Tribalism Is Bad Politics

When Loyalty to Party Damages Democracy

We have two very distinct choices in the Brett Kavanaugh spectacle. This column has advocated he should withdraw due to his stated opinions on executive immunity, and now the #MeToo movement in the form of the accusation of attempted rape by Professor Christine Blasey Ford is pitted against him, while the president unbelievably says that a 15-year-old should have, 36 years ago, filed criminal charges. The choices we face are: (1) to continue to consume this sight of Left against Right as a crude form of entertainment, or (2) to resolve to do the hard work of democracy and educate ourselves on the separation of powers and the policies and positions of candidates for office and work to elect those candidates who will base their votes, including for Supreme Court justices, on science, humanity, and fact rather than alternative tribal facts. If we ignore the latter, we perpetuate the current cycle of Hatfields versus McCoys that we find ourselves being governed by.

To say that our politics have been tribalized to the point that people are loyal to their political group above all else is to state the obvious. When Mitch McConnell incredulously said that he couldn’t schedule a hearing on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court because it was an election year, “everyone” who was paying attention knew that was a tribal leader talking. He was ensuring that if Donald Trump were elected, Team Republican could put another conservative on the Court. When Paul Ryan refused to rein in Devin Nunez’s obvious politicization of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to promote the president’s defense against the Mueller investigation, we all knew that too was a blatant act of tribalism.

Political tribalism, imposing through power irrespective of fairness, is not solely a Republican phenomenon, the Democrats also do it. (Remember the all-Democratic-controlled government passed the Affordable Care Act without any Republican votes.) What we don’t seem to know is how to stop this kind of politics based on ideologies, rather than actual debates based on facts, science, and societal need.

There was a time not that long ago when elected officials socialized and worked “across the aisle,” agreeing to disagree on some issues while working together on others collegially, professionally, and without rancor or abuse. What changed? Three things: the election of our first African-American president, the advent of a ubiquitous internet and the 24/7 cable news “echo chamber,” and a politically uneducated electorate.

The election of Barack Obama created a racial backlash leading to the Tea Party, the election of the 2014 Republican-controlled Congress, and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell announcing total opposition to President Obama’s initiatives, irrespective of merit or societal need (with Speaker of the House John Boehner following suit.) This coupled with the rise of a ubiquitous and egalitarian internet and a 24/7 cable news cycle, with Fox News in total support of President Trump and Republican ideology, and MSNBC and CNN providing the “Democrat” point of view, have cemented team politics to the point that we, perhaps unconsciously, find ourselves “rooting for” left or right irrespective of rationality. Add to this the fact that far too many Americans do not understand how democracy actually works and you have our current situation.

Only a quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government, with nearly a third of us unable to name any of the three branches of government. The same third does not understand that Congress was explicitly designed with the ability to place a “check” on an overreaching executive, and the creation of an independent judiciary empowered to overrule unlawful political decisions.

While the antics of President Trump make it feel virtually impossible to avoid joining one or the other tribes, it’s important to resist this temptation. Trumpism is a cult. It will dissipate once he leaves the White House. Tribal politics, on the other hand, will continue unless and until voters put a stop to it.

It seems we’ve forgotten that the ultimate power in our democracy resides with us, the voters. The 2018 election is here. We have the right and power to eradicate tribal control by choosing to vote against it. The question, of course, is will we?


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