Opinion: It’s time to abandon tribalist American politics

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“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

George Washington, 1796

Over 200 years ago in his farewell address, President George Washington warned his fellow countrymen about the dangers of political parties. He described them as a weapon that could destroy the democracy that he went to war to build and eventually lead. Washington acknowledged the fact that humans have the innate tendency to group with individuals that have the same goals. It’s a basic fact of survival that a larger group that works together will have a better chance of survival. 

Even though political parties create a sense of oneness, they have the opportunity to be a mechanism to create a singular opinion that is blindly followed by millions. That seems like something out of a George Orwell novel, wherein a person or group of people dictate how every person will think. 

However, the reality of the American political atmosphere is eerily approaching something out of a book. The rise of tribalism in American politics, unless it is stopped, will be catastrophic, just like Washington warned.

Tribalism is the extreme loyalty towards one’s group that creates subsequent behavior and attitudes. A lesser version of tribalism in American politics has, in a sense, always been there. The two-party system is designed to have a separation in ideological stances. When there are only two major parties present, their stances are opposites of each other most of the time. 

That is not the problem. Peaceful political discourse and discussion are good for the republic and help the country. The problem is that recent political rhetoric has shifted to hateful contempt for anyone that disagrees with you. 

The animosity that each political party feels for the other is well documented in America. A PEW research study from 1994 to 2017 shows how large this shift has been. In 1994, 17 percent of Republicans had a very unfavorable view of the Democratic Party, while 14 percent of Democrats had a very unfavorable view of the Republican Party. Twenty years ago, the vast majority of each political party did not detest their peers in the opposite party. There was an acknowledgment of separation on core values of belief but not to the point where it was weaponized. 

In 2017, 45 percent of Republicans had a very unfavorable view of the Democratic Party, while 44 percent of Democrats had a very unfavorable view of the Republican Party. In about two decades, the very unfavorable view for each party has tripled or nearly tripled. The extreme resentment for the opposition is a result of the divide in political thought increasing. As we grow farther apart on issues, the more disagreements on issues turn into contempt for each other.

In the same PEW research study, they rated each party using a scale of 10 political values. In 1994, 64 percent of Republicans were more conservative on the issues than the average Democrat. Meanwhile, 70 percent of Democrats were more liberal on the issues than the average Republican. In 2017, 95 percent of Republicans were more conservative than the average Democrat, while 97 percent of Democrats are more liberal than the average Republican. 

This explains why the tension between the two parties has increased exponentially over the last two decades. As both parties progress towards each extreme, they alienate the opposite side. The alienation of each other results in an atmosphere where we do not see each other as peers but instead as enemies. The fear of the other is ingrained into humanity and was a mechanism for primitive survival. The fear of the other, as a result, sends people running back into the arms of the other extreme because there is no other option.  

The concept of being American has been lost recently and replaced by something dangerous: that the political party you support defines who you are. There is increasingly becoming no middle ground. Issues that had bi-partisan support 30 years ago are becoming strictly partisan. Instead of reaching across the aisle to work with their peers, politicians are doing the opposite. 

There are vivid, graphic images that speak to this. Nancy Pelosi ripping up her copy of Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address in front of the whole country only enflamed the rhetoric of “us vs them.” President Trump, Speaker Pelosi and (at the time) Senate Minority Leader Schumer getting into a yelling match in the Oval Office on national television over border security is another example.

Frankly, childish behavior like this helps no one. When the political leaders of both parties decide to demonize and vilify the opposition, they are setting the standard of behavior for the whole party.

The effect of the divide in our country goes beyond party lines. You cannot disagree with your “political tribe” without fear of being condemned, canceled or removed from the party. There is no opportunity to recommend something new unless it conforms with the agenda of the majority. This groupthink does not allow for each political party to grow and become better. The voices of reason and compromise are quickly disappearing in each political party. 

The examples of this are becoming more and more frequent. That could be Liz Cheney being censured by the Wyoming GOP for voting to impeach President Trump. Or when Joe Biden was attacked in the Democratic primaries for saying he wanted to work with Republicans on legislation. 

Each of these is an example of an action that should have been seen as normal, appropriate behavior by an elected official. They were portrayed as radical sympathizers instead. The reality is clear – people think that you must either be totally with us or totally against us. Disregarding half of the United States does not create a viable situation for our democracy to survive.

The Trump presidency has put this sentiment at the forefront of attention. The former President accused anyone, even his fellow Republicans, of being un-American for disagreeing with him. Still, Trump is not the problem or reason for the divide in our country. His behavior is most definitely a symptom but not the cause of this disease. 

We have been growing more and more divided long before the real estate mogul entered the Republican primary in 2015. Still, it was a tribalistic culture that got Trump elected. The “us vs. them” mentality is what Trump championed while he ran for office. His strategy worked perfectly in a society where our politicians see their greatest enemy as their co-workers on Capitol Hill.

“So let us not be petty when our cause is so great. Let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our Nation’s future is at stake.”

President John F Kennedy

President Kennedy’s planned speech for the Texas Democratic Committee on the day of his assassination should be read over and over again by every American. His words still resonate after 60 years. Tribalism and the growing divide between Americans are dangerous. An “us vs. them” mentality will always divide us, and it will divide us when we need to unite more than anything. We as a country have to work together because our future is at stake. 

The solution starts at the top and it will take more courage than most politicians have to muster. It will take a group of individuals that will set aside their party affiliation and work with their peers. They are not abandoning their values and beliefs but instead doing something noble. They will have to re-introduce something that has long been forgotten in American political rhetoric – civility and respect.

A single political party or track of beliefs does not have the answers for life after COVID-19, or how to preserve freedom as evil adversaries continually grow in might and influence, or even how to tackle our national debt that grows more and more daunting daily. If a political party had these answers or other solutions to problems, there would not be such a divide. The only way that the best solutions can be born is through joint discussions and, when necessary, arguments. There will be disagreements, but civil disagreements give birth to long-lasting solutions. 

The goal is to build a more perfect union for every American, it is not to build a more perfect union for those you agree with. The first step in this endeavor is acknowledging that this perfect union must be built by Americans, not Democrats or Republicans. It is up to us to do this – our generation. Like Benjamin Franklin said, “We have a Republic, if we can keep it.”

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