Is American tribalism making us another Middle East?

Students of American history remember that Massachusetts and Maine were one state long ago.  They were split in two in 1820 to keep the peace and maintain a tenuous political balance between North and South when the famous “compromise” of that year admitted Missouri into the Union as a slave state while pairing it with the new free state of Maine.

Once joined at the hip, Maine and Massachusetts are now led by two governors of the same party who couldn’t be more different, politically or temperamentally.

Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker is one of the most popular governors in the country, widely praised by Democrats and Republicans alike for his moderation and pragmatic, problem-solving bipartisanship, says the Boston Globe.  Paul LePage of Maine, on the other hand, is a national laughingstock after depositing an obscenity-laced voice mail on the home phone of a state legislator who LePage wished he could challenge to a duel.

Baker has shunned his party’s presidential nominee, notes the Globe, while LePage likes to call himself “Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular.”

Baker and LePage both worry about the drug crisis, the regional economy and energy policy, says the Globe. Yet, while Baker seeks across-the-aisle accords with the heavily Democratic Massachusetts Legislature, “LePage seems to relish nothing more than a good fight.”

In sum, says the Globe, the chief executives of Massachusetts and Maine may share a common party affiliation and hail from the same Northeast corner of America “but there may not be two governors from the same party more dissimilar in the country.”

In many ways, the differences between Baker and LePage define the ideological and psychological divide of our times, one that has rendered so much of American politics disagreeable and dysfunctional.

A historic compromise separated Maine and Massachusetts nearly 200 years ago.  But it is the unwillingness to compromise that separates the two main warring factions tearing apart the Republican Party today – one that now supports LePage, Donald Trump and the Tea Party movement; another that supports those like Charlie Baker who are variously called “moderate,” or part of the Republican “establishment” or, pejoratively, RINOs -- short for "Republicans in Name Only."     

When for the first time in American history power passed peacefully from one political party to another way back in 1800, Thomas Jefferson famously stated: “We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans.”  In an important column in this morning’s New York Times titled “Win, Lose, but No Compromise,” that paper’s one-time Middle East correspondent asks: “Are we all just Shiites and Sunnis now?”

Friedman’s main point is one that I have been making for some time now, namely that more and more American politics has begun to resemble the sectarian conflicts of the Mideast.

“With rare exception,” says Friedman, “the politics of the Middle East is just a see-saw game between two modes of zero-sum, rule-or-die thinking.”  Rarely, he says, does either party “stop to seek or forge the common good.”

This sort of sectarian “tribalist” thinking has already ruined a Republican Party that Friedman even goes so far to say “no longer exists.”  Center-right Republicans have a choice to make, he says: Either become conservative Democrats or form a new party with a base that does not include uncompromising, irreconcilables who are fueling xenophobic right-wing “movements” like those which produced the Tea Party, support Donald Trump’s campaign or elect racist obscenities like Paul LePage.

More and more I am convinced that one of the biggest problems we face as a political community is the lack of an adequate vocabulary for articulating what we want for our country as citizens and identifying those ideas and pathologies that threaten our republic.

Americans are said to be fed up with “the establishment,” frustrated by our grid-locked “status quo,” and so demanding “change” from “politics as usual.”

But if Americans are serious about wanting a democratic government that works and a democratic political system that reflects the bedrock values of liberty, freedom and equality, then too often Americans gravitate to radical leaders and movements that are counterproductive to those ends.

And the cause of this contradiction is often a confusion over words.

No figure of speech has ever produced more political misunderstanding and mischief than the left-right political spectrum. Arrayed along a single dimension, every conceivable political impulse -- from the inspired to the insane -- is thought to find expression here along this line's imagination-imprisoning limits.

This is the spectrum we have in mind whenever we designate a party or a position as being "extreme" or when political leaders are advised they move toward some mythical "Center." And for much of our history, this spectrum has served as a useful shorthand for categorizing the full range of political views and possibilities.

No longer. The limitation of this measuring device is exposed in polarized and fractured times like these. With political extremism now invading space once safely occupied by a deteriorating American consensus, it becomes painfully obvious that the familiar convention of a political spectrum obscures the existence of wholly different worldviews -- political systems which cannot be located along this line because they do not share the basic democratic assumptions upon which this spectrum was created in the first place.

More experienced political cartographers like Professor Theodore Lowi of Cornell know better. For much of American history, he says, disagreements between our parties could be accurately plotted along a left-right spectrum distinguished as much by what it left out as by what it contained.  The conventional spectrum delineated a politics in which there was fundamental agreement on the liberal institutions of capitalism, democracy and rule of law and where there was also broad consensus among the parties about the operative definitions of such foundational values as liberty, equality, freedom and democracy itself.

But the important thing to keep in mind about this "left-right" measuring stick, says Lowi, is that everyone on it is a liberal.

There really is a "Left" and a "Right" in the political universe, says Lowi. These "totalist" or totalitarian belief systems just don't exist in a world occupied by America's traditional brand of democratic/capitalistic liberalism.  And so neither of these totalistic belief systems - whether fascist on the right or communistic on the left -- appear anywhere on what most Americans would think of when they consider the range of possible positions and ideas in American politics.

This nonchalance over nomenclature leads to further confusion among a public that is already largely illiterate when it comes to politics.  It also provides a huge opening for extremist groups of the radical right (and the radical left if one existed, which it doesn't) to move freely about in American politics without being recognized by most people for what they are.

Yet, beginning around 1994 -- with the triumph of a uniquely Southern brand of reactionary conservatism with radically different ideas about the place of church, state, race, class and regional identity in our democratic politics -- America experienced for the first time a politics more European than American. 

Americans were left in a conceptual quagmire trying to describe this new species of "Conservatism" with words and concepts derived from a political context when all political ideas – both those nominally "left" or "right" – were really just some variant of "liberalism," one putting the rights of the individual ahead of the group and the other the group before the individual but both subscribing to same basic belief in democracy and “traditions of civility.”   

If we don't more adequately recognize the true nature of this new anti-democratic conservatism it's because it uses the same words we do. It speaks the same language. It praises freedom, liberty and rule of law just like us. It professes loyalty, if not obsessive devotion, to the same Constitution we do, along with that Constitution's guarantees of basic human rights.  But somehow this new conservatism does not seem to mean the same thing we do when it speaks our language or cites our values.

Paul Waldman caught some of this Brave New World when he wrote about a Republican Party that has made a virtue of its unwillingness to compromise, boasting of its ever-growing list of non-negotiable demands.

"There are legitimate and meaningful differences, many of them enormous, between the two parties these days," says Waldman. "[But] honesty requires acknowledging that the chief impediment to compromise is and will continue to be the right wing of the Republican Party, which increasingly looks less like a wing and more like the whole bird."

That was Waldman's way of saying that right wing Republicans are literally "off the charts" - outside the left-right political spectrum - inhabiting the right wing world that Professor Lowi says exists as a political dimension all on its own.

Deposed Speaker John Boehner may have had the heart of a backroom deal-maker, says Waldman, but the cost of compromise for Boehner and other "sensible" Republicans was "frighteningly high" because they were caught between Tea Party representatives "on a mission to slash government to ribbons" and old-timers "terrified of challenges from the right."

Republican aversion to compromise is ideological not personal, says Waldman. It goes beyond those now serving in Congress. Asked in that famous Pew survey a few years ago whether they preferred politicians who "stick to their positions" no matter what or those who "make compromises with people they disagree with," only 48% of Democrats said they preferred no compromise “fire-eaters” while 63% of Republicans did. Among Tea Party supporters the degree of recalcitrance ran even higher, at 69%.

"These findings certainly accord with our ideological stereotypes," said Waldman. "Conservatives are often wrong but never in doubt; liberals are so open-minded they won't take their own side in an argument. It isn't just the substance of any particular compromise that Republicans oppose; it's the very concept itself."

This my-way-or-the-highway conservative DNA is so pronounced in fact, says Waldman, that it's led to a body-snatching makeover of Republican icon Ronald Reagan, whose long record of compromises on taxes (he raised them), the welfare state (he helped save Social Security), and on foreign policy (he negotiated with the Soviets on nukes) are either ignored, underplayed, or explained away.

"Instead, we get a picture of a man of unbending principle, standing firm and staring down opponents and enemies until they buckle before his awe-inspiring certainty," says Waldman.

A willingness to compromise or negotiate isn't just good manners. It's the heart and soul of politics. For without compromise, political relationships between people of different economic interests, or skin color, can only be resolved by brute force or war.  These are expedients which history shows are entirely compatible with the American right wing's "Europeanized" conception of aggressive and belligerent conservatism -- as Donald Trump reminds us every day.


Views: 152

Comment by alsoknownas on August 31, 2016 at 10:04am

This stood out for me today, in part because it is on what is termed by many a "writer's" site : " the lack of an adequate vocabulary for articulating what we want for our country as citizens".

That lack of common agreeable verbiage sets off the micro-discussions that seem more often to lead to a quagmire versus consensus and change.

I think the easiest to reference disagreement on the meaning of words is the seemingly endless debate, both from the left and right as to the true meaning of the 2nd Amendment.

Maybe it's time we elect only linguists and then put it upon them to tell us what words mean so we can start to move forward.

Except they won't agree either.

Comment by JMac1949 Today on August 31, 2016 at 10:23am

With any luck at all the Tea Party and the Trumpinistas with go the way of the John Birch Society, Free Soil Party and Know Nothings:  Ugly footnotes in American History.  R&L ;-)

Comment by koshersalaami on August 31, 2016 at 11:39am

One of the issues is education - people aren't aware of why or on what basis America was founded. The Constitution is not an icon, it's a document. 

Of course, the same thing can be said about the Bible. These people who don't really know who the Founding Fathers were don't really know who Jesus was either, and yet they have very strong nominal loyalty to both. But it's nominal. 

We aren't Shiites and Sunnis because there is no symmetry here. This is odd because the press has spent years supporting the illusion that there is - at least the mainstream press - because their own appearance of impartiality depends on it. 

The one thing that Trump has accomplished is starting to break this tendency in the press. They will now call him on lies routinely. He says "The President founded ISIS" and they say No, he didn't, just in case you were wondering. 

This election will represent a shift. There is one serious danger with this election that I'd be worried about, and that's the integrity of voting machines. They are software-based, paper verification is not required in all states, and the voting machine companies tend to be owned by Republicans. 

Comment by Maui Surfer on August 31, 2016 at 6:19pm

What is now termed the Right is, interestingly, WRONG about EVERYTHING. Literally. They have been so wrong for so long that they had to malign the Press, which is actually very conservative overall, labeling it as a Liberal tool. That is also instructive in that the so-called against conservatives MSM is actually a bunch of ad revenue driven water carriers who allow lies to be repeated ad nauseum directly in front of their eyes. A strange dollar drive form of the Fairness Doctrine.

"uniquely Southern brand" indeed. What we now have is Repub Party with two sides, one the Cavalier identifying haters who are actually just simple Confederates. Always have been and sadly looks like possibly always will be. And the other, RINOs who actually ARE Republicans, but, are entirely obsolete. They've been worn out, the careful banker of my youth who was actually performing a service by objectively deciding who should get a loan for what venture based on risk has no place in 2016's digital economy where a business can be started for 100 bucks, then get a Series A round of 10 million from professional poker players masquerading as VCs.

Stick a fork in em, their as done as a Virginia Ham.

Comment by Maui Surfer on August 31, 2016 at 6:21pm

yes they're are, er, am. Done, I mean.

Comment by Ben Sen on September 9, 2016 at 3:44pm

I think you really have to look beyond political definitions if you want to fully understand the "divide," since it has been present since the beginning and exists in basically the same form regardless of the nation. It's a matter of the "culture" as well i.e. what the consensus dictates what is acceptable and not acceptable at a particular time.  Bernie's "revolution" may not be acceptable, for instance, to the broad majority at this time, regardless of the party that carries it forward, but the disparity income is an issue that can't be denied.

There is usually only a very small number who begin the great movements and then carry them on.  I saw it in my own life in the 60's.  There weren't one in ten in 1964 who came out against the war but in the matter of a few short years it brought down at least one president, and eventually led to the cultural changes we have now seen--a black president, gay marriage, the beginning of universal health care, etc.

I think it's important to keep this perspective in mind especially at times like these when the "front page," furor, and "tribalism" you describe are all that most of the electorate can see.  No, the majority does not have a "vision" and desperately needs those who do.  The most powerful thing that can possibly happen in this election is in fact if Trump is decisively beaten.  The professionals in our political system will then have their hand strengthened and possibly begin working in the direction of reforms that will benefit all Americans, regardless of party and all the rest of our "tribal" differences. 

Comment by Ben Sen on September 9, 2016 at 4:12pm

Obama, by the way, clearly had this vision. It was also imposed upon him given his unique background and explains his early efforts to bring about consensus.  Hopefully, Hillary will learn from his mistake and learn how to twist arms earlier and in a way that gets more done.  I think ultimately, it is this vision of America that will become the foremost factor in his legacy as it is seen in the distant future.  America's first black president was indeed a remarkable man, and if anything in my lifetime has shown reason to have hope for the future of the country, it is his election, and perhaps more than that, his re-election.


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