Sunday, June 24, 2018 at 8:49 AM

Tribalism and Dysfunction of American Politics

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

Here in part is how The Economist explained this tribalism and dysfunction in a recent issue (on May 24) under the heading “The primeval tribalism of American Politics.”

No longer able to fathom how their partisan rivals can hear, and also see, think and say the things they do, Americans are increasingly liable to consider them lesser beings. …

No wonder Republicans and Democrats cannot bring themselves to make the compromises upon which the healthy functioning of American democracy depends.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this has everything to do with the black-swan phenomenon that is the Trump presidency. But you’d be wrong.

After all, I’ve been lamenting this descent into tribalism and dysfunction for years. In fact, party orthodoxy had already become so toxic six years ago that even the notion of compromise among Republicans was tantamount to political heresy. Here is how I decried this in “The Will of the American People? Really?” July 11, 2012.


No less a person than Speaker John Boehner betrayed their new jihadist approach to politics just weeks after Republicans won control of the House in November 2010.

He did so during the December 12, 2010, edition of 60 Minutes, when Leslie Stahl stated that ‘surely governing means compromising,’ and then asked why he was so unwilling to say that he and the Republicans would be willing to compromise with Obama and the Democrats. Boehner replied:

‘We are doing the will of the American people. As for compromise, I utterly reject the word.’

This, in a nutshell, explains why we’ve been treated over the past two years to the spectacle of Washington gridlock over every piece of legislation, including those merely extending policies Republicans once supported.


That said, it’s arguable that this tribalism and dysfunction led inexorably to the election of Donald J. Trump. And there’s certainly no gainsaying that he exacerbates both every time he opens his potty mouth.

Indeed, the causes for lamentation in this regard have been unprecedented, so much so that one had to look to perennial schisms elsewhere for guidance. I found mine in the sectarian conflict Sunnis and Shias have been (and still are) waging for the soul of Islam – as I did here:

This is just the latest front in the political warfare Republicans and Democrats are now waging, which is beginning to ape the religious warfare Sunnis and Shias have been waging for over a thousand years. And I fully appreciate the cycle of vengeance that is motivating Democrats to do to Trump’s nominee what Republicans did to Obama’s.

(“Nomination of Gorsuch to Supreme Court Affirms Politicization of Judiciary,” The iPINIONS Journal, February 2, 2017)

And here:

Political tribalism is tearing America apart. And Trump’s presidency smacks of a demonic force designed to have Republicans and Democrats ape the Sunnis and Shias who have been fighting for the soul of Islam for over 1000 years.

(“Trump’s Insulting Tweet about Doug Jones, the Alabama Democratic Nominee, Reveals More about Trump,” The iPINIONS Journal, November 26, 2017)

The most obvious consequence of this tribalism and dysfunction has been the inability of Congress to enact meaningful legislation. But the most obvious feature has been the coarsening and dumbing down of public debate.

Nothing betrays the latter quite like the way so many erstwhile respectable people – from pastors to actors – are objecting to Trump’s debasing of public discourse by debasing public discourse themselves.

Only this explains Robert De Niro taking to the stage at the Tony Awards earlier this month and blurting out, in Tourette-like fashion, “F*ck Trump!” Unsurprisingly, the assembled members of his tribe gave him a rousing round of applause as they all reveled in their echo chamber. And only this explains Peter Fonda tweeting last week that someone should kidnap and rape Trump’s son Baron to show Trump how cruel separating immigrant children from their parents is. #TwoWrongs…?

In her critically acclaimed book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations (2018), Amy Chua of the Yale Law School argues that American exceptionalism will help Republicans and Democrats bridge the tribal divisions that have plunged countries like Iraq and Syria into internecine warfare. Further, that at the center of this exceptionalism is the harmonizing concept of the American Dream.

Except that – from the Civil War of the 1860s to the race riots of the 1960s – history teaches that this center cannot hold. In fact, I fear the divisions that gave rise to those conflicts will pale in comparison to looming divisions, which the browning and Islamising of America portend.

This is why the proverb of the Tower of Babel might serve as a more instructive precedent. Here is how staff at the Bible Study Tool explained it on their site on February 11, 2016:

The Babylonians wanted a tower that would ‘reach to the heavens’ so that they could be like God and that they would not need Him. …

God did not like the pride and arrogance in the hearts of the people. God caused the people to suddenly speak different languages so they could not communicate and work together to build the tower.

And here is my takeaway:

  • Pride and prejudice are motivating Trump and his supporters to execute their America First policies. This is no different from the pride and arrogance that motivated the Babylonians to build their tower.
  • Trump declares that he alone can fix all that is wrong (not just with America but the entire world) and boasts about never asking God for anything, let alone forgiveness. This is no different from the Babylonians thinking they no longer needed Him.
  • Everyone agrees that the tribalism of American politics is leading to increasingly combustible animus and dysfunction. This is no different from tribalism of Babylonian languages that blew that ancient kingdom asunder.

We are already being treated to the balkanizing spectacle of members of the nationalists/Republican tribe being heckled at and kicked out of restaurants that belong to members of the resistance/Democratic tribe. I fear this is only a small indication of things to come (e.g., like the Department of Justice moving to execute Trump’s clarion call to lock up his political opponents and critics alike; you know, the way his pal Putin has his minions do in Russia).

In the meantime, Trump and the enabling members of his tribe are normalizing all kinds of uncivil and unseemly behavior in American politics. And, as De Niro and Fonda indicate, members of the opposing tribe seem determined to react in kind.

Perhaps, like far too many Americans, you interact online only with people who share and reinforce your political views. But just imagine the dystopia offline if we all began basing personal, professional, and social relationships on party affiliation.

And, if your religious bias compels you to dismiss my Sunni-Shia precedent, consider “The Troubles” that beset Northern Ireland for decades. That schism had nationalists/Catholics and unionists/Protestants aping their Muslim brothers … until they came to their senses with the Good Friday Agreement.

In any event, as Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, famously warned:

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

NOTE: The name Amy Chua should be familiar to you – even if you can’t quite place it. She gained international acclaim in 2011 for her bestselling book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I was so impressed that I commented in “More Mothers Should Be Tiger Mothers,” January 21, 2011.

Related commentaries:
black swan election
Will of the American people
Nomination of Gorsuch
Trump’s insulting tweet
Hagel confirmation
separating immigrant children
dumbing down of American politics
Tiger mother

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.

My Books

VFC Painting


Subscribe via Email

Powered by FeedBlitz