By Shaun Mullen / 10.12.2017
Americans always have had an unjustifiably lofty view of their society, which is why they are able to look down their upturned noses as Tutsis beat up on Hutus in Rwanda, Serbs beat up on Croats in the Balkans, Shiites beat up on Sunnis in Iraq and Buddhists beat up on Muslims in Myanmar, to name just a few of the blood-soaked conflicts in recent history. Americans believe they’re beyond such tribalism, and indeed the Founding Fathers were determined to build a democracy where the individual was more important than the tribe. That failed spectacularly in a little dustup called the Civil War, and the big message underlying the election of Donald Trump is that it is still failing.
The message within that message is that Trump did not make America what it is. To the contrary,
America made Trump president because of what it has become.
Those red state-blue state maps are not merely graphic representations of the American body politic of recent years. They vividly and shockingly illustrate the parlous condition of our 240-year-old democracy.
A tribe of white voters predominate in red states in the exurban and rural interior. They are for the most part nationalist in outlook, deeply religious and dominate the Republican Party.
A tribe of racial minorities predominate in blue states on the coasts. They are for the most part are urbanized, global in outlook, less religious and dominate the Democratic Party.
“Tribalism only destabilizes a democracy when it calcifies into something bigger and more intense than our smaller, multiple loyalties; when it rivals our attachment to the nation as a whole; and when it turns rival tribes into enemies,” writes the inimitable Andrew Sullivan in a deeply thoughtful essay in New York magazine on tribalism. “And the most significant fact about American tribalism today is that all three of these characteristics now apply to our political parties, corrupting and even threatening our system of government.”
It is convenient but inaccurate to suggest that tribalism simply evaporated after the Civil War and re-emerged only in the last several years as politics became so overtly tribal and hence divisive.
In fact, tribalism never went away.
Tribalism merely was subsumed by waves of immigrants who were assimilated into society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and then the two world wars, which acted as huge unifiers. In the case of World War II and the years following, blacks were integrated into the military, industry and society at large, and nearly 40 percent of black voters called themselves Republicans, the once proud party of Lincoln.
But by 1964, tribalism was back with a vengeance.
Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign drove most blacks away from the GOP and that re-racialization continued apace in the early 1970s with Richard Nixon’s so-called Southern Strategy in response to the civil rights movement, Ronald Reagan’s unflattering characterizations of poor blacks in the 1980s, and Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s unapologetic loathing of the Latino immigrants pouring into California in the 1990s.
By the time the first red-blue maps appeared in the 2000 presidential race, abortion and gay rights had further split the two parties.
Behind the national electoral draw that year between Al Gore and George Bush were the two tribes so recognizable today, and the Supreme Court ruling handing the presidency to Bush ended — probably forever — the Founders’ intention that the high court be nonpartisan, which is to say nontribal. Then came 2008 and an even deeper tribal fracturing over race with the election of Barack Obama, the first African-American president.
As Sullivan notes, there were other polarizers, as well, including the arrival of Fox News and the Internet, right-wing extremism ascendent, partisan gerrymandering and the end of cross-tribal compromise in Congress.
While no one was looking, there also was a decline of Christianity as a common denominator for the political parties, an intellectual sorting-out in which non-college educated whites increasingly resented the college education because they got the better paying jobs, and a conservative backlash against universities in general as bastions of liberalism.
And on top of it all, Democrats and Republicans don’t merely disagree with their opponents’ political views these days.
They disagree — angrily and sometimes in violent terms — over their opponents’ very values, each side claiming to be more loyal to mother, god and country than the other as emotion reliably supplants reason. This helps explain why there will never be effective gun control despite Sandy Hook and Las Vegas, and why the big takeaway from the superb Burns-Novick History of the Vietnam War series is that the generations of our national leaders since that bloody interregnum learned nothing from it.
With the three core components of tribalism — race, religion and geography — defining the political parties, 2016 was bound to be a watershed election.
But little did we suspect that a profoundly unqualified narcissist, career crook, pathological liar and misogynist wearing a red Make America Great Again baseball cap who made vague promises to shake up Washington would face off against an eminently qualified, if flawed, woman who proudly wore a lifetime of public service on her sleeve and promised to build on the Obama legacy while bearing the scars of 30 years of virulent right-wing attacks.
Trump, of course, lost the popular vote but eked out an Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton. While the pernicious consequences of the Russian effort to sabotage the Clinton campaign cannot be underestimated, Trump built his backdoor victory on opportunism more than tribalism. His claim that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose the support of his followers lays bae their deep-rooted animosity — a toxic mixture of fear and hate — toward anyone who is not like them, as well as an addiction to the rhetorical extremism that is Trump’s stock in trade.
“Tribalism is not a static force,” writes Sullivan. “It feeds on itself. It appeals on a gut level and evokes emotions that are not so easily controlled and usually spiral toward real conflict.”
Is it too late to turn back? Possibly.
Americans have assumed that their democracy was on autopilot. That the worst excesses would sort themselves out as the political pendulum swung back and forth. That constitutional checks and balances would assure that the pendulum would return to center. That our capacity for moderation, compassion and forgiveness ran deeper than our baser instincts. That we would stop talking past each other and talk to each other.
But none of that took into account that beyond halcyon skies, amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties above those enameled plains, we were members of tribes first and Americans second.
It’s in our DNA, and that makes finding a way out of our national nightmare exceedingly difficult because it would require closing the gap between those tribes, as well as changing or at least diluting the mutations of the political parties.