of the country is already tied up in tribal politics, and if the tribes both control the mechanics of government and command all the media attention, what about the remaining 30 - 40%? There probably isn't a unified "tribe" there - you've got everything from disaffected Ron Paul libertarians to Rockafeller Republicans who left the party long ago (or were cast out as heretics) to Jerry Brown leftists. It's true that voters from this group have the greatest impact on the election, because you already know how the tribes are going to vote. But voting rates among true independents are also lower than for tribalists in part because, when you don't like either party, who do you vote for? This is one reason (among many) why third-party bids inevitably flounder.

The system has been stumbling along like this for some decades, getting slowly and gradually more polarized without producing any major disruptions. It's certainly true that polarization is more extreme today than it was 30 years ago; Ronald Reagan, patron saint of conservatives, wasn't nearly as conservative as his modern would-be successors. But so far, the machinery basically rolls along.

I'm not very good at predicting the future, so I can't say for certain that this path will lead to this or that end - though it's hard to see it leading to many good ones. Certainly, the spirit of national will and unity that George Washington spoke of so eloquently has largely disappeared. And I fear what might happen if we were faced with a truly national crisis that demanded unity of purpose. For a brief time, we thought that 9/11 might rekindle such purpose. We were wrong.

In the meantime, what I might most wish for is a smaller favor: that the tribalists among us stop pretending that they are independent actors who have "thought through the issues" and arrived at the reasonable and rational conclusion that their chosen party just happens to always be right. We're used to putting this veneer of reason on top of our political discourse, but over time it has changed from veneer to fig leaf to hypocrisy. Let's at least call a spade a spade: we have created our own tribes in this country. If you belong to one, don't pretend that you don't. And if you really don't belong - well, there's not going to be a lot of room for you in the national conversation for the next several months. Maybe that's why so many of us watch Jon Stewart...

No comments:

Post a Comment