Saturday, December 08, 2018

Are We Reverting to a More Primitive Order?

It may be one of the most important, rarely asked questions of the day. Are we reverting to a more primitive order, tribalism, and can liberal democracy survive, or at least remain healthy, if we ignore it?

In the Canadian context, the rise of tribalism has to be considered in the American example, a nation and a society that have succumbed to the tribal contagion.

I've assembled a few essays you might find helpful.

Yale law professor, Amy Chua, penned an op-ed in the New York Times  in February, 2018 entitled, "The Destructive Dynamics of Political Tribalism."

A right wing take is that of Patrick Buchanan in July of this year, "Will Tribalism Trump Democracy?"  Buchanan begins by touching on the rise of tribalism in Israel and Poland.

In The Atlantic in October of this year, Chua joined fellow Yale law professor, Jed Rubenfeld, on "The Threat of Tribalism" in which they question whether America's cherished Constitution itself can withstand the clash of tribal forces.

One of the most helpful is Andrew Sullivan's essay in New York magazine from September of last year, "America Wasn't Built for Humans." Here are a few excerpts from Sullivan's piece:

Over the past couple of decades in America, 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. I don’t just mean the rise of political polarization (although that’s how it often expresses itself), nor the rise of political violence (the domestic terrorism of the late 1960s and ’70s was far worse), nor even this country’s ancient black-white racial conflict (though its potency endures).
I mean a new and compounding combination of all these differences into two coherent tribes, eerily balanced in political power, fighting not just to advance their own side but to provoke, condemn, and defeat the other
I mean two tribes whose mutual incomprehension and loathing can drown out their love of country, each of whom scans current events almost entirely to see if they advance not so much their country’s interests but their own. I mean two tribes where one contains most racial minorities and the other is disproportionately white; where one tribe lives on the coasts and in the cities and the other is scattered across a rural and exurban expanse; where one tribe holds on to traditional faith and the other is increasingly contemptuous of religion altogether; where one is viscerally nationalist and the other’s outlook is increasingly global; where each dominates a major political party; and, most dangerously, where both are growing in intensity as they move further apart.
...Tribalism, it’s always worth remembering, is not one aspect of human experience. It’s the default human experience. It comes more naturally to us than any other way of life. For the overwhelming majority of our time on this planet, the tribe was the only form of human society.
...Tribalism only destabilizes a democracy when it calcifies into something bigger and more intense than our smaller, multiple loyalties; when it rivals our attachment to the nation as a whole; and when it turns rival tribes into enemies. And the most significant fact about American tribalism today is that all three of these characteristics now apply to our political parties, corrupting and even threatening our system of government.
...the world wars acted as great unifiers and integrators. Our political parties became less polarized by race, as the FDR Democrats managed to attract more black voters as well as ethnic and southern whites. By 1956, nearly 40 percent of black voters still backed the GOP. 
But we all know what happened next. The re-racialization of our parties began with Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964, when the GOP lost almost all of the black vote. It accelerated under Nixon’s “southern strategy” in the wake of the civil-rights revolution. By Reagan’s reelection, the two parties began to cohere again into the Civil War pattern, and had simply swapped places.
...By the 2000 election, we were introduced to the red-blue map, though by then we could already recognize the two tribes it identified as they fought to a national draw. Choosing a president under those circumstances caused a constitutional crisis, one the Supreme Court resolved at the expense of losing much of its nonpartisan, nontribal authority.
...The greatest threat to a politician today therefore is less a candidate from the opposing party than a more ideologically extreme primary opponent. The incentives for cross-tribal compromise have been eviscerated, and those for tribal extremism reinforced.
...In the last decade, the gap in Christian identification between Democrats and Republicans has increased by 50 percent. In 2004, 44 percent of Latinos voted Republican for president; in 2016, 29 percent did. Forty-three percent of Asian-Americans voted Republican in 2004; in 2016, 29 percent did. Since 2004, the most populous urban counties have also swung decisively toward the Democrats, in both blue and red states, while rural counties have shifted sharply to the GOP. When three core components of a tribal identity — race, religion, and geography — define your political parties, you’re in serious trouble.
...There is no neutral presidency here, and so when a rank tribalist wins the office and governs almost entirely in the interests of the hardest core of his base, half the country understandably feels as if it were under siege. Our two-party, winner-take-all system only works when both parties are trying to appeal to the same constituencies on a variety of issues.
...To have one tribe dominate another is one thing; to have the tribe that gained fewer votes govern the rest — and be the head of state — is testing political stability. 
What you end up with is zero-sum politics, which drags the country either toward alternating administrations bent primarily on undoing everything their predecessors accomplished, or the kind of gridlock that has dominated national politics for the past seven years — or both. Slowly our political culture becomes one in which the two parties see themselves not as participating in a process of moving the country forward, sometimes by tilting to the right and sometimes to the left, as circumstances permit, alternating in power, compromising when in opposition, moderating when in government — but one where the goal is always the obliteration of the other party by securing a permanent majority, in an unending process of construction and demolition.
...One of the great attractions of tribalism is that you don’t actually have to think very much. All you need to know on any given subject is which side you’re on. You pick up signals from everyone around you, you slowly winnow your acquaintances to those who will reinforce your worldview, a tribal leader calls the shots, and everything slips into place. After a while, your immersion in tribal loyalty makes the activities of another tribe not just alien but close to incomprehensible.
...George Orwell famously defined this mind-set as identifying yourself with a movement, “placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” It’s typified, he noted, by self-contradiction and indifference to reality.
... Tribalism is not a static force. It feeds on itself. It appeals on a gut level and evokes emotions that are not easily controlled and usually spiral toward real conflict. And there is no sign that the deeper forces that have accelerated this — globalization, social atomization, secularization, media polarization, ever more multiculturalism — will weaken. The rhetorical extremes have already been pushed further than most of us thought possible only a couple of years ago, and the rival camps are even more hermetically sealed. In 2015, did any of us anticipate that neo-Nazis would be openly parading with torches on a college campus or that antifa activists would be proudly extolling violence as the only serious response to the Trump era?
Sullivan, of course, writes of America, a two-party state, yet one of the scourges of multi-party Canada is our first-past-the-post electoral system that reduces our government to a de facto two-party reality. In America, he notes, "half the country understandably feels as if it were under siege." What of Canada where it's far worse, where three out of five voters wind up not feeling, but knowing, they are under siege? What democracy is there then?

A party that gains a powerful majority based on receiving not quite two out of five votes, does that not challenge our political stability? That party doesn't govern with the consent of the electorate. It can only rule, its very legitimacy a pretence.

We are not America, not remotely, but we are drawing closer. We do have tribalists on both sides who depict anyone not of their own as evil or "ghastly" and agitate for their obliteration, securing a permanent majority.

I don't believe that democracy is secure in our House of Commons any longer. Ask yourself where would we be without the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and an intellectually honest Supreme Court of Canada? How many times did Harper attempt to flout the Charter to transform Canada, on the strength of another false majority, into something he boasted we would not recognize? It wasn't the Liberals who stopped Harper. It was our laws and our courts.

I hope these excerpts from Sullivan's essay will pique your interest enough to read the entire piece. It's well worth your time.  The op-eds of Yale profs Chau and Rubenfeld are in my view "must reads" and even the right wing perspective of Patrick Buchanan offers genuine food for thought.


Toby said...

Marshall McLuhan Predicted Digital-Mediated Tribalism

This is not new but it is very worrisome. Will the US end up with 50 separate States without the United? Will Canada split into 5 or 6 regions? Fifty years ago there was talk in intellectual circles that Canada should be administrated as the Maritimes, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies, BC and the Northern Territories. I doubt that either scenario will come to pass but there is going to be a rough ride.

Trailblazer said...

The USA never forgot it's Puritan beginnings.
The religious right have been influential if only by stealth since they arrived in the Americas.
Let us not forget that, from day one, the USA exported it's ideals and woe betide those that did not easily succumb.

Canada has , so far, been able to avoid much of USA interference and let's hope it stays that way.

re, digital mediated tribalism.
I find that Post Media publications are the most divisive news outlet within Canada and are worthy of the 'Cleeks law' description.

Why we find ourselves at this point is hard to say.
perhaps we have a subconscious aversion to unpleasant facts such as population explosion and anthropological global warming!
Tribalism/Religion helps relieve us of those burdens.


the salamander said...

.. read the Sullivan essay with great interest, Mound. Merci

Found it informative though flawed. Great lookback at various admins.. many of which were vaguely competant at administering the USA. Somehow, he gifts the catastrophic Trump reality & ongoing GOP malignancy.. after examination.. with what seems an odd 'bill of health'.

Hell, Mound.. if my GP laid that level of fallacy on me.. after even a cursory lookover.. I'd hurt myself laughing.. ask for a drug prescription of what he was mainlining.

Trump is at best, an intestinal parasite.. and always has been. The very bowels of the land of the free & the home of the brave are a rotting malignancy.. and metastisizing as we watch. The tapeworm Trump will depart either orally.. analy via the rectum or via abdominal surgery - Dr Mueller lead surgeon.. with a shovel & stainless steel pail. Electoral honesty, veracity ? On life support. Goons like Gingrich & Hannity patrol the intensive media care wards. Mitch McConnell stupervises the judicial electrotherapy rabbit hole. Kushner is saving Israel.. Ivanka is re-inventing the woman's purse or sitting in on high level tactical nuclear weaponry sessions. Don Jr huddles with lawyers who lunch with Manfort and Cohen lawyers.. who golf at Mar the Lego

The walking dead el president was found to be in fine health.. zero pulse or brain activity .. but highly refined motor skills in fingers & strong life signs re girning, grinning, posturing posing.. in short - healthy example of Potemkin cardboard, placed by the Potomac, hugging the stars & stripes.. for all to see, by the dawn's early light.. Its great eh

The Mound of Sound said...

Sal, I had the same reservations when I first read Sullivan's piece. Then I remembered the date of the article: September, 2017. It wasn't long after that when Sullivan changed his opinion on Trump and came to see that guy as most now do. He's a regular guest on Bill Maher's show and I've not seen him defend Trump for a very long time.

The Mound of Sound said...

Trailblazer, the US never understood the reality of its Puritan origins. They cling to ghosts of self-serving delusion. The Puritans, for example, came to America to seek religious freedom. Few know how that translated into intolerance of all other religions. They had jails for non-Puritans.

Much of America's origins are laundered out of the national narrative - and for good reason.

Trailblazer said...

The Puritans were the born again evangelists of their day.
Whilst laying low, now and again, since Reagan they have gained control of the American narrative.
That is as phoney as it is.


Tal Hartsfeld said...

We've always had Tribalism:
.....generation gaps, neighborhoods defined by race/economic/educational class, country clubs, the different professions/occupations and the arcane knowledge known only by their practitioners, the gap between those in-charge and the minions under their command/direction (teachers/students, bosses/employees, officers/enlisted, government/citizens), fraternities/sororities, political parties, religions, ethnic groups.

Even the quintessential family itself is a kind of "shadow government" if one stops to think about it.
Then again, to someone like me even fraternities and sororities, different neighborhoods (especially ghettos and suburbia), professional class people, working class people, authorities, business communities, even the homeless, come across as "shadow governments".

Tal Hartsfeld said...

...oh, and I forgot to mention the media (all of them: radio, television, movies, newspapers, news organizations, magazines) also comes across as a "shadow government" to me as well.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi, Tal. I think the point is, not that there hasn't always been an element of tribalism in many aspects of modern life, there hasn't been tribalism on such a "Lord of the Flies" scale.

Anonymous said...

Religious people are all into tribalism...go to any church and observe.