In 2017, the tug of tribalism grew stronger

Jerry Adler
Senior Editor

Among the unheralded winners of 2017 are political scientists, some of whom could spend the rest of their careers trying to explain Donald Trump’s rise and significance. Two of them, Michael Barber and Jeremy C. Pope of Brigham Young University, saw in Trump’s ever-shifting, ideologically flexible views “a unique opportunity” to test a crucial question in American politics: “To which do people give a higher priority: their ideology or their partisan affiliation?” They ask, Why is it that Republicans, self-described defenders of American values and interests, “became four times more likely to view Vladimir Putin favorably” from 2014 to 2016? What changed is that the Republican Party nominated someone who boasted about the mutual admiration he shared with the Russian dictator, illustrating Barber and Pope’s finding that “group loyalty” and “social identity” are more important in shaping voters’ views than their professed ideology.

Another term for “social identity” is “tribalism,” a word that has appeared in more than 60 articles in the New York Times so far in 2017, almost all in relation to American politics or culture. (It showed up just six times in the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, including two references to American Indian tribes and one to an indigenous ethnic group in Venezuela.) As James Fallows wrote in the Atlantic, there are any number of synonyms for “tribe,” including “clique,” “pack,” and James Madison’s preferred term, in Federalist #10, “faction.” But “tribal” conveys a kind of blinkered, inbred loyalty that seems especially apt when applied to, say, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, whose babbling, content-free defenses of Trump led MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough to ban her from his show, or former CNN commentator Jeffrey Lord, who described Trump as “the Martin Luther King of health care.”

In this context, “tribalism” has two somewhat overlapping meanings.

One is the phenomenon Barber and Pope describe: the growing tendency to see politics as a zero-sum game between diametrically opposed teams, in which loyalty to one’s side is more important than the national interest, or even, at times, one’s own career. Writing in New York magazine this fall, Andrew Sullivan described how “the enduring, complicated divides of ideology, geography, party, class, religion, and race have mutated into something deeper, simpler to map, and therefore much more ominous… two coherent tribes, eerily balanced in political power, fighting not just to advance their own side but to provoke, condemn, and defeat the other.”

Again and again over the last year and a half, the tug of tribal loyalty has kept most Republicans in line with a president they privately, or even publicly, admit is dishonest, inept and erratic to the point of posing a threat of nuclear war. Party loyalty has led congressional Republicans to slow-walk their own investigations into allegations of Russian interference in last year’s election. It brought Republicans to the point of voting for a hugely unpopular tax bill, and many observers gleefully, or fearfully, predict they will pay a price for it next November. Barber, quoted in the Times, said that a large corporate tax cut “isn’t really an ideological priority for much of the rank and file” of the Republican Party, but “if it means that their side has ‘won,’ then they are in favor of it. More broadly, I think it shows us that teamsmanship is much more important than any particular policy agenda.”

Most religions, even those that aspire to universality, are susceptible to tribal appeals.  The loyalty to Trump shown by evangelical Christian leaders such as Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. has led to a growing crisis of confidence among evangelicals, especially younger ones who don’t want their church to serve as an adjunct to a political movement led by a man they wouldn’t invite into their own homes.

This is not a character flaw unique to one party. As Barber and Pope remark in a footnote, “We believe that given a different scenario that similar stories could be told about Democratic attitudes as well.” If Republicans who during the Clinton years considered personal morality an essential attribute in a president have changed their minds under Trump … well, some prominent Democrats have gone in the opposite direction. Nor is this situation inherent in American democracy. It wasn’t always the case that major votes in Congress were decided along strict party lines. For much of the last century, both parties spanned more than half the ideological spectrum, with considerable overlap in the middle. There were pro-civil-rights Republicans and Democrats who were hawks on Vietnam; legislators may or may not have had stronger consciences in those years, but they evidently felt freer to follow them. Congressional leaders in that era were expected to at least pay lip service to the idea that their policies were advancing the national interest rather than narrow partisan advantage. It’s hard to imagine one saying, as Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell famously did in 2010, that “our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term,” which committed him to automatically opposing anything Obama proposed. It’s not that hard to imagine Nancy Pelosi saying, and certainly thinking, something similar about Trump.

But political parties are “tribes” only in a metaphorical sense; there is another meaning to “tribalism” that cuts much closer to the bone. That is the spread of ethno-nationalism, the polite term for “racism,” which burst into the public consciousness with the tramp of marchers in a torchlight parade through Charlottesville, Va., in August. White supremacy, long thought to have been banished from American public life, came back to life in 2017 in the guise of protecting monuments to the Confederacy, drawing energy from the anti-immigrant rants of Trump and his acolytes. “You will not replace us,” the Charlottesville marchers chanted, with a subliminal, and at times explicit, substitution of “Jew” for “You.” 

In his new collection of essays, “We Were Eight Years in Power,” Ta-Nehisi Coates calls Trump “the first white president”: the first whose election — coming after Barak Obama’s two terms — was a specific affirmation of white supremacy, rather than a routine perpetuation of it. Coates proceeds to reject any explanation for the 2016 vote that does not rely on racial identity, such as white working-class dissatisfaction, which he treats as a lazy journalistic trope that obscures the racial biases of Trump’s voters. This analysis — and the passionate dissents to it – are likely to influence political commentary for years to come, assuring that 2017 will go down in history as, among other unfortunate distinctions, the Year of Tribalism.


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