Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Thoughts About American Tribalism

I have just returned this past weekend from the annual conference of the International Studies Association. For scholars like me who study international politics in a systematic way, this is the largest gathering every year - a way to see people we interact the rest of the year only in writing, to meet new faces and get exposed to new ideas. It is a collective expression of a scientific community trying to figure out the world - often raucously and discordantly, although there are some things that the community agrees strongly on.

This year's conference got me thinking about tribalism, in part because:

• I tend to think about tribes a lot anyway (search this blog for the "tribalism" label to see a lot of my past stuff)

• The community of ISA scholars constitutes, in many ways, a tribe of its own, with various sub-tribes embedded therein

• The national (United States) conversation about immigration is really a conversation about who is "us" and who is "them" and how "us" should treat "them" (with the answer to the latter question, far too often, being "badly")

• I am reading Jonathan Haidt's work The Righteous Mind, which has an extensive discussion of how "groupish" humans are and why

• There is an underlying tribalism within the United States that worries me greatly, and which I think almost no one is dealing with very well (or at all) right now

This last point is what concerns me most. The specific issues we're arguing about at the national level - immigration, the role of the press, foreign policy, tax policy, and many more - are all suffused with a tribal divide. To put it plainly: there is no longer any room in our national conversation for Americans, only for tribes within America that each regard the other as an existential threat.

I see this mostly from the Left side of the divide, because that's where most of my social contacts have their home. There is plenty of opposition to Trump (reasonably so - every President faces opposition) and other individuals in his administration. This opposition seems reasonable, even obvious, to those who share it. It also seems treasonous to the most committed folks on the Right.

I suspect that there is a similar dynamic on the Right, though I don't see as much of it myself (again, most of my friends are on the Left). Polling data suggests that there is a committed core of folks who view Trump's actions so far as positive, who were excited by his electoral win and his inauguration, and who view the opposition to Trump's appointments and pronouncements with deep suspicion if not outright hatred. The Left, in turn, wonders if these same people are going to take over everything and destroy our democracy.

These groups of people seem to inhabit very different worlds - not only in social circles, but in the very reality they see. One side sees a massively dysfunctional government careening back and forth between evil and unprecedented incompetence. The other sees a hero battling valiantly against the forces he campaigned against. Even basic facts have become a matter of partisan identity. And everywhere, people are convinced that if Their Side doesn't win, it will spell the end of our civilization as we know it.

To say that this is bad is a massive understatement. To borrow from Abraham Lincoln, a house divided against itself cannot stand. Unlike in 1858, we can't even sort ourselves into states on different sides of a contiguous line - we are more like Yugoslavia in 1990, intermixed in geography but inhabiting separate nations. I recognize that neither of these historical analogies ends particularly well for the people involved.

Last night President Trump gave a speech to Congress that was widely hailed, at least in the mainstream, as being very different from his first month of governing. And in truth he did call for bipartisan cooperation in Congress - though cooperation in service to his agenda and his ideas. In this, he did what every other President before him has done. He did not address the real divide among us, a divide he has done much to increase.

A part of my participation in last week's ISA conference involved chairing a discussion of a recent book, Nationalist Passions, written by my friend Stuart Kaufman. Stuart looked at a number of different societies with significantly diverse ethnic and identity groups - some that had gone down the road of violent conflict, some which had suffered through dysfunctional politics, and some which had managed to operate with normal political systems despite significant differences across their populations.

Stuart's advice for today's divide in America? Surprisingly (given the decidedly liberal bent in the room), he said that we should acknowledge diversity but we should celebrate what we have in common. We need to stop emphasizing our differences, and instead hold highest that which binds us together.

This is what our entire national conversation seems incapable of doing, on both the Left and the Right. Nothing that President Trump has said, even last night when he was being "reasonable", has suggested that he has any vision for what binds Americans together or what we might have in common. Nor have any national politicians, either on the Left or the Right, made this kind of claim. Everyone is backed into their corner playing defense and lashing out at the other side.

This is a question largely separate from the very real debates we are having over particular issues: immigration policy, terrorism and national defense, education, health care. All of those, bombastic rhetoric aside, are routine arguments we have perennially. They are things about which we should be expected to disagree.

Part of the reason why these debates feel different from previous iterations is the lack of a "center" - not centrist positions (those do exist, though these days they are rare), but a central touchpoint which we all agree exists and which connects us all to each other. In my view, we have reached the point where there isn't one. We are no longer "one nation", under God or otherwise. We are not one out of many. Pluribus has overtaken unum.

My work, and that of many much smarter scholars, on identity-driven conflicts suggests that there is no easy road back from here. Some of our work suggests that there may not be a road back at all. Violence and attacks have so far been limited mostly to threats and vandalism against minority groups that have been subjected to such things before (recently in particular, Jews but also foreigners). The more violence there is, and the more separated the sides become, the harder and harder it will be for any kind of reunification. What happens when somebody gets attacked for being a Hillary supporter? (Oh, wait - that has already happened...)

At this point, we cannot look to our leaders - neither Republicans nor Democrats, not Trump nor Pelosi nor Ryan nor Schumer - to provide us a way out. The President and members of Congress all have more immediate agendas for shaping legislation and influencing policy. Each will call for "Unity!" when it serves their purposes, and they will sow division when that works better. The health of the US body politic as a whole is too big, too distant, too easily put off into the future to make it onto their radar screens.

Unfortunately, as I have pointed out before, we have a tendency to expect our Presidents to solve all of our problems. Almost always, they can't - think of the hopes placed on Obama to bring racial healing (and who better positioned to do it?) President Trump has done his best to pour gasoline on our fires of division, so there is no hope there.

The problem, I think, is not just that we expect our Presidents to do things they can't. It's that we don't believe that we can do anything ourselves. But this is one problem that only ordinary Americans will be able to solve. Community leaders can help, if they are people who care more about bringing us together as a people than about getting their way. Look for these people where you live. If you don't find one, become one.

How do we do this? Talk to each other. Not argue on the internet, not get into Twitter fights. Talk with real people, about our real lives - our whole lives. Listen. A lot. Find the common ground, and celebrate it when you do. Decide that our relationships with one another are more important than winning this or that point.

This doesn't mean you can't call your Congressman, or join in a march, or write letters to the editor, or vote for your favorite candidate. All of those things, and many more, are good things to do. It does mean that as we do them, we should try to take care not to contribute any more to our widening divisions. We can be honest in our views, but we shouldn't be snarky. We can be open about how we see the world without disrespecting those who see it differently. How we do things is, as I have argued so many times before, ultimately far more important than what we do, because the How has a much greater impact over time than the What.

Tonight I join with millions of fellow Christians around the world in the celebration of Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent. Lent has historically been a season of penitence, of introspection, and of discipline in preparation for renewal. Whatever our faiths, our theologies, and our beliefs, it seems like now is a good time for these things.

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