Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Tribalism prospers in the Age of Trump -- explaining Cindy Hyde-Smith's victory in Mississippi U.S. Senate race and GOP dominance in Alabama -- as U.S. democracy teeters amid a rash of horrific events

Cindy Hyde-Smith and Mike Espy

How does one explain Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith's victory in yesterday's U.S. Senate election in Mississippi, even though Hyde-Smith ran a campaign that included embarrassing evocations to the state's ugly history with racism and slavery? In essence, Mississippi elected an openly white-supremacist candidate. Was the seat decided because Hyde-Smith is white and her opponent, Democrat Mike Espy, is black?

How can one explain the dominance of the Republican Party in Alabama's November midterms, even when the party is awash in corruption and puts forth preposterously weak candidates -- such as Gov. Kay Ivey, who reportedly has had a series of strokes and struggles at times to put sentences together; and Attorney General Steve Marshall, who has taken campaign donations that clearly violate Alabama law?

Perhaps the answer can be found amidst the rubble of America's recent "News week from hell." Our theory: The four events that comprise that awful seven days can be explained with one word. We suspect the same word can be used to explain voting patterns in Mississippi, Alabama, the Deep South, and other parts of the country -- with Republicans, stunningly, actually gaining seats in the U.S. Senate.

On a personal note, the abuse that has been heaped on my wife, Carol, and me over the past 10-plus years -- both in Alabama and Missouri -- probably can be explained with the same word. What is it? We'll call it "the T word" -- tribalism -- and recent reports indicate it is burgeoning in the Age of Trump, perhaps posing  the single biggest threat to U.S. democracy.

Consider the horrific events in the "News week from hell":

(1) Eleven congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue were murdered because someone with a criminal mindset viewed them as members of the wrong tribe (Jews).

(2) Two customers at a Kentucky grocery store were murdered because someone with a criminal mindset viewed them as members of the wrong tribe (black Americans) -- and the shooter apparently arrived at the store because he failed to break into a black church, where the death toll could have been frightfully high.

(3) Various individuals and organizations received suspicious packages, which generally proved to be mail bombs, because someone with a criminal mindset -- and Cesar Sayoc, the person charged with the offense, has a criminal record -- viewed them as members of the wrong tribe (critics of Donald Trump).

(4) Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi newsman who wrote for The Washington Post, was murdered and dismembered because individuals in Saudi Arabia, with a criminal mindset, viewed him as a member of the wrong tribe (journalists.)

All of this becomes particularly disturbing when viewed through the lens of tribalism. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently took such a view on the domestic front and reached some unsettling conclusions. His piece is titled "Donald Trump's Relentless Tribe":

It’s what some political scientists call negative partisanship. Research shows that, increasingly, Americans on one side of the political divide don’t just disagree with those on the other. They see them as threats to the country’s well-being. Their anger at the opposing party and its leaders is more pervasive. Their disagreement with its prescriptions is strict. They’re not as keen to associate with its adherents. And their unbalanced information diets and narrow ideological enclaves insulate them from its reasoning.

Forget I’m O.K., you’re O.K. This is: I have problems, you’re repulsive.

The ethos extends to the assessment and defense of Trump’s behavior. He may be an odd fit for a tribe that includes usually judgmental religious conservatives and once exuberant free traders, but he’s now their chief, and whatever his flaws, his detractors’ are worse. If they’re agitated, they’re ipso facto overreacting. Regardless, show no weakness. Admit no wrong.

For details on research about the rising tide of U.S. tribalism, we invite you to click on links above from the Bruni article.

Alleged Kentucky shooter Gregory Bush
George Packer, of The New Yorker, recently focused on research that originated in Europe. Packer's article is titled "A New Report Offers Insights Into Tribalism In The Age of Trump":

More in Common, a research organization based in Europe and the United States, released a report called “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape.” It builds on the group’s prior work in France, Germany, and Italy—an effort to understand and counteract rising populism and fragmentation in the Western democracies. Throughout the past year, the report’s four authors surveyed eight thousand randomly chosen Americans, asking questions about “core beliefs”: moral values, attitudes toward parenting and personal responsibility, perceptions of threats, approaches to group identity. . . .
More in Common found that “tribal membership predicts differences in Americans’ views on various political issues better than demographic, ideological, and partisan groupings.” In other words, whether or not you think creativity is more important than good behavior in children is a better indicator of your political views than is your gender, your race, your income, or your party affiliation. “Once we have the seven segments, their views on issues are highly correlated,” Tim Dixon, an Australian political activist and a founder of More in Common, told me. He added, “We have too much opinion research and not enough value research.”

Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld examined similar issues in a piece at The Atlantic, titled "The Threat of Tribalism." It's part of a series titled "Is Democracy Dying?"

When we think of tribalism, we tend to focus on the primal pull of race, religion, or ethnicity. But partisan political loyalties can become tribal too. When they do, they can be as destructive as any other allegiance. The Founders understood this. In 1780, John Adams wrote that the “greatest political evil” to be feared under a democratic constitution was the emergence of “two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.” George Washington, in his farewell address, described the “spirit of party” as democracy’s “worst enemy.” It “agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one party against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. . . .”

Alleged mail bomber Cesar Sayoc
The causes of America’s resurgent tribalism are many. They include seismic demographic change, which has led to predictions that whites will lose their majority status within a few decades; declining social mobility and a growing class divide; and media that reward expressions of outrage. All of this has contributed to a climate in which every group in America—minorities and whites; conservatives and liberals; the working class and elites—feels under attack, pitted against the others not just for jobs and spoils, but for the right to define the nation’s identity. In these conditions, democracy devolves into a zero-sum competition, one in which parties succeed by stoking voters’ fears and appealing to their ugliest us-versus-them instincts:

Americans on both the left and the right now view their political opponents not as fellow Americans with differing views, but as enemies to be vanquished. And they have come to view the Constitution not as an aspirational statement of shared principles and a bulwark against tribalism, but as a cudgel with which to attack those enemies.

As for Carol ad me, our experience somewhat mirrors the Jamal Khashoggi case of being attacked as members of the journalism tribe. But our story involves some deeper undercurrents. For example, we've learned that right-wing tribalists -- especially those who wear robes and generally are found in the Deep South Midwest, and Great Plains -- tend to make up their own law, as opposed to following the codified state and federal laws they are sworn to uphold. Put another way, they have no respect for due process, equal protection, or the rule of law -- and they are traitors to the U.S. and state constitutions.

Here is how we explained it in a post about what we have come to call "The New Confederacy," focusing on the trial of former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard:

The Mike Hubbard trial, on the surface, was about 23 charges of Alabama Ethics Law violations -- with a Lee County jury finding Hubbard guilty on 12 counts. But from a big-picture view, it was about the kind of mindset that has come to hold back many areas of the Deep South, not to mention other states where Southern thinking tends to hold sway. We are thinking of Great Plains or Midwest states, such as Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah.

What is this mindset all about? We have broken it into two parts -- one called "The New Confederacy," and the other called "Conservative Tribalism." Both were on display in the Mike Hubbard trial.

"The New Confederacy" includes individuals who tend to self-identify as "patriots," even though they reject fundamental tenets of the U.S. Constitution. These modern-day confederates tend to especially reject the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of due process and equal protection, which became part of America's constitutional landscape after the Civil War.

From 1866 to 1868, Southern states bitterly opposed ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Hubbard trial showed that many Southerners, especially elites, still despise the principles of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Consider Hubbard's lawyer, Bill Baxley. He described several of the counts against his client as "mumbo-jumbo" or "gobbledygook." Baxley made little or no attempt to dispute the prosecution's version of the facts. Instead, he argued there was no crime -- essentially claiming the law does not apply to Mike Hubbard.

Carol and I have not been murdered -- yet -- but we have been pushed to the edge of financial ruin by a form of legal tribalism that runs counter to everything our constitution supposedly stands for. In essence, we've been the victims of massive theft -- of our home, our personal belongings, our financial resources, our health-care and retirement funds, our reputations, you name it.

Alleged Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers
Our lesson: Tribalism likely enhances the possibility of physical violence in a society, but it can undermine a democracy in many other ways.

Right-leaning voters around the country -- especially in places like Mississippi and Alabama -- apparently do not realize that or do not care. If our theory is on target, those voters simply sniff out candidates they believe belong to their tribe -- or will support their tribe -- and pull the lever for them, even if they are not remotely qualified to do the job.

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