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Political Tribalism: Why the Right is So Successful

Photo by Paul Siarkowski | CC BY 2.0

In “How America’s identity politics went from inclusion to division” (Guardian, March 1, 2018), Amy Chua argues that the U.S. left has given us the U.S. right, or at least has provided opportunities for the political right to rise to power. Chua makes the case that identity politics on the left and right makes the U.S. a less inclusive society.

She is right to some extent about some kinds of identity politics, but it’s there where the equivalency ends because identity politics on the right has led to murder, mayhem at the highest levels of government, and a return to racism that is supported by the right’s enormous wealth. Identifying with their own best interests gave the gay community medicines that made AIDS less than a certain death sentence.

Black Lives Matter gave the police something to consider. But solidarity across group interests has generally been lacking on the left. Chua’s article seems to be an attempt to lay the debacle that is contemporary politics in the U.S. at the feet of the left. The right’s deep pockets need constant replenishing and greed has no bounds. When jobs are outsourced and what’s left of unions is constantly under attack, where is the economy that will foster inclusiveness?

Chua’s argument against what she calls “political tribalism” includes a lengthy testimonial from a person identified as a white male who considers himself as lower-middle class despite the fact that he thinks of himself as an intellectual. It is possible to be in the lower middle class of the socioeconomic scale and be a self-indentified intellectual, but is that a verifiable fact in this man’s case? He reports that his economic situation has tempted him to side with the alt-right rather than aligning himself with the left. ”… consider this blog post in the  American Conservative, worth quoting at length because of the light it sheds”:

I’m a white guy. I’m a well-educated intellectual who enjoys small arthouse movies, coffeehouses and classic blues. If you didn’t know any better, you’d probably mistake me for a lefty urban hipster.
And yet. I find some of the alt-right stuff exerts a pull even on me. Even though I’m smart and informed enough to see through it. It’s seductive because I am not a person with any power or privilege, and yet I am constantly bombarded with messages telling me that I’m a cancer, I’m a problem, everything is my fault.

I am very lower middle class. I’ve never owned a new car, and do my own home repairs as much as I can to save money. I cut my own grass, wash my own dishes, buy my clothes from Walmart. I have no clue how I will ever be able to retire. But oh, brother, to hear the media tell it, I am just drowning in unearned power and privilege, and America will be a much brighter, more loving, more peaceful nation when I finally just keel over and die.

Trust me: After all that, some of the alt-right stuff feels like a warm, soothing bath. A “safe space,” if you will. I recoil from the uglier stuff, but some of it— the “hey, white guys are actually okay, you know! Be proud of yourself, white man!” stuff is really VERY seductive, and it is only with some intellectual effort that I can resist the pull … If it’s a struggle for someone like me to resist the pull, I imagine it’s probably impossible for someone with less education or cultural exposure.

This is not exactly the struggle of a black or Latino/Latina man or woman who has been stopped by the police for a defective taillight and has a chance of either being arrested, harassed, or shot. Or maybe being thrown in jail as part of the system of oppression. White people are not as a rule shot at coffee shops or arthouse cinemas.

There is something about the political, economic, and social right that does indeed have to do with “political tribalism” and it’s been a very effective tool in mobilizing factions of the far right over the last several decades. The left has been marginally effective at countering such forces as nuclear proliferation, the destruction of civil rights and civil liberties, militarism, environmental destruction, and the burgeoning gulf of income inequality. But the right has had decades in which to do its evil and change the entire fabric of this society for the worse. Money and power not only speak: they swear!

An example of how effective the right has been is the ascension of the fundamentalist religious right to the office of the vice presidency in the person of Mike Pence. It seemed that with the departure of George W. Bush from the White House that the religious right’s time had come and gone after years of success dating back to Ronald Reagan. The far right has combined God, guns, inequality and hate and they have a receptive audience.

The religious right is still going strong. In a society where isolation can be the rule, religious fundamentalists have kept their flock and their political and social agenda quite alive. Ask anyone who volunteers as a escort at a reproductive health clinic.

The effects of solidarity and “political tribalism” on the right have been most apparent in an organization like the National Rifle Association, once a group of hunting enthusiasts and now the major obstacle for sane gun control legislation in the U.S. How is it that children can be murdered in schools with military-style assault rifles capable of holding large rounds of ammunition, and the left is relegated to the sidelines of protest about gun control? Follow the money: follow its influence on those in power.

In a society of “political tribalism,” perhaps it is that very feature of tribalism that draws so many to the NRA. The NRA knows that it can increase its membership (and political clout), and those who identify with its values of unlimited so-called gun rights, by fostering social connections among its members. There are shooting programs, perks for insurance, reduced rates for car rentals, etc., and a national convention and the feeling of belonging in a society where opportunities to belong in a personal way are limited. When was the last time people on the left connected with one another after a demonstration was over or felt lasting ties for those at one of the endless marches that have been organized out of necessity as Trump ascended the throne? We march and we organize and we work for the best and then we, for the most part, go on with our individual and atomized lives. The NRA membership does not and it has sometimes been able to take advantage of the sentiments reflected above by the struggling guy. While he may not feel the draw that some do to groups like the NRA or religious fundamentalist churches, it’s sentiments like the ones that he makes that move some others to identify with the right.

There was a time in the middle to late 1960s and early 1970s that the left in the U.S. did connect and empathize with one another, and again in the 1980s in the face of Reagan and nuclear proliferation and war, and then again while George W. Bush was president. What amazes most is that a monster and incompetent who far surpasses both Reagan and Bush has garnered only sporadic and atomized protest! Here’s a president who threatens millions of Koreans with nuclear annihilation.  Protest has had only a limited effect. On March 24, 2018 (March for Our Lives), people all across the U.S. will take to the streets in a protest against the insanity of gun murders in the U.S. The Washington, D.C.-based demonstrations are an opportunity to get off of the soft couches and chairs of fancy, overpriced coffeehouses and demand an end to one part of the right-wing juggernaut that values dollars over people and especially dollars over innocent young lives.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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