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American Politics Could Use More Conflict

Decrying “tribalism” is a favorite pastime of American elites, but the real problem is the unity among them.

Former first lady Laura Bush, former president George W. Bush, former president Bill Clinton, former secretary of state and first lady Hillary Clinton, former president Barack Obama, former president George H. W. Bush, former first lady Michelle Obama, and current first lady Melania Trump pose for a group photo at the funeral ceremony for the late first lady Barbara Bush at St Martin's Episcopal Church on April 21, 2018 in Houston, Texas. Paul Morse/George W. Bush Presidential Center via Getty

“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.” – Barack Obama, 2004 DNC address

“What if we were wrong? Maybe we pushed too far. Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.” These were the words reportedly spoken by Barack Obama to aides shortly after the 2016 presidential election.

Uttered on this particular occasion, Obama’s world-weary remark was most certainly that of an outgoing president frustrated in defeat. But I believe it was also the earnest expression of an ideology he shares with many of Washington’s most powerful and influential figures, whatever their professed party allegiance: namely, that there is a phenomenon called “tribalism” (or alternatively, “partisanship”) that is needlessly dividing the country and obstructing progress — a march towards some common interest that presumably consists of its negation.

In this telling, “tribalism” is a kind of Rosetta Stone for decoding what ails American democracy. And if it can be transcended, a Big Rock Candy Mountain of political harmony and national reconciliation awaits the pragmatic pilgrims of our post-partisan tomorrow. (We would be remiss here, I think, not to acknowledge the term’s sinister racial connotations, which I don’t believe are entirely accidental.)

By my estimation, no other single narrative has quite the same hold on the political imaginations of mainstream commentators, politicians, and pundits. Some mostly cosmetic liberal or conservative texturing aside, it’s one that is remarkably prevalent among two factions with supposedly intractable differences.

Various incarnations of it are absolutely everywhere and have been for as long as most of us can remember. As I’ve noted elsewhere, it was the central theme of the speech that made Obama a national figure and would remain a preoccupation of his presidency to the very end. During the Tea Party revanchism that followed the 2008 election, it was the key refrain of Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity.” Throughout 2015 and 2016, it also united sections of both party establishments in their collective disgust at Donald Trump and informed Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated courtship of suburban Republican voters. During the Bush presidency, calls for liberals to put their partisanship aside and heed the national interest (in that case, approving torture and dropping more bombs on various parts of the Middle East) were common. And decades before today’s panicked warnings about “identity politics,” conservative pundits and public intellectuals were issuing all-too-similar pronouncements about looming polarization and the “divisiveness” ostensibly represented by antiwar protesters, feminists, LGBTQ activists, and civil rights.

But if this narrative was popular in a pre-Trumpian Beltway, its various manifestations and those of its accompanying fables are enjoying a veritable renaissance in a post-2016 one.

Among other things, David Frum’s bestselling book partly accounts for the Trump presidency by decrying the two major parties’ failure to compromise and find common ground. Faced with a majority Republican Senate bent on pushing through its destructive, plutocratic agenda at all costs, Chuck Schumer has taken to complaining about the lack of inter-party cooperation when it comes to cutting taxes and periodically suggesting he may help fund Trump’s infamous border wall. No sooner had the Democrats been declared the winners of this month’s midterm elections and Nancy Pelosi was already preaching the “bipartisan marketplace of ideas” and talking vaguely of unity in place of the more aggressive, adversarial strategy many Democratic voters would undoubtedly like to see.

A version of the tribalism thesis has also been advanced in a new book by Yale law professor Amy Chua, which worries that Americans have started turning away from their institutions amid “seismic demographic change … declining social mobility, a growing class divide; and media that rewards expressions of outrage.” For Chua, as for so many of the thesis’s like-minded exponents, the solution lies in a renewed spirit of constitutional unity to be found somewhere in between the demands made by right and left (or, at any rate, caricatures of them):

The right needs to recognize that making good on the Constitution’s promises requires much more than flag-waving. If millions of people believe that [emphasis mine] because of their skin color or religion, they are not treated equally, how can they be expected to see the Constitution’s resounding principles as anything but hollow? For its part, the left needs to rethink its scorched-earth approach to American history and ideals. Exposing injustice, past and present, is important, but there’s a world of difference between saying that America has repeatedly failed to live up to its constitutional principles and saying that those principles are lies or smoke screens for oppression.

When the System Worked

“Even in the days when I got (to Washington), the Democratic Party still had seven or eight old-fashioned Democratic segregationists …. You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them. Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked.” Joe Biden, 2017

For all its ubiquity as an abstract standard against which present-day political behavior should be measured, no one seems able to agree on when this supposed period before the rigors of partisan acrimony actually occurred.

A new book by Steve Kornacki, to take one example, identifies the Gingrich/Clinton rivalry of the 1990s as the moment the tide turned and “tribalism” intruded. The 2015 film Best of Enemies, meanwhile, blames the advent of cable news and the adversarial ethos inaugurated by the famous debates pitting William F. Buckley against Gore Vidal for the decline of a more unitary national discourse. The way some talk these days, more or less everyone and everything in the American political class was perfectly decent and grownup until November 2016.

Alternatively, the whole thing descends to the level of individual psychology or pseudo-philosophy about the supposedly inalienable properties of human nature. Consider, as a fairly representative example, this passage from a May edition of the Economist: “The problem is structural: the root of tribalism is human nature, and the current state of American democracy is distinctly primeval. People have an urge to belong to exclusive groups and to affirm their membership by beating other groups.”

Chua’s call for a middle ground between the supposedly equivalent horrors of chest-thumping, Fox News conservatism and social justice–addled liberalism has attached to it a similar premise: namely that something called “tribalism” is a permanent, even biological facet of human existence that requires adjustments in attitudes and individual behaviors to correct.

Somewhat disparate as these accounts may be, what they tend to have in common is an aversion to conflict as such and an implicit belief that a healthy politics is always one in which the passions associated with it are kept to a minimum. The problem, put another way, isn’t actually division so much as the act of loudly drawing attention to it, whatever the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the complaints may be. (Joe Biden’s 2017 characterization of the good old days in Washington is a case in point: sure, there were segregationists in the Democratic Party, and sure they may have held political positions that denied basic recognition to fellow human beings, but an aversion to tribalism kept these disputes at a gentlemanly cadence so the system, ultimately, worked!)

In this way, strong political demands of any kind are pathologized as either a product of sociology or as childish outbursts from overly emotional political neophytes. How the political system is perceived to be working matters far more than its realities and, provided some mutual calm can be established between the masses and their rulers, these can safely be ignored or at the very least debated at sufficiently muted decibels.

To state the obvious: while it may have manifested itself differently across decades and centuries, conflict of one kind or another (not to mention outright violence) has been a constitutive part of American life, and not all of it has been created equal. Civil rights leaders who successfully campaigned to end segregation weren’t simply the mirror image of the institutionalized white supremacy they were combating. The same could be said of innumerable other groups and their antitheses, be they trade unionists, feminists, or those who marched in opposition to the grotesque imperial slaughter in Vietnam. Progress, at least of any genuine kind, has always involved excluded and oppressed people agitating against those who oppose their inclusion, and various cultural polarities have inevitably become inflamed in the process.

Conflict of this kind ultimately has little to do with noxious debates broadcast on cable news or with a political class that theatrically stages them while tapping the same corporate donors and casually dishing about Social Security privatization across the tables of opulent D.C. restaurants. The fact is that beneath the facade of intra-elite camaraderie amid televised partisan rancor, there remain deep and abiding political disagreements between Americans that will only be resolved when one side is defeated or lays down arms.

This is, I believe, the main reason elites and members of the intelligentsia broadly invested in status quo ultimately see salvation in a mythic kingdom without conflict or meaningfully distinctive parties to institutionalize it. It’s also why so many of them seem determined to pathologize political differences as random sociological spasms rather than expressions of genuine grievances, progressive or prejudicial as the case may be: plenty of them, whether they care to admit it or not, privately pine for a place where the interests they share can be safely negotiated unfettered by the irritants of democratic politics or the headaches they tend to create.

But as this post-partisan promised land will eternally remain out of reach, we can expect most to continue indulging the fantasy: looking out from their gilded metropoles at a deeply unfair nation riven with poverty, racism, oligarchy, and violence and concluding — as one former president recently did — that most of the country simply isn’t mature enough to find solace at some Archimedean point between the compromised, corporatist liberalism and reactionary right competing for its collective allegiance.