Monday, May 22, 2017

Readings on tribes and tribalism — #5: Ben Shapiro, “The Revenge of Tribalism” (2016)

Next is Ben Shapiro on “The Revenge of Tribalism” (2016). His irascible posturing has long annoyed me, for he often seems like an arch-tribalist intent on tribalizing others. I usually changed the TV channel after a few minutes of his demonizing. However, his tone and stance changed a bit after he resigned from his position at Breitbart News, following criticisms he directed at Donald Trump and Stephen Bannon.
Against that background, he turns in this article to identify tribalism on both sides as a problem and explanation for our current political divisiveness. Yet, his analysis of tribalism itself amounts to a spirited (but for me, dispiriting) act of tribalism. For he can't stop demonizing the Democrats, Obama, and Clinton.
He blames Obama above all, claiming that "President Obama’s tribal politics have crippled America." And that Obama used "tribalism to grow his own power” by playing on racial and ethnic politics.
Thus, "Trump is the counter-reaction. He, like Obama, is tribal." But it's a different kind of tribalism, for his is "the tribalism of Patrick Buchanan." 
Shapiro's background analysis is about how "The Founders were scholars of both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke", and how American society has devolved from Lockean into Hobbesian conditions in recent decades. Thus Americans are reverting to tribal politics, and may next succumb to a "strongman" who wants to construct a Hobbesian Leviathan state.
Aargh. His remarks about the Founders, Locke, and Hobbes seem reasonable; they're even a bit TIMN-ish. But his take on the growth of tribalism in America is faulty and misleading. 
Here are three reasons why, based on my efforts to watch for tribal behavior among both conservatives and liberals / progressives over the past 5 to 10 years:
First, tribalism among conservatives, especially conservatives outside the Republican fold, started years, in some ways decades ago — long before Obama became president. Shapiro's mention of Pat Buchanan indicates he should know this. Key elements of their tribalism — narrative lines, media strategies, funding priorities, legislative maneuvers, etc. — were in place when Obama took office. Much as conservatives would go on to decry "political correctness" on the Left, they were already deep into installing a kind of "tribal correctness" of their own. And they immediately aimed it at Obama, not to mention Clinton.
Second, the tribalism of the conservative Right is structurally different from the tribalism on the liberal / progressive Left. The tribalism on the Right is built around a common narrative, plus principles and strategies, that pretty much spans the conservative movement. A media infrastructure of AM talk radio, FOX News, and CPAC conventions has worked to cultivate and assure this. Sometimes nowadays, when I am in a mean mood, I wonder whether tribalists of the Right have, in some sense, been Pavlov'ed and Potemkin'ed together. 
In contrast, tribalism on the Left is quite chopped up. Each group, especially each ethnic and racial group, has it's own agents and episodes of tribalism. From what I've seen, there's no cohesive, all-spanning narrative or other strategy. And the media infrastructures that may work to tribalize on the Left are not as impressive or effective as those on the Right. Sure, conservatives often point to particular individuals and movements as evidence of tribalism on the Left — but my sense continues to be that there's not nearly as much that is systematic on the Left.
Third, Obama really wasn't (and isn't) much of a tribalist. I've seen him talk like a bit of a tribalist on a few occasions, mostly involving racial matters — but nothing like Trump. However, I've also seen what I thought might be efforts by conservatives to goad Obama into acting like a tribalist — for example, if I recall correctly, after a racial incident, when someone on FOX News may criticize Obama for not doing much about the incident, then when he does something, turning to accuse him of playing the race card. Tribalists seem to be comfortable with duplicitous hypocrisy.
This post has grown too long, so I'm stopping now, even though the above three points beg for further clarification.
Here's an excerpt from Shapiro's article: 
"They’re both right. Obama, like it or not, leads a coalition of tribes. Trump, like it or not, leads a competing coalition of tribes. The Founders weep in their graves. …
"But the Founders still feared tribalism. They called it “faction” in The Federalist Papers, and were truly worried about the seizure of the mechanism of government in order to benefit one group over another. They may have agreed with Locke over Hobbes about the proper extent of government power, but they never believed that tribalism had disappeared. That is why they attempted to create a government pitting faction against faction, cutting the Gordian knot of tyranny and tribalism with checks and balances. …
"It was a brilliant solution to an intractable problem — so long as it worked.
"It no longer does. Tribalism has had its revenge. …
"And so we may have reached the end of the era of small government. As tribalism rises, Americans look again to the strongman. We begin the cycle anew. But first, we feel the rage of riots in San Jose and Ferguson, and the spiteful glee of the white-nationalist alt-right. We watch contests between tribal figures like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. We wonder which tribe will win, even as America disintegrates before us."
To read for yourself, go here:

[I posted an earlier write-up of this reading on my Facebook page, on March 30.]

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