Tribalism: opportunity and challenge

It seems to be generally agreed that public affairs go better when the two national political parties each contain a mixture of views, so that Congresses and Presidents can find common ground. At present, however, the parties are highly polarized and unable to agree on many important matters, sometimes including even the value of the non-military aspects of government.
Pundits usually attribute polarization to both the Republican and the Democratic parties, as though each has moved toward its most extreme positions.[1] Actually, however, the Democrats have gotten more moderate. Those leaders now called radical, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, remain clear supporters of free enterprise. They aim to civilize it, not replace it. Even Sanders’ self-proclaimed “socialism” seems more nostalgic nod to youthful radicalism than identification with socialist political philosophy.
The Republican Party, on the other hand, has greatly changed. Although it still advocates business’s interests, a Party descended from Abraham Lincoln has discarded that legacy and in recent decades has advocated few rights apart from that to bear arms. It now bases its popular appeal on what I would call tribalism.
Tribalism is a political stance based on dividing people into “us” and “them” tribes (white/black, native/alien, believers/secularists, pro/con guns, Christian/Moslem, etc.), and giving political priority to opposing “them.” Periodically this tribalism emerges in American politics, and in recent years a rising tide of fear and anger has galvanized tribalists into fervent and far-reaching political action, largely within the Republican Party. They now outstrip even business interests in selecting Republican candidates. Their candidates almost uniformly profess the uncompromising ideological views that this tribalist “base” demands.
Two relatively recent developments largely explain tribalism’s current power within the Party.
The first is Richard Nixon’s famous “southern strategy” that capitalized on southern white hostility to President Johnson’s civil rights measures. By supporting sympathetic political candidates, the Republican Party attracted many former southern Democrats, turned the former Confederate states Republican, and allowed traditional southern tribalism to shape the Party’s ideology and programs.
In recent decades, a second and more currently powerful development has been the stagnation of employment compensation. Although liberals have noted this stagnation, the inequality that preoccupies recent liberal thought misdirects Democrats’ attention: it is not the income gap between employees and the wealthy that causes growing fear, anger, and disappointment, but rather the economic misery and hopelessness that stagnation has brought to millions of families.
In reality, the stagnation of employee compensation is not solely a US phenomenon. Rather, the stagnation rests largely on two global developments that both Republicans and Democrats have welcomed: free trade and high tech.
In classical economic theory, free trade stimulates sales and reduces costs, increasing prosperity. During the post-war period that ran into the 1970’s, increasing prosperity was widely shared, raising real wages. Free traders assumed “trickle down” would continue.
But rarely have the benefits of recent free trade advances like NAFTA and market-opening agreements with China and other countries “trickled down.” Rather, with new technologies like computers, speedy and extensive communications, and automation these trade agreements have instead exposed US employees to the international labor market. Consequently, some employees have lost jobs to automation and offshoring; many have seen their compensation plateau or decline due to competition with international wage rates; and most live in fear of job loss or wage reduction.
Absent appropriate solutions from Democrats haring after inequality, Republican candidates who specialize in scapegoating and simplistic, mean-spirited solutions gain traction with those who regard their family incomes as the most serious problem they face. Hence global trends toward free trade and high technology have reinforced the deliberate recourse to tribalism that Nixon’s southern strategy took.
What does the Republican Party’s turn toward tribalism mean for the future and for the Democrats?
Republicans: Both the business and the tribalist wings present some legitimate grievances. Many who support Republican candidates because of employment and compensation problems want the current stagnation reversed. And the business wing wants regulations simplified or eliminated, presenting example after example of ridiculous, unjust, incompetent, or counterproductive ones. But the widespread Republican distrust of government hampers them from offering workable solutions. Instead, both wings offer ideology: Tribalists would attack disfavored minorities, enact theological precepts, and disregard conflicting Constitutional rights. The business wing pledges fealty to long discredited laissez-faire and economic concepts while disregarding corporate malfeasance. And both want tax cuts regardless of consequences, while demanding foreign policies based on the early and frequent use of vastly expensive military force.
Democrats: The flawed concepts underlying national Republican policies mean that the Republican appeal to many of its voters is rather shallow. If the Democrats shelve their current preoccupation with inequality and focus on policies that would, without significantly harming prosperity, allow employees to share in it, while offering business a serious commitment to regulatory simplification, they may well attract independents and parts of the current Republican constituency. But if they fail to do these things, Republican demagoguery could prevail. And given the concepts they espouse, this would be a catastrophe for the nation and the world.

[1] This attribution applies, not to all who identify with the parties, most of whom probably do so more from tradition than considered conviction, but to those who shape the parties’ ideologies and policy positions.

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