The first thing that needs to be said about this is that this would have been a lot easier to achieve a few years ago. Throughout Da Blog’s history I’ve made a number of different posts looking for common ground between left and right, and calling for neutral media outlets like CNN to be bipartisan, not nonpartisan, in order to force each side’s extremists to reckon with each other. But with the advent of Donald Trump, I’m no longer sure it’s possible to achieve the things I was hoping to achieve, or even that it would have necessarily been productive.
More on the “productive” point in a later post, but for now I’ll say that the second thing that needs to be said is that, in some sense, the very term used – tribalism – is itself an answer to the question. It’s a very deep, human drive, far deeper than any of the hallmarks of modern individualist democracy. Part of the reason you haven’t seen it play out too much within American politics until recent years is that until fairly recently it was turned against forces outside the United States, whether the Soviet Union or whatever else, and even when we might get along with other parts of the country or world in areas that matter we hate their guts in sports. We’re hardwired to form groups and distrust or actively hate those outside those groups; it’s what helped us get where we are as a species.
The third thing that needs to be said is that, even discounting that, only the left and center is concerned about ending tribalism. The right is addicted to Fox News, talk radio, and other right-wing sources of news that tells them there’s nothing wrong with their own politics and the problem is all those dastardly liberals out there, and distrusts anything outside that bubble as part of the vast liberal conspiracy to undermine America’s conservative norms. So long as the left wants to embrace bipartisanship but the right remains distrustful of their motives, the left merely becomes a tool to help the right ramrod their politics down the throats of the rest of America. Until the right is willing to become as introspective as the left, the left’s only recourse is to become as tribalistic as the right.
I bring that up last because it brings me to the fourth and perhaps most important thing that needs to be said: there is no motivation for the right to become more introspective, or for Republican politicians or right-wing media to encourage or engage in such introspection. Why would they? They control the White House and both houses of Congress and are one death or retirement away from setting the course of the Supreme Court for a generation – and not only that, despite the historic unpopularity of both Donald Trump and Congress, it would be nearly miraculous for Democrats to take control of either house in 2018, thanks to gerrymandering of House districts and a Democratic wave election five years ago leaving the Democrats with few opportunities to gain Senate seats and plenty of opportunities to lose them. The Republicans have, in theory, rigged the system to all but insulate them from any accountability, to the point of stretching our democracy to the breaking point. In their mind, the only constituents that matter are their extremists, and for many Republican politicians, the only election that matters is the Republican primary. There is no price for stoking tribalism, there are only huge rewards. The left is left to appeal to “norms” and “morals” and to the notion that what the Republicans have done is “wrong”, words that seem hollow in the wake of the Republicans’ success. When the Republican base doesn’t care about the left’s “norms”, and the Republican party sees little to no negative consequences for flouting them, do those “norms” really exist in any substantial, practical form?
Getting back to the second point, the only reason we’ve managed to escape the problem of tribalism for so long is the “norms” preventing any political movement from exploiting it. Now that those “norms” have been breached, there’s no way of simply closing Pandora’s box, of simply putting the cork back in the bottle. Strip away the “norms”, the unspoken covenant governing American politics for 200 years and (with the exception of four or five years in the 1860s) preventing the American experiment from cracking up along ideological lines, and you’re left with a rather thin patchwork of laws and a Constitution written for a federation of thirteen mini-nations much closer together in relative population than today’s states, and one written with a complete ignorance of my second point. Indeed, the Founders outright disdained political parties and other “factions” but did little to prevent or accommodate their existence, opening the door for forces to arrive that would give the Presidency, an office designed for a George Washington but always vulnerable to a Donald Trump, more and more power in order to push forward their agenda.
Part of what has been so insidious about the expansion of presidential power is that a substantial portion of the electorate seemingly only cares about the presidency, with little to no knowledge or appreciation of the role of Congress or the courts, depressing turnout for midterm elections and insulating Congress somewhat from the consequences of their actions. As Obama learned firsthand, the President gets a disproportionate amount of the credit or blame for things not entirely, or even at all, within their control; even when the problem is clearly Congressional gridlock, the President gets at least some of the blame for not “pushing through” it, even when the problem is clearly one side’s refusal to do a deal at all. Thus Republicans could spend the first two years of Obama’s presidency utterly refusing to do anything Obama supported and grinding the machinery of government to a standstill, and end up taking the House and enough state legislatures to effectively lock in control of the House for the next decade, then use that control to continue to stonewall for the remaining six years and ride a Republican president into control of both houses and more lesser offices.
In short, our Constitution, coupled with the expansion of presidential power, the move to democracy uber alles, and the corruption of our understanding of the system, far from curbing factionalism and tribalism, makes it nearly inevitable: only one party can control the Presidency, and either that party also controls both houses of Congress and can pursue their agenda as much as possible, or at least one house is controlled by the other party (or nearly enough so) and becomes unable to settle on anything as they use every trick in the book to keep the party in the White House from getting their way, resulting in the President using other (constitutional and extra-constitutional) powers to advance their agenda regardless. Couple that with the President’s nearly unchecked power to stock the Supreme Court and lesser judicial offices, and the power the Supremes in particular have to set the direction of the nation for decades to come, and every presidential election becomes an apocalyptic battle to set the direction of the nation for the next four years and beyond, with congressional races an afterthought and if anything even more prone to tribalism and partisanship. Only our “norms” have prevented the problem from getting this bad, but the Republican abandonment of those norms, coupled with increased popular participation at all levels of the system and the rise of cable news and the Internet allowing a greater ability to pick and choose one’s own reality to glorify one’s own tribe and bring down the other, have started us sliding inexorably into the abyss.
The short answer, then, to the problem of tribalism is that nothing less than a major overhaul of the Constitution, possibly to the point of calling a new convention, may bring us out of the abyss – not necessarily to reject the Founders’ values, but to reaffirm them and update the Constitution for our modern values and what we’ve learned about how it’s been used in practice in the intervening years, to reflect what we’ve come to expect out of the system and correct for how it’s actually come to work, to either correct for and try to limit the impact of tribalism or to accept it as an inevitable fact and harness it for good while limiting its negative impact. But not only is that a radical step, it’s not clear that we have the people that would be able to do the weightiness of the task justice, or any way to ensure that those are the people that would be involved as opposed to groups with axes to grind hoping to enshrine their values in the Constitution, nor can we be sure that the result would be entirely trusted by all sides of the debate. Indeed, the best solutions might be unacceptable without each side first recognizing the legitimacy, let alone potential rightness, of the other. If part of the problem is that each side doesn’t even agree with the other on what the basic problems with the country are, then part of the solution would seem to be to devolve more power to the states to solve what they perceive their problems to be. But neither side is willing to accept that; conservatives believe that blue states are offending God and need to have their support for abortion and gay marriage curbed at the federal level, while liberals believe that red states are impinging on the rights of women and gays and need the federal government to stop them from doing so. Indeed, it’s not even clear that state governments actually would solve their own problems as opposed to entrenching the prerogatives of the party in power and their benefactors, disenfranchising those that didn’t vote for them in the process, and maybe not even helping their own voters if they can find a way to misdirect blame for and the nature of the problems and the degree to which they even need to be solved.
If the task, then, is to find a way to work within the existing system to alleviate the problem of tribalism, what can be done? If having no factions, as the Founders hoped, is not an option, the next-best thing is to have a multitude of them. Certainly the way the two-party system encourages an us-vs-them mentality doesn’t help the problem of tribalism if you can define one side as always right and the other side as always wrong; with a multitude of parties, there’s always room to find common ground with at least one faction at least some of the time. This is another way in which the Constitution fails us as our current method of selecting Presidents and congressmen runs afoul of Duverger’s law making a two-party system inevitable, as much as supporters of third-party candidates often find it hard to grasp. Even within that system, though, much of the blame must fall on would-be third parties themselves, which by and large have fallen into the same trap as the rest of the electorate in focusing on the presidency uber alles, even as it’s become increasingly obvious that they can’t win or even pull enough of a showing to make any sort of progress even under the most ideal circumstances as the 2016 election was. A third party willing to make the Presidency of secondary or even no importance, instead focusing on races one of the major parties isn’t seriously contesting or at all, adopting a position moderate enough to actually capture a substantial portion of the electorate in those districts, taking advantage of gerrymandered districts by capturing the disenfranchised underclass along with enough of the majority to compete, stands to not only build up some real power and even correct some of the depredations of the current system by their very presence, but in the long term stands a chance to even capture or at least determine the fate of the Presidency.
In a way, I actually appreciate this question coming up, even though I’m addressing it a few days after the fact, because it gives me a chance to come back to these topics I started writing about in the period between the election and the inauguration without having to engage too much in all the depredations of the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress as I’d felt I’d have to do. In the coming days and weeks I hope to write more of these posts going into more detail about the crisis facing the country, about the best way to smooth the course for third parties and jumpstarting the conversation about how to reform the Constitution by presenting my own ideas. Much of what I hope to write has been sitting unpublished in drafts for a year or percolating in my head for even longer, and some other ideas have been coming to the fore as a result of the other events of the past year. Maybe you don’t agree that steps as drastic as what I propose are necessary to address the problem of tribalism, but at least telling the truth about the nature of the problem is a necessary first step to actually doing something productive to address it, without falling into the cult of personality of a charismatic billionaire.