Tag Archives: tribalism

Why I Harp On Civic Literacy

In yesterday’s post, I listed elements of necessary political reform, beginning with reinvigorated civics instruction in the public schools.

I would understand if regular readers of this blog shrugged and attributed that particular item in the list to my abiding preoccupation with the importance of what I call “civic literacy.” Civic literacy isn’t civic engagement–important as that is. It is knowledge of America’s history, philosophy and basic legal structure.

When civic ignorance is rampant, Donald Trump can dismiss the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause as “phony” without losing the support of his base. He can repeatedly act in ways that are inconsistent with the Constitution and rule of law, and be defended by Congressmen who are confident that their constituents don’t know any better.

But civic ignorance has consequences that go well beyond Trump. I harp on the importance of basic civic knowledge because I believe it is connected to everything else that ails us–especially the growth of “identity politics,” or tribalism. I addressed that relationship in my recent book; the following paragraphs are what I wrote there, and may explain why I continue to be preoccupied with the issue.

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One of the most overlooked connections, and one that makes sensible reforms so difficult, is between low levels of civic literacy and tribalism.  American citizens do not share a political history, a common religion, or a single race or ethnicity. In some precincts, citizens don’t even speak the same language. In the absence of cultural and linguistic ties, societies require what Robert Bellah called a “civil religion” through which to forge a common civic identity. In the United States, that civil religion has centered upon our constituent documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—and the governing philosophy they embody, what I have elsewhere called “The American Idea.”

The tribalism fed by inequality and social media grows more pronounced in the absence of civic literacy. When Americans are ignorant of the history, philosophy and evolution of their constitutional form of government, they may share a common national geography, but they don’t share a civic identity. The absence of a common “civic religion” translates into widespread neglect of an important civic obligation, the duty to be sufficiently informed to evaluate government’s conduct of the people’s business.

Public accountability requires that those in power be forthright and detailed about laws they have enacted and other actions they have taken; it requires journalists who can adequately and accurately convey that information to the general public; and it requires citizens able to compare those laws and activities to the standards prescribed by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. The ability to discharge all of these tasks depends upon a basic familiarity with the nation’s history, philosophy and legal framework.

The widespread deficit of civic knowledge is not simply an impediment to personal efficacy and participation in the democratic process; it is evidence of a fundamental failure of public education. Civic ignorance impedes communication between Americans, and between Americans and their policymakers. It facilitates susceptibility to spin and propaganda. The loss of civic literacy is not confined to the voting public; American politicians on all points along the political spectrum constantly genuflect to the Constitution, and just as constantly disclose a lack of genuine (or often, even superficial) familiarity with it, let alone the two hundred plus years of jurisprudence applying its principles to ever-changing “facts on the ground.” The result is a lack of a common frame of reference that makes productive political action impossible.

 

A Capacious Bigotry

Warning: this is a continuation of yesterday’s rant.

Pipe bombs were sent to those Trump has labeled his “enemies” and “enemies of the people.” Jews were slaughtered while at prayer. Brown Immigrants and Muslims have constantly been demonized. LGBTQ citizens have been unremittingly targeted. Women are routinely diminished. And racism is constantly, consistently endorsed and promoted.

Welcome to Trumpworld.

Yes, I know it isn’t only here. White Nationalism threatens to consume the globe. But this is my country– the first nation not to condition citizenship on the “right” identity, the first not to limit it to members of the “right” tribes. Mine is the country with civic equality as a mantra and an ideal–even as we often fall very short of that ideal.

Dana Milbank reminded us of George Washington’s famous quote:

George Washington, in his 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., told Jews they would be safe in the new nation.

“The government of the United States . . . gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” he wrote. “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Milbank followed up with a list of Trump’s anti-semitic remarks, from the “very fine people” among the Nazis marching in Charlottesville, to his retweets of rightwing Jew haters, to his refusal to condemn supporters who threatened anti-Semitic violence against a Jewish journalist (and Melania Trump saying the writer “provoked” the threats), and numerous others.

The ADL reports a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. That isn’t a coincidence.

If lists are your thing, Buzzfeed has a list of the Trump Administration’s numerous homophobic actions: rolling back policies that protected transgender folks from discrimination in the workplace,  arguing that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 doesn’t protect gay workers from discrimination, filing a brief with the Supreme Court on the side of merchants who don’t want to serve gay customers, trying to kick transgender soldiers out of the military–among many other examples.

An effort to list Trump’s assaults on immigrants or Muslims or African Americans or women would be too long to include in a blog post.

Ironically, there is a germ of truth in his attacks on the media: Fox News, Infowars, Sinclair and other various purveyors of rightwing propaganda all have blood on their metaphorical hands. For years, they have fed the festering hate of “the Other” and the narrative of white Christian victimization that Trump has encouraged and normalized.

Amanda Marcotte addressed that tribal resentment and fear in an article for Salon:

Last year, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) put out a new report on religion in America that measured a truly remarkable shift: For the first time, almost certainly in the country’s history, people who identify as white Christians are a minority of Americans. Four out of every five Americans were self-described white Christians in 1976, but now that group only constitutes 43 percent of the U.S. population.

Much of what we are seeing is the reaction to that reality by the fundamentalist Evangelicals who are supporting Trump.

The white evangelical support for Trump, coupled with the continued denunciation of LGBT people, makes it clear this is not and never was about morality, sexual or otherwise. Instead, “morality” is a fig leaf for the true agenda of the Christian right, which is asserting a strict social hierarchy based on gender.

The same-sex marriage question is a stand-in issue, Jones argued, for “a whole worldview” that is “a kind of patriarchal view of the family, with the father head of the household and the mother staying home.”

Trump may be an unrepentant sinner, but he is a supporter of this patriarchal worldview, where straight men are in charge, women are quiet and submissive and people who fall outside these old-school heterosexual norms are marginalized. Voting for him was an obvious attempt by white evangelicals to impose this worldview on others, including (and perhaps especially) their own children, who are starting to ask hard questions about a moral order based on hierarchy and rigid gender roles instead of one built on empathy and kindness.

Marcotte and Jones are focused on that patriarchal worldview, but social scientists have documented a number of other reactions to the threatened loss of white Christian male hegemony: intense resentment of the Others who have had the nerve to contend in the public and political arenas. The election of Barack Obama–a black man–was experienced by many of these “good Christians” as an existential assault. Jews have long been a target–The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was one of the first “viral” conspiracy theories.

Muslims, immigrants–anyone who isn’t a member of their shrinking tribe–is a threat to their dominance and their worldview. They have a capacious capacity for resentment–and a capacious tolerance for bigotry.

Tuesday, they’ll vote. The question is: will the rest of us?

 

American Nazis

Over a third of American voters still support Donald Trump, incomprehensible as that seems.

I have always had a naive faith in the good sense of the general American public. That faith was shaken in November 2016, and it’s currently on hold until November 7th of 2018, when it will either be revived or permanently destroyed.

This depressing realization– that a third of the country could support (or even endure) this odious man and his thuggish and criminal administration–comes a bit late. It turns out that Americans have never been as impervious to the attractions of fascism as we like to think.  A recent book tells us a lot that most of us would rather not know.

In fact, when Bradley W. Hart first started researching the history of Nazi sympathy in the United States a few years ago, he was largely driven by the absence of attention to the topic. Hart’s new book Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United Statesargues that the threat of Nazism in the United States before World War II was greater than we generally remember today, and that those forces offer valuable lessons decades later — and not just because part of that story is the history of the “America First” idea, born of pre-WWII isolationism and later reborn as a slogan for now-President Donald Trump.

Hart’s research was triggered by Charlottesville, and the sight of Americans brandishing Nazi flags and paraphernalia.

Hart, who came to the topic via research on the eugenics movement and the history of Nazi sympathy in Britain, says he realized early on that there was a lot more to the American side of that story than most textbooks acknowledged. Some of the big names might get mentioned briefly — the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, or the highly public German American Bund organization — but in general, he says, the American narrative of the years leading up to World War II has elided the role of those who supported the wrong side. And yet, American exchange students went to Germany and returned with glowing reviews, while none other than Charles Lindbergh denounced Jewish people for pushing the U.S. toward unnecessary war.

There are a number of reasons this particular element of America’s history is so rarely invoked. There’s the well-knowns  “bandwagon” effect, the human tendency to “remember” ourselves as having been on the winning side of conflicts, and to identify with the narrative that emerged after the war: America saved the world! We’re number one! Admitting that a not-insignificant minority of our citizens were rooting for the bad guys doesn’t do much to advance that narrative.

It was also possible for those who had participated in Nazi-sympathetic groups to later cloak their beliefs in the Cold War’s anti-communist push — a dynamic that had in fact driven some of them to fascism in the first place, as it seemed “tougher on communism than democracy is,” as Hart puts it. (One survey he cites found that in 1938, more Americans thought that communism was worse than fascism than vice versa.) Such people could truthfully insist that they’d always been anti-communist without revealing that they’d been fascists, and their fellow Americans were still so worried about communism that they might not press the matter.

If we are being honest, relatively few people are attracted by the the tenets of political ideologies–communist, fascist, socialist, whatever. Then as now, the real motivators are tribal: people who look and pray like me are superior to people who look and pray like you.

Fascism–like communism–appeals to people who couldn’t define its political philosophy if their lives depended upon it. In Hitler’s SS or Charlottesville, the message was much simpler and much uglier. My tribe is better than yours. They supported “Aryan purity” or (White Christian) America.

That tribalism is central to Trump’s appeal. It has been the only consistent thread in what passes for his message, and that tribalism is what at least a third of America supports. On November 6th, we’ll see if enough of us reject it.

 

Voting Your Tribe

Anyone who’s ever taken Sociology 101–or history–understands that people react defensively in times of rapid social change. If they perceive the changes as threats to their world-views or economic prospects–and many people do–those defense mechanisms very often include an exaggerated tribalism, a stronger-than-usual identification with the racial or religious or political group to which the person belongs.

The worldwide wave of White Nationalism we are experiencing is one manifestation of this reaction. So is the animosity toward immigrants and the re-emergence of overt racial and religious prejudices.

The election of Donald Trump–itself a manifestation of these attitudes–has given people who harbor racial anxieties permission to be far more public about those attitudes; we’ve seen a spike in hate crimes and the public expression of appalling attitudes toward black and brown people, Muslims, Jews, immigrants…any and all people whose appearance and/or behavior suggests that they aren’t one of “us.”(Whoever “us” may be.)

Tribal attitudes are destructive of democracy in a country as diverse as ours, and they are a real minefield for progressive candidates for public office. 

A new study highlights the challenges politicians face trying to connect with a multilingual citizenry, including the intensely negative reaction voters who only speak English may have when they see Spanish-language political ads.

Two scholars from the University of Chicago and Yale University teamed up to investigate whether Spanish-language political ads can help Republican and Democratic candidates win over bilingual voters. The good news for candidates: These ads likely will help some of them win a little more support from bilinguals. The bad news: If a candidate’s Spanish ad is broadcast to an English-only audience, support could plummet.

The negative response to Spanish-language ads by viewers who spoke only English wasn’t limited to  Republicans or to more conservative voters; the study found the same response from Democrats. English-only participants generally responded negatively to the Spanish ads, with support for the candidate making the spot declining pretty substantially.

The study didn’t delve into motivation, but it is more than plausible that the Spanish-speaking candidates were viewed as somehow less American–as smarty-pants globalists willing to speak to “interlopers”–immigrants from Spanish speaking countries–in their native tongue, rather than demanding that they  speak English like “real” Americans.

Republican candidates, of course, are more willing to exploit and deepen such attitudes. A recent Washington Post article titled “The All-Consuming Tribalism of Trump’s Republican Party in One 30-Second Ad” features Indiana’s own–ugh–Todd Rokita, a perfect specimen of the GOP’s current cohort of despicables.

As metaphors for the Trump-led Republican Party go, it’s difficult to beat Rep. Todd Rokita’s new ad in the Indiana Senate race.

In 30 seconds, the Republican congressman from Indiana discusses no policy issues and says basically nothing besides “I will support Trump the most,” before throwing on a Make America Great Again hat for emphasis.

The ad, titled “MAGA,” is a remarkable little window into how at least one candidate thinks you win in today’s GOP, and Rokita hopes it’s his ticket to the Republican nomination to face Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) next month.

The article notes that Rokita and his opponents have basically turned the primary into a competition over which candidate is the Trumpiest.

Trump has rendered many policy positions negotiable — even with himself — and has turned a Republican Party that was all about conservative purity earlier this decade into one that is more about Trump purity. It’s a party built on personality whose base has stood by Trump, even as he has shrugged off an antagonistic foreign power’s incursion into U.S. elections. It’s a party that almost instantly and universally dismisses every Trump-inspired controversy as unimportant and a media creation — even “fake news.”

So here’s where we are: we’re being asked to vote for the candidate who is most entitled to tribal membership. Republicans are to base that determination not on an avowed commitment to the U.S. Constitution or the rule of law, not on a pledge to pursue the common good or provide ethical leadership, but on a fervent promise to be an obedient sycophant.

The GOP is no longer a political party. It isn’t even a tribe. It’s a cult, and Trump is its “Dear Leader.”

Will Our Barriers To Chaos Hold?

A couple of weeks ago, I read a column by Catherine Rampell that I can’t get out of my mind. Rampell began by recounting a remark by a Chinese venture capitalist who had opined that America was going through its own “Cultural Revolution.”

I remember China’s Cultural Revolution: Ushered in during the late 1960s by Chairman Mao, it was an incredibly tumultuous, traumatic period of political turmoil, supposedly intended to cleanse the People’s Republic of “impure and bourgeois” elements.

Universities were shuttered. Public officials were purged. Youth paramilitary groups, known as Red Guards, terrorized civilians. Citizens denounced teachers, spouses and parents they suspected of harboring capitalist sympathies.

Millions were uprooted and sent to the countryside for reeducation and hard labor. Millions more were persecuted, publicly humiliated, tortured, executed.

As Rampell notes, the reality of what happened in China seemed so remote from our current, relatively tame upheavals in the U.S., she laughed.

And yet I haven’t been able to get the comment out of my head. In the weeks since I’ve returned stateside, Li’s seemingly far-fetched analogy has begun to feel . . . a little too near-fetched.

Li said he saw several parallels between the violence and chaos in China decades ago and the animosity coursing through the United States today. In both cases, the countries turned inward, focusing more on defining the soul of their nations than on issues beyond their borders….

“Virtually all types of institutions, be it political, educational, or business, are exhausting their internal energy in dealing with contentious, and seemingly irreconcilable, differences in basic identities and values — what it means to be American,” he said in a subsequent email exchange. “In such an environment, identity trumps reason, ideology overwhelms politics, and moral convictions replace intellectual discourse.”

We may not be exiling our academic “elites” to rural farms, as the Chinese did, but higher education is being demonized. Suddenly, what Rampell calls “cultural artifacts”– the Statue of Liberty and the American flag–have become politicized. Specific words and ideas–climate change, fetus– are stricken or banned from government communiqués.

Both Mao’s decade-long tumult and today’s Cultural Revolution with American characteristics also feature cults of personality for the national leader, who thrives in the surrounding chaos. Each also gives his blessing, sometimes explicitly, for vigilantes to attack ideological opponents on his behalf.

But the most troubling parallel is the call for purges.

Then, Mao and his allies led purges of political and military ranks, allegedly for seditious or just insufficiently loyal behavior. Today, White House officials, right-wing media hosts and federal lawmakers have called for a “cleansing” of the nation’s top law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, because the “deep state” is conspiring against the president.

Rampell ends her column with an observation that I have made on this blog more than once: our institutional arrangements–Separation of Powers, federalism, etc.– have thus far kept America from engaging in truly cataclysmic behaviors. I would add to that list respect for political “habits not embedded in the law, but compelling enough to be considered democratic norms.”

What differentiates the (fully cataclysmic) China then from the (only relatively chaotic) United Status now is, among other things, our political institutions. Our system of checks and balances. And perhaps a few statesmen willing to keep those institutions, checks and balances in place — occasionally turning their backs on their own political tribe.

The question we face is pretty obvious: will those institutions and norms hold?

The answer, unfortunately, is less obvious.