I don’t really like the word tribalism. For one thing, it is implicitly insulting to actual tribes like the Cheyenne and the Cherokee.
But, that aside, we all know what we mean when we say that American politics has become distressingly tribal. Politicians are fighting for their tribe, i.e., their party, even when such fights are bad for the country.
Democrats are guilty of this, but Republicans are way guiltier.
Okay, that sounds like a tribal defense of the Democrats, but here’s why it is not. Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Whip in the House of Representatives, first got the tribal blood sport going in the early 1990s when he promoted war at all costs against the Democrats. Gingrich, by the way, later became Speaker of the House (his war-to-the-death worked!), but was then forced out of office for being a sleaze. This ouster had nothing to do with his partisan tribalism, however.
The Magna Carta of GOP tribalism was the Gingrich memo of 1990 in which he instructed fellow Republicans to use a specific list of 63 insulting words whenever they talked about the Democrats. Here, as reported in the New York Times, are some of Gingrich’s words for Democrats: “decay, sick, unionized bureaucracy, greed, corruption, radical, permissive, [and] bizarre.”
Gingrich’s fellow Republicans were instructed to memorize the words on his list and to use them whenever they talked about Democrats or any particular Democrat.
When discussing the GOP, Republicans were told to choose words from a flattering list which included “opportunity, challenge, courage, pristine, principle(d), care, caring, common sense, peace, [and] pioneer.”
Now politics ain’t bean-bag, as the philosophical Mr. Dooley once observed, but isn’t routinely and automatically referring to your political opponents as greedy, corrupt, bizarre, etc., going too far? Yes, it is, and doing so was the beginning of the tribalism we see in our politics today. Note that the Democrats, to this day, have not conjured up a list of evil words to throw at the Republicans.
One symptom of the Gingrich-inspired partisan breakdown is the failure of Democrats and Republicans to socialize together in DC. Before Gingrich, it was customary for members of Congress and other officials to get together at local watering holes where bipartisan friendships blossomed. But now our nation’s capital is divided into gathering places that are associated with one party to the exclusion of the other. Bipartisan hanging out is largely a thing of the past.
So, Washington is broken and ruthless tribalism is what broke it.
Adding to the collapse of cooperative politics was Mitch McConnell’s grossly partisan decision in 2016 to block Merrick Garland's appointment to the Supreme Court. McConnell's excuse was that February 2016, when Justice Scalia’s death gave Obama the opportunity to name Garland, was too close to the election.
See what I mean? The Democrats, whatever partisan fighting they have engaged in, have done nothing like this. Yes, they’ve done other things, but nothing so crass and so grossly un-American as what Gingrich and McConnell have done.
When Senator Al Franken was found to have behaved badly toward women in the past, he was asked by his fellow Democrats to step down from his Senate seat and he did so. Some have argued that his crude behavior toward women was not so unforgivable as to require a resignation. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t as crude or aggressive as the behavior of Justice Brett Kavanaugh as described by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and other women who say he victimized them.
But still, Senator Franken resigned. Democrats did not step forward and demand that Franken fight like hell, accuse the women of lying, portray himself as a victim, etc. But that, of course, is exactly what Brett Kavanaugh and his GOP supporters did – despite the numerous women offering credible descriptions of his predatory behavior. And, I might add, his well-documented tendency to be a frequent and belligerent drunkard in his youth.
So, the Democrats said, “Yes, Al Franken has to go, even though he is an intelligent and effective senator,” while the Republicans are now saying, “We don’t care what those women are saying about Brett Kavanaugh’s assaults, we support him!”
I ask you, who is being more tribal?
Naturally, you can point to past politicians, Democrat and Republican, whose sexual misbehavior is well-known – most notably Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. But the #MeToo Movement is creating an entirely New World - a better world, one in which sexual predators are no longer protected by their “tribe” and are not rewarded with high public office.
Well, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Kavanaugh’s appointment shows that we have not built that New World yet. But maybe, after next month’s election? Let’s see. And let's hope.
(Picture from BBC)