Tribalism has been the one-word diagnosis of what is wrong with American politics for so many of the past few years that it has almost become a cliché. Countless books, essays, and op-eds have described the issue as the driving force behind why our political debates are so toxic.
There is a lot to this critique, particularly AEI fellow Jonah Goldberg’s assertion that “inside the tribe, you’ll think the rules differ for your teammates.” This mindset not only changes how you view those that you are aligned with, but it also completely turns the terms of engagement with the opponent as an all-or-nothing affair.
Tribalism begot absolutism.
Just as tribalism encourages us to see others with different political views as an external enemy to be defeated rather than someone who simply has different values, the rise of absolutism has now turned every political question into an existential battle between one side’s survival and the other’s destruction. Countless examples can increasingly be found in all spheres of political life.
Electoral politics is one of the easiest places to find the new absolutism in full force. Republicans and Democrats have more frequently been setting the stakes of every election as a fight over the survival of the republic. The wrong party — that is to say, the opposing party — proving victorious in an election is always a recipe for the destruction of life as we know it.
According to Congressman and NRCC Chair Tom Emmer (R-MN), “Republicans will make the 2020 race a choice between socialism and freedom.” Instead of having to make an affirmative case for why Republicans deserve to govern, Rep. Emmer’s quote offers a glimpse into the new reality of elections. On the Democratic side, presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden has been lambasted by some in his party for vowing to work with Republicans if elected president.
A forward-looking vision for your party becomes unnecessary when the other party is an existential threat, and admitting you would treat them as anything less is seen as an unacceptable betrayal. After all, what compromises can be had with someone who wants to destroy America as we know it?
And it does not stop after the election has ended.
Policy debates are just as mired in the all-or-nothing slog between two parties representing good or evil depending on the perspective of the legislator. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made a habit of referring to any Democratic policy he disapproves of as “full bore socialism.” Democratic member of Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has dismissed Republican critics of her Green New Deal proposal as “making fools of themselves” for wishing to consider alternative climate policies.
The new incentive structure of prizing the casual dismissal of political opponents in absolutist terms over substantive engagement also means the abstract caricature of political opponents eventually becomes disconnected from reality.
Assumption College associate professor Greg Weiner explains that our age of morally absolute debates “[dodges] responsibility because it entails hard choices, shrouding moral reasoning in abstractions.” The nuances of both electoral and policy battles are cast aside in favor of declaring political opposites as an abstract evil that is outside the bounds of debate. The resulting inaction on political issues is then justified because working with the other side (or even sitting next to them at a football game) is treated as a kind of moral treason.
The overheated absolutist rhetoric used by our political leaders engenders serious misunderstandings of how we should conduct politics. Objecting to it isn’t just about being genteel and inoffensive. It’s about restoring fundamental values of American democracy.
Accusing political opposites of being illegitimate or beyond engaging because of their beliefs is a radical departure from the conflict-rich space James Madison envisioned. In Federalist 10, he wrote that the diverse interests found across the United States make it “more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried.”
The absolutist strain in politics today is given life because it distracts from Washington’s passive approach to public policy concerns. Asking tough questions of our political leaders is not a concession to the other side. Cutting through the absolutist rhetoric running amok today will shift how we hold political officials accountable. By moving beyond the constant framing of elections and policy proposals as holding the future of America in the balance, political leaders will be driven to a longer-term view of issues affecting the lives of countless Americans.