Tribalism and Politics

[This is a very slightly modified reprint of a post from my personal blog from several months ago, but one which I thought relevant to build upon as we seek to lay the foundation for a principled and polite discussion of politics from a Catholic perspective.]

Two and half years ago, when the situation in Iraq was pretty much at its worst Bush’s popularity was already headed steeply down (though not yet as low as it is now), I was talking to one of my very liberal friends, and he commented: “You Republicans enjoy it now.  We’ll take back congress at the next election, and there is no Republican on earth who could win the presidency after eight years of Bush.  He’s destroyed your party for a generation.”

“What if we nominate McCain?” I asked.

He considered.  “There’s no way.  McCain is the one Republican I would consider voting for — and that means you people would never elect him.  Maybe he’ll switch parties when we take over.”

Well, here we are.  And now my liberal friends assure me that “this is not the McCain we knew.”  He’s “McSame”.  He’s “Bush’s third term”.  He’s “McFossil”.  He’s a “batshit insane” warmonger who wants to start World War III.   And yet four years ago, when he called out Michael Moore in a speech at the Republican convention, Moore claimed he was hurt and said the he liked McCain and admired him.  Senator John Kerry reportedly wanted McCain as a running mate.

What happened here?  So far as I can tell, McCain is still very much whatever he always was.  I’m not myself a fan, but he does have an Old Roman sort of virtue that I admire to an extent.  He is not a principled conservative, or indeed an adherent to any intellectually defined political or economic philosophy.  But he is clearly a firm believer in honesty, honor, and service to the Civitas.  He’s devoted his life to the Res Publica, and I think he would probably do less damage to the country and the world than Obama — though I suspect that if he is elected it will be longer before a real conservative is able to win back the presidency than if we have a Democrat in the White House.  (However since we vote for the good of the country rather than the party — I will probably vote for him.)

However, McCain has lost all his support from across the aisle because electoral politics is not just a matter of competing political philosophies — it is also a matter of tribalism.  While there are very real and important differences of political, moral and economic philosophy between the two major parties in America, the tribalism of party membership at times seems to have equal or greater force in fueling debate.

Tribalism can cut both ways.  Although he sustained a good bit of criticism from conservatives, President Bush did not have the fight from congressional Republicans over No Child Left Behind, the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit or the creation of the Department of Homeland Security that any Democratic president would have received over such massive increases in government power and bureaucracy.  In that case, tribalism protected him.

Over the years, McCain has received much admiration from liberal and moderate quarters — but in an election year (and with a new, younger media darling for the Democratic nominee) his proposals (even some very liberal ones which I do not like, such as his cap-and-trade carbon policy) are being ignored or greeted with derision.  Tribalism requires that any policies put forward by the presidential nominee of one party be scorned by members of the other party — even if they themselves advocated similar proposals in the past.

The tribal lens also affects how people view the world.  For instance: expect many Democrats to be less worried about government wiretaps and the continued presence of US troops in Iraq if Obama is president rather than McCain.  Similarly, expect a number of Republicans who have been curiously quiet on such issues to recall that they don’t trust the government and don’t want it doing wiretaps, and that they don’t think that US troops should be used for open-ended nation-building exercises, if Obama wins. (Indeed, this is one of the increasingly small number of things which keeps me strongly hoping for a McCain victory: because then the tribal instincts of the Republican White House and Democratic Congress and serve as a check on each others’ most foolish instincts.)

And notice how it is always whichever party is out of power which is able to notice what things are going wrong (or may go wrong) with the economy — while those in power may recognize there are problems here or there, but are sure it is only the result of the business cycle and we’re doing everything we can.

None of which is to say that there aren’t very real points which are made, and sincerely meant, by the most partisan among us.  (Nor am I speaking from the outside here; I am myself very partisan.)  But especially for the six months leading up to the presidential election every four years, one can expect much of the political discourse to be more about tribe than about principles.

7 Responses to Tribalism and Politics

  1. Mark DeFrancisis says:

    This coming from the guy who pushes the Palinite/ McCarthyite Other-ing of Obama as legitimate maneuvering in the arena of public discourse…

    Try again…

  2. Ryan Harkins says:

    This tribalism is indeed a powerful driving force in politics, and it is very easy to sink into. As a Republican myself, I fall into this trap from time to time. We get into the habit of seeing people not as people, but as mindless drones of a particular institution. Thus a Democrat has to be bad because he’s a Democrat. Because of the label, he must be a pot-smoking, baby-killing, soldier-reviling, tree-hugging socialist. But this is far from the truth. The Democratic party contains a huge number of disparate interest groups, many of which are in conflict with each other, whether they realize it or not. The abortion lobby is one aspect; the environmental lobby another. There is still plenty of good to say about liberal values, especially in terms of trying to look out for the little man, quenching the last vestiges of racism, and ensuring that people in general are treated as people. Similarly, in general Republicans aren’t the corporate-loving, environment-destroying, science-belittling, backward hicks Democrats make them out to be. But because we see prominent members on each side as fitting these molds, it becomes imperative to have “your guy” win just so that the “other guy” doesn’t swing the balance of power back in favor of the “wrong” party.

    For example, back in 2006, fearing that Republicans would lose their majority in the House, I supported Barbara Cubin, despite the fact that she has been a poor representative of Wyoming, and her opponent (whose name I can’t even remember now) would have made a great replacement. Keep in mind, in Wyoming even our Democrats are pretty conservative, so it isn’t like conservatives would suffer greatly from having a “liberal” represent us. Yet the tribalism machine said that Cubin had to win, if only so that Republicans could maintain power.

    So I’m guilty as charged.

    And sometimes we forget about general charity, especially in regards to the eighth commandment: thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. We have a tendency to decry the dirty tactics of the “other” side, while whitewashing the dirty tactics of our own. And yet we must remember: smears, regardless of who makes them, are a violation of the eighth commandment. Misrepresenting someone’s voting history, inflating statistics, and yes, crying guilt by association are all deplorable.

    McCain has said some things that I find inexcusable. But that doesn’t whitewash Obama in the slightest. Obama has made misrepresentations, made accusations that bear no weight whatsoever, and has not been innocent in the realm of smear tactics. But that doesn’t excuse McCain or make his dirty politics commendable.

    I would not say, though, that questioning a candidate’s history or association is beyond the discourse of political debate. History matters. Thus it is valid to investigate Obama’s relationship with Bill Ayers. But as unrepentant as Bill Ayers is, Obama is not guilty for having associated with him. You can associate with all kinds of scum. I know the comparisons to Jesus are really wearing on Catholics, but Jesus associated with all manner of sinners. Thus it is completely outrageous and wrong to suggest that Obama supports terrorism or is a friend to terrorists because of his association with Ayers. There is a second part to this, though. We cannot point to guilty by association, but we can point to guilt by collaboration. If there is any substance to the charge that Obama’s educational policies are lockstep with Ayer’s radical notions, if there is any substance to the charge that the two have been collaborating for years, that’s a different story.

  3. Chris Burgwald says:

    What, Mark?

  4. Chris Burgwald says:

    He is not a principled conservative, or indeed an adherent to any intellectually defined political or economic philosophy.

    This is definitely something that frustrates me about McCain… I was telling a friend the other day that I don’t even know what his agenda is. Her comment was along the lines of what you followed the quote above with, DC… “he is clearly a firm believer in honesty, honor, and service to the Civitas.” But to me, that equates with a reactive presidency, i.e. someone who is — probably ably — responding to things as they come up instead of actively promoting something. In other words, a defensive stance rather than offensive with regard to public policy.

    Not my preference.

  5. Mark DeFrancisis says:


    Read the posts below…Particularly, Mr. McClarey’s Ayers post and Darwin’s sliy response therein.

    To be quite honest,I am surprised you are here.

    Hopefully, you pull the discourse up…

  6. Ryan,

    Very good points.

    Your discussion of the state rep race in your area brings to mind one of the elements feeding tribalism especially at our present time: because there are so many heavily loaded moral issues at play these days, we often are tempted to attribute them even to those who do not hold the views offense to us. For instance, I suspect that pro-life Democrats sometimes suffer from a tribal assumption that all Democrats are “anti-life” — and similarly pro-choice Republicans sometimes get more of a pass than they should.


    I recognize that you and I differ as to whether Ayers is a sufficiently unsavory (perhaps I may even say “despicable”?) personality to suggest that Obama had very questionable judgement in associating himself with him. But I’m unclear how that bears on whether my assessment that politics is often tribal in tone is accurate?

    Indeed, if anything, our differences might underline both of our tribal tendencies.

  7. Mark DeFrancisis says:


    About your post here. Perhaps if Mr. McCain did not backtrack on everything that made him so mavericky…

    About Palin-McCain-Ayeyrs, I side with my old hero, George Will:

    “This, McCain and his female Sancho Panza say, is demonstrated by bad associations Obama had in Chicago, such as with William Ayers, the unrepentant terrorist. But the McCain-Palin charges have come just as the Obama campaign is benefiting from a mass mailing it is not paying for. Many millions of American households are gingerly opening envelopes containing reports of the third-quarter losses in their 401(k) and other retirement accounts — telling each household its portion of the nearly $2 trillion that Americans’ accounts have recently shed.

    ….In this context, the McCain-Palin campaign’s attempt to get Americans to focus on Obama’s Chicago associations seem surreal — or, as a British politician once said about criticism he was receiving, “like being savaged by a dead sheep.”

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