Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A "New Tribalism?"

A “New Tribalism?”
P. Schultz
March 26, 2014

            Below is a link to an article written by Robert Reich in which he argues that the world and the United States is experiencing what he calls “a new tribalism.” That is, after several hundred years of nationalism, where the world has been controlled by what are called “nations,” the world is “coming apart,” as it were, and apparently returning to the tribal stage which had preceded the nationalistic stage. For Reich, apparently, this is not good.

            Whether it is good or not is not the first question Reich’s argument raises. The first question is or should be: Is Reich’s take on what is happening correct? I will not deal with the world but with the United States because I am connected with the U.S. in a way that I am not connected with the world.

            Reich argues as follows:
But America’s new tribalism can be seen most distinctly in its politics. Nowadays the members of one tribe (calling themselves liberals, progressives, and Democrats) hold sharply different views and values than the members of the other (conservatives, Tea Partiers, and Republicans).

Each tribe has contrasting ideas about rights and freedoms (for liberals, reproductive rights and equal marriage rights; for conservatives, the right to own a gun and do what you want with your property).
Each has its own totems (social insurance versus smaller government) and taboos (cutting entitlements or raising taxes). Each, its own demons (the Tea Party and Ted Cruz; the Affordable Care Act and Barack Obama); its own version of truth (one believes in climate change and evolution; the other doesn’t); and its own media that confirm its beliefs.

The tribes even look different. One is becoming blacker, browner, and more feminine. The other, whiter and more male. (Only 2 percent of Mitt Romney’s voters were African-American, for example.)

Each tribe is headed by rival warlords whose fighting has almost brought the national government in Washington to a halt. Increasingly, the two tribes live separately in their own regions – blue or red state, coastal or mid-section, urban or rural – with state or local governments reflecting their contrasting values.

            Where to begin? Let me start at the end, where Reich argues that “rival warlords” have brought “the national government…to a halt….” Well, now, let’s see: Obama managed to pass his Affordable Care Act, has managed to continue to wage war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has successfully defeated John Boehner and the Republicans on increasing the debt ceiling, to name just a few things that have been accomplished. I am sure there are more as well. Some “halt,” no?

            But what does this mean? Well, it means that whatever is happening in D.C., it should not be described as the work of “rival warlords,” unless of course these “warlords” are known to share a common interest in limiting but not halting government action. And it seems to me that this is precisely what is happening in D.C. Amidst a population that is, rightfully, angered by what it sees as a political class more interested in its own welfare than the welfare of the nation, that political class is trying to maintain its power and prerogatives. Of course, that class cannot say that is its agenda, as it has to say that it, like the people, is interested in “reform.” So, one course of action is to act as if “the political system is broken,” as if that system were like an automobile which could and should be understood as distinct from those driving it. How to convince the people that the system is “broken?” Well, pretend that there are two principled sects, whose principles don’t allow for compromise or for real or significant reforms. This way the status quo, by and large, and is preserved, significant reforms are avoided for the most part, and the current political class preserves its power and prerogatives.

            Note should be taken that almost every single issue that Reich mentions is amenable to compromise, should our political class want “to fix” the system. That list includes reproductive rights, equal marriage rights, gun ownership, property rights, social insurance and small government, cutting entitlements and raising taxes, addressing climate change, and immigration. There is very little here that forces politicians to repair to principles in a way that makes reform impossible. In fact, almost everything on this list has been dealt with in the past as almost all political issues are dealt with, via negotiation and compromise. No one I know of, for example, is against, in toto, “reproductive rights” or gun ownership or property rights or social insurance or smaller government or adjusting entitlements or taxes or addressing climate change and immigration. And, as far as I know, only a very few are opposed to what Reich calls “equal marriage rights” in all its forms – and those few are being overwhelmed by the many who have decided they really don’t care who marries whom.

            If there is one political phenomenon that Americans are more blind to than others it is the desire of the existing political class to preserve its power and prerogatives. In part, this is due to the fact that our politicians are expected to preach reform, to tell us what they are going to do, once in office, to make things better, to change things. After all, this is what we all think is most important, keeping up “with the times,” making history, endorsing progress. Conserving is not a big draw in our political consciousness. But preserving the status quo in order to preserve one’s power and prerogatives is one of the most salient characteristics of any politician, of any political class.

            Reich is wrong. Yes, we may indeed have tribes, as he says. But one of those tribes is our political class. And because it is endangered these days by a popular outcry for change, real change, that tribe has pretended to split in two. In that way, it seeks to preserve its power and, so far, with the help of analysts like Reich, has succeeded.

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