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Our Political Tribes Are Balkanizing America

It’s harder and harder to attribute physical attacks, including simulated attacks like Jussie Smollett and on-campus hoaxes, to nut-cases, celebrity hounds and attention-seekers. More and more, these are rooted in the “real world” of political polarization that’s turning to Balkanization.

Saturday, in Jacksonville, Florida, a man rammed his car into a tent full of Republicans volunteering in a voter registration drive. Since it’s not racial or religiously motivated, it’s not really a “hate crime” as the law defines. But in a very real sense, it’s a hate crime defined by fear and a sense of community responsibility to “do something to stop them!”

President Trump weighed in with a tweet: “Be careful tough guys who you play with!”

It’s not play anymore. That’s a problem Mr. Trump has, inciting people for revenge, shouts of “lock her up!” and “send her back!” and “build the wall!” aren’t just rah-rah-go-team anymore. They are rooted in very real differences between groups of people in America who are more and more driven toward action.

The “Hidden Tribes of America” study is very informative in giving a glimpse of how polarization morph into Balkanization. Recently, Jonah Goldberg has been lamenting about the “Cult of Unity” and the decline of our political parties. The theme here is how institutions that used to practice hygiene and train serious members in correct behavior have become mere platforms for demagogues, bullies, and publicity-seekers to feather their respective beds.

The ongoing transformation of the GOP into a proudly nationalist and protectionist party in the image of Donald Trump is merely another facet of the same problem. Parties always cared about winning the next election; that’s one reason they exist. But it’s not the only reason they exist. They are also institutions that stand for certain ideas and interests that are more enduring than the just the next election. Or at least they used to be.

That meant they understood the need to police their own, to enforce compliance with certain policies and certain norms that contributed to the long-term health of the institution. Now, partisanship has been outsourced to the angriest voices and the media outlets who make money from them, leaving the parties as brands that can’t tell their customers anything they don’t want to hear.

But the deeper institutions are driven by the hidden tribes, which have been molding individuals for decades. Liberals are strongly molded by education institutions, liberal parenting (many times absent formal moral training, i.e. religion), and a sense of justice tilted toward victimhood. Conservatives may have a personal sense of achievement oriented toward opportunity, family, and career success, molded by church and close-knit groups that have endured since childhood.

The “Hidden Tribes” study puts it this way.

A person’s sense of identity can come from a number of different sources, including their race, religion, gender, nationality, ideology, party and values. People are more likely to promote and defend those groups from which they derive the greatest sense of personal identity.

The political parties have for many years wrapped themselves around these common identities, but the recent disruptions, accelerated by Barack Obama’s activist-in-chief presidency and culminating in Donald Trump’s overthrow of everything, have broken those bonds. Now we have tribes unfettered by party loyalty, hygiene and discipline.

Without those limits, the parties have become mere megaphones for incitement, on both sides. And some of the tribes which identify with the message, or oppose it–those with whom it resonates–feel it as a threat, a call to action.

An important element of the hidden architecture of human psychology is the extent to which we perceive external threats. A central message of insurgent populists around the world is that the citizens of their country are threatened by external groups, citing factors such as a loss of traditional national identity, differences in cultural values and loyalties, the threat of terrorism, higher rates of anti-social behavior and crime, and privileged treatment by authorities at the expense of traditional groups.

To the guy who rammed his car into a tent full of Republicans, they were a threat great enough to drive that person to act. To James Alex Fields, who drove his car through a crowd in Charlottesville in August, 2017, the protesters from the left who showed up at the ugly, racist so-called “Unite the Right” rally were a threat. To James Hodgkinson, Republican members of Congress were a great enough threat to attempt a mass assassination.

These are obviously extreme events, but Balkanization moves us in the direction of action and violence versus back toward civil discussion. In this regard, Donald Trump has done great damage to America. I believe that the parties were in disrepair before Trump’s election, but he came as the Destroyer and may have finished them off.

The GOP was largely without any message at all after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012. Romney was a rather centrist (read: liberal) Republican. In 2016, the party fractured, with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio on one end, and Jeb Bush on the other. Donald Trump drove a nationalist tribal spike right through the fracture.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders, who is not a Democrat–he’s a Democratic Socialist–was allowed to run under the party banner in which he caucuses in the Senate. If it weren’t for come convenient super-delegate rules and other engineering, Sanders may have been the nominee. This cycle, there’s a much higher likelihood the Democratic Party will nominate a man who is not a Democrat. Kind of reminds me of how in 2016 the Republicans nominated a man who only recently had become a Republican and in fact had donated to Hillary Clinton’s senate campaign.

Most of the candidates running in 2020 have little–or no–loyalty to the party, Joe Biden excepted. Trump has subsumed the GOP to himself, so at the national level, it ceases to exist apart from him. The fact that only one Senator, Mitt Romney, who has no allegiance to Trump, and was in fact elected as a Republican in Utah because of his opposition to Trump, voted for Trump’s conviction, is proof that the party is firmly under Trump’s thumb, at least right now.

We should be looking at the Hidden Tribes as the foundation of the new relationship between politics and Balkanization. There is sufficient fear, hatred, and disgust in some of the fringe groups to sustain a very violent, reactionary subculture. This should concern us all.

Most of all, we need to rein in the incendiary rhetoric. And that goes for our president. We don’t need more warnings about “tough guys.” All that will do, I fear, is bring more cars plowing into tents.


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