Ben Sasse on Political Tribalism

Senator Ben Sasse’s comments on political tribalism are timely and welcome. He has, in many ways, taken up the role once played in the Senate by Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan — bringing thoughtful, academic cultural analysis into the national dialogue.

His piece in today’s Wall Street Journal  on political tribalism could easily have come from Moynihan, back when he was a genuine Neo-Liberal (and alive):

“Humans are social, relational beings. We want and need to be in tribes. In our time, however, all of the traditional tribes that have sustained humans for millennia are simultaneously in collapse. Family, enduring friendship, meaningful shared work, local communities of worship—all have grown ever thinner. We are creating thicker, more vehement tribes around our political differences, I believe, because there is a growing vacuum at the heart of our shared (or increasingly, not so shared) everyday lives.”

The Origins of Political Tribalism

The dissolution of traditional bonds due to mobility, urbanization, mass culture, mass immigration, decline of organized religion and extended families, and other factors spawned a number of political movements, all promising to fix the breakdown of community and the alienation of modern life, generally alongside an ambitious economic ‘reform’ agenda. Communism, Fascism, the labor movement, and 20th-Century Progressivism can all be seen through this lens. (See Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community  for a brilliant, early analysis of this phenomenon.)

America and Political Tribalism

The United States avoided the most extreme expressions because we had deep reserves of cultural capital, a rich, integrated civil society evident even when de Tocqueville came to visit. (We also avoided the devastation and upheaval of World War I, of course, which helped keep us sane.)

The past several decades of cultural and familial dissolution, however, have finally managed to unmoor the middle class, and now we’re increasingly adrift. This expresses itself in openness to radical visions — not least Trump and Sanders.

More worryingly, people are now looking to political tribes for self-identity. Activists on both sides have sometimes done this, but now it’s seeping down to where normal people live. Toxic, zero-sum tribal politics are metastasizing into every corner of life, especially those that once helped bind the country together — sports, popular entertainment, churches, and community groups.

To put it in sociological terms, we’re replacing “bridging” social capital — the kind that helps connect and harmonize very different groups of people — with “bonding” social capital — the kind that helps cement relatively homogenous groups more tightly together.  So you end up with insular cultural and political tribes that have ever-fewer connections with each other. 

Conservatism actually does have an answer to this, in the civic-minded and localist approaches of earlier conservative thought.  Our “individualism” isn’t a cold isolationism, but rather a celebration of organic communities and private initiative solving social problems, instead of an all-powerful central state.

The Future of Political Tribalism

Unfortunately, I think nationalist populism will continue to dominate the conservative agenda.  And it better suits the distemper of the time.  The ferocity and radicalism of modern Progressives would run right over a William F. Buckley. This is the age of punch and counter-punch.  A time when political opponents aren’t wrong – they’re evil and must be driven from public life.

Genial conservatism can’t survive in such an environment. (Nor can genial Liberalism: “civility” is now a dirty word among the Netroots.)

So we’ll continue splitting into mutually-antagonistic tribes oriented around party, race, gender, and anything else we can cling to.. Things will keep getting uglier. The Kavanaugh fight is just a foretaste of what’s coming.

It’s deeply sad, and I accept reality. However, don’t count me as part of the tribe. I’m a conservative and always will be, but that loyalty is secondary to things that really matter — my family, and Christ’s Church.  Those are my true “tribes.” If a unified national culture is increasingly out of reach, then I’ll work where I’m planted, building genuine community at the local level.

Of course, that’ll be easier someday when I actually stay in one place for more than two years.