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Tribalism is not the Nation’s Central Governance Problem



Authors as Published

Our nation’s citizens are now the target of an unrelenting rhetorical attack grounded in the fact of the diverse character of the country’s population. This is occurring because that actuality constitutes a mechanism by which to encourage a share of those residents to revile others who are different from themselves and to see them as the source of their perceived woes. Acceptance of such tropes accords political and social power to the individuals leading such assaults:

It is important to recognize the phenomenon illustrated here and to understand that the present conflict for America’s soul is being fought via often carefully contrived rhetoric designed to rankle and anger, and to accuse an undefined and projected “other” of treachery. Abusive abstract rhetoric has emerged as a well-sharpened weapon of political war. As these efforts continue, the nation’s broader population must navigate the challenge created by those who would, paradoxically, deepen political and social conflict by shrilly waging it via rhetorical shadowboxing with fantasies.1

        Such attacks have continued and deepened in recent years and their repercussions are real. Consider, for example, the conclusions of a recent year-long investigation by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL):

Over three-quarters of Americans (85 percent) believe at least one anti-Jewish trope, as opposed to 61 percent found in 2019. Twenty percent of Americans believe six or more tropes, which is significantly more than the 11 percent that ADL found in 2019 and is the highest level measured in decades.2

        While antisemitism is a hardy perennial in American culture, the robust growth in these attitudes has resulted in violent attacks at synagogues and desecration of Jewish cemeteries. Most importantly, it has been accompanied by high-level GOP officials, including former President Donald Trump, using overtly antisemitic tropes in their rhetoric. While it is extremely difficult to assign causality to specific individuals in this situation, two things seem clear. First, the Republican Party has adopted anger, hatred and fear of targeted others, including Jews, as its central mobilization strategy. Second, many of the party’s leaders and a significant share of its supporters appear prepared to stop at nothing, including stripping specific groups of their democratic rights and standing, to attain their ends. Indeed, doing so is central to their strategy to attain and maintain power. I have seen no more concise description of this stance than that offered by the editors of Commonweal in that magazine’s February 2023 issue:

These two recent moves [by the GOP—voting in the House as a caucus to remove billions from the budget of the Internal Revenue Service to hobble it in its assigned mission and seeking to use the debt ceiling as a political cudgel to reduce spending its partisans suddenly do not favor] demonstrate that, despite all the recent talk about ‘realignment,’ the GOP remains what it has been for decades: a party designed to convert the cultural grievances of white working-class voters into low taxes for the wealthy and austerity for the poor.3

        The profound moral difficulty implicit in this bait-and-switch mobilization strategy is that it stimulates and sanctions a bottomless well of hatred and rancor to achieve its purposes. In doing so, it relies on outright lies and conspiracy mongering, and on any rhetoric that will accomplish its purpose of gaining a vote by encouraging Americans to despise and degrade others. Examples abound. Trump has embraced fantastical and wildly defamatory QAnon discriminatory claims and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has attacked efforts to treat American history holistically or to acknowledge and address racism and discriminatory social hierarchy norms as attacks on the rightful (and self-righteous) beliefs of those such efforts aim foremost to inform. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin has taken a similar stance concerning the supposed dangers of students learning about the Black Lives Matter social movement. Commonweal’s editors understand rightly the irony that this hate-informed rhetoric is not being mobilized and prized to support those whose votes are targeted, but instead to preserve private wealth and power. Knowingly or not, those aligning themselves with the animosity offered them are debasing themselves and their nation as their animus serves others’ ends.

        The GOP officials participating in this dangerous game are not merely trolling for votes as they degrade and attack a share of their fellow citizens and seek to rewrite history to accord with their preference for a supposedly persecuted and innocent white majority. They are instead engaged in something much more sinister: the unleashing of forces over which they have very little control, their contempt, braggadocio and wild hypocrisy notwithstanding. Watching this scenario unfold, I am reminded of the Italian writer Primo Levi, who recounted his experience of the horrors of Auschwitz matter-of-factly and observed pithily that the Nazis had simply pursued dehumanization to its logical extreme in that concentration camp. As Levi noted, dehumanization is a spectrum, and those unleashing and embracing it persistently have choices as they traverse it. Neither Trump nor the countless others in his party who have adopted his lies about Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Jews and many other groups, as well as about U.S. institutions and the rule of law, had to accept those views. Rather, they have chosen to do so and to campaign for their adoption with voters who have similarly opted to accept and act on those falsehoods. This said, it is vitally important that those targeted and those others who recognize the gambit underway never accept the defamatory assertions on offer. As Levi noted of concentration camp prisoners, the moral, if not empirical, equivalent of today’s targets for GOP sponsored enmity:

We are slaves deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we defend it with all our strength for it is the last—the power to refuse our consent.4

        If Levi’s insight was true for those imprisoned and tortured to the edge of existence or to death, it was surely true of the German population that encouraged and countenanced that result. By analogy, Americans today do not need to consent to efforts to degrade their fellow citizens; they do not need to accede to hatred and demonization and lawmakers who constantly lie. There are surely many other avenues by which to address one’s perceived grievances than to accept the depredations offered by those who attack the rights of a share of one’s fellow citizens as a supposedly preferable recourse. Doing so, that is, giving credence to the lies of those ultimately offering only your own and others’ degradation, is a choice.

        This fact is why it is so important that the press report what is occurring accurately. Some are surely doing so, including Dan Rather in his Steady essay series, but despite years of evidence, many within that establishment are still not doing so.5 Here, for example, is how St. Louis Post-Dispatch syndicated columnist Lynn Schmidt characterized and lamented what she labeled as the growing tribalism of U.S. politics in a recent essay:

Each side fears the country would be destroyed if the other achieves power. Gaining influence and securing elective seats has become more important than maintaining a healthy moral compass. Tribalism removes the need to think for ourselves and judge conduct.6  

        While I would not gainsay Schmidt’s concern that partisan tribalism can lead to moral and democratic decay, I do question her implication that “both sides” are at fault. Whatever the Democratic Party’s flaws, that party has not embraced lies and targeted hatred of other Americans as its central mobilization strategy. The GOP is doing so and has done so with increasing ferocity and cynicism across several decades. If Democratic Party supporters fear the Republican Party as an anti-democratic force in the wake of the January 6, 2021, insurrection and are deeply concerned about GOP attempts to label those terrorists “heroes” and to blame others for the obvious lawlessness of that group, they have legitimate cause for their perceptions. The Democratic Party has not engaged in such behavior and its adherents are not simply being “tribal” when expressing their concerns. Indeed, so to argue trivializes what is occurring.

        Dwayne Yancey, writing in The Cardinal News here in Virginia, also advanced this “both sides are at fault trope” in a column that otherwise lamented the GOP’s heckling of President Joe Biden during his recent State of the Union address, especially area congressman (VA-5th district) Bob Good. Yancey sought self-consciously to establish his supposed “above the fray” bona fides with his readers by contending first that he had criticized left-leaning hecklers in the past, although importantly—and a fact that Yancey did not note—it was only GOP House members who so behaved during the president’s speech last week:

In my time, I’ve covered lots of public meetings. I’ve also seen my share of hecklers. Over the years, they’ve come from both left and right and sometimes no particular political ideology, other than opposition to whatever the speaker was saying. They’ve all had one thing in common, though: None of them looked good doing it.7

Yancey concluded on this basis that:

Ultimately, the question is do we want our public officials to model the behavior they’d like to see citizens follow? If Good thinks it’s acceptable for people to heckle speakers who they feel are mischaracterizing something, that would be useful to know. Someday we’ll have a Republican president; the nature of our country is that things swing back and forth. The heckling at this year’s State of the Union Address makes it easier for Democrats to heckle that future Republican chief executive. It also makes it easier for anyone to justify heckling anyone anyplace else. That’s not the kind of society I want to live in, but maybe Good does.8

        This strikes me as fair enough, but hardly the issue at play here. Good was (and is) one of many House GOP members who appeared suddenly to rediscover fiscal probity when his party narrowly regained the majority in November after he and other Republicans had supported $7 trillion of additional public debt during the Trump presidency. He also refused to certify Biden’s election, has embraced countless lies concerning that election and has offered the same tropes aimed at scapegoating minorities that Trump and others in his party have adopted. His performative behavior is just that, a signal to his supporters of his stance on these concerns as one who scapegoats others for his constituents’ angst and anxieties. Good is utterly uninterested in governance or in the truth. He believes his behavior will earn him votes and continued power. Effective governance, equity, ethics or any broader concern for the polity do not figure in this calculus, as Good slides along the spectrum of dehumanizing travesty to which Levi pointed and whose dangers he unforgettably recounted.                                                                                     

        Ultimately, neither Yancey nor Schmidt reach this fact as they lament the decline of a more civil politics and blame “both sides” for that situation. The troublesome fact is that both parties are not responsible for these choices. Rather, the GOP has consciously adopted this mobilization strategy, and its most radical adherents, including Good, appear prepared to jettison pursuit of democratic principles and even the rule of law if it will serve their party’s and their personal quest for power. Levi and others have long warned of the slipperiness of the moral slope on which Good, Trump, DeSantis, Youngkin and other Republican leaders are embarked. Their choices already constitute a national shame, and should they succeed more fully in their aims, they may yet result in far worse. Americans must serve as the arbiters of this attempted derailment of values, and journalists and columnists must help them do so by reporting it accurately in stories and commentary. This situation is not the result of two parties’ tribal attacks on American governance and the American people. It is the studied choice and result of the Republican Party’s decision to do so in the name of power. The abiding question is whether the nation’s citizenry will reward or upbraid GOP leaders and politicians in coming elections at all scales for their cynical uplifting of the degrading possibility of human cruelty. As the nation undergoes this crucible the press must help citizens by carefully reporting the dynamics at play and not simply accepting the rhetoric on offer.


1 Stephenson, Max. Jr. “Shadowboxing with Words,” Soundings, January 30,  2023,, Accessed February 11, 2023.

Anti-Defamation League/National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.              “Antisemitic Attitudes in America: Topline Findings,” January 12, 2023,, Accessed January 25, 2023. 

3 Editors, “From the Editors: The Debt Standoff,” Commonweal, February 2023,, Accessed February 8, 2023. 

4 Levi, Primo. If this is a Man. London: Little Brown Group, 1987, 45.

5 Rather, Dan and Elliot Kirschner, Steady,

6 Schmidt, Lynn. “Coping with a Post-Shame World,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 31, 2023., Accessed February 8, 2023. 

7 Yancey, Dwight. “Rep. Good Heckled the President. Why that’s bad for Republicans and for Society.” Cardinal News, February 9, 2023,, Accessed February 9, 2023. 

8 Yancey, “Rep. Good Heckled the President.”

Publication Date

February 13, 2023