Politics & Policy

Tribal Warfare Isn’t All Bad

An anti-Kavanaugh protester gestures on the lap of “Lady Justice” on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building, October 6, 2018. (ReutersJonathan Ernst)
The cure for political polarization is worse than the disease.

At this point, commentary on the Kavanaugh affair has spanned an almost impossibly diverse array of topics, including yearbook slang, the science of memory, 1980s teen movies, and the perils of accidentally buzz-marketing Coca-Cola. An alien civilization possessed of nothing else could use the last few weeks as a Rosetta Stone to reconstruct the entirety of American civilization from scratch, given how much culture the press has managed to cram into every moment.

The majority of Kavanaugh commentary, however, has existed to reinforce the “tribal warfare” narrative of modern American politics.

The thesis goes something like this: The United States has become thoroughly captured by an irresolvable cultural conflict pitting a furious right-wing faction against an equally inflamed counterpart on the left. These two sides use the institutions of American governance as battlefields in their quest to impose total ideological hegemony over the nation. Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court thus triggered predictably acrimony from the left because it gave the Court a conservative majority, thereby empowering the right-wing tribe to modify American law in bluntly triumphalist ways — outlawing abortion, say. Such unapologetic mercenary tactics are held to be the root cause of the off-putting character of American politics at the moment, and the reason why all the “good people” will soon be repulsed out of participation.

The Kavanaugh saga was certainly not anyone’s shining hour. The sexual-harassment charges leveled against the man triggered a frantic swirl of cynicism, opportunism, and fearmongering that left few looking their best and did, in fact, expose our tactics of political warfare at their most untamed.

Yet if we strip away the partisanship of the confirmation process and the emotionalism of its vast array of orbiting social issues, what we also see is a case study of American government born from a more substantially neutral trend — democratization.

In the sense that democracy represents the power of ordinary people to hold their leaders accountable, and the degree those leaders feel answerable to an organized public, the American political system has been getting steadily more democratic for decades. This can be attributed to two parallel trends of American life on display over the past month: the responsiveness of America’s institutions to public pressure and sentiment, and the increasingly large segment of the American public that is politically informed and opinionated.

Today, any American who self-identifies as a conservative or a progressive is guided by principles far more coherent than those of any previous generation. Our modern left–right polarization may often be nasty, but it’s certainly not frivolous or petty. As a matter of practical politics, it remains the most broadly useful philosophical system of sorting and prioritizing human values and objectives that man has yet devised. The suite of policies favored by the American Left flow logically from certain core assumptions of the public interest that a sizable coalition of Americans share, as do those of the American Right.

The fact that every participant in American political culture, including our political parties, media, and activist groups, has opted into this left/right duality has made that culture more “polarized,” but it’s also dramatically improved ease of participation. When the entirety of the political arena is organized into two clear communities of interest, after all, it’s easy to know who is supposed to be fighting on your behalf. It was not irrational for the progressive coalition to want Kavanaugh off the Court; his worldview was indeed very different from theirs.

As the Senate’s endorsement of Kavanaugh congealed along ideological lines, some wistfully contrasted his 50-to-48 approval vote with the supermajorities that confirmed justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in decades past. Yet such wistfulness was essentially nostalgia for a Senate animated by either ignorance or indifference to the public good. How else could one rationalize so many senators’ voting to confirm powerful justices whose guiding philosophy differed so substantially from their own — and, by extension, their electorate?

The fact that senators now feel such pressure to take their constitutional duty to “advise and consent” so seriously, even to the point of blindly opposing perfectly qualified presidential appointments for purely ideological reasons, is a democratic victory, unpleasant as it may be to watch. Since 1913 senators have been directly elected, and since the 1960s they have owed their party nominations to voters, too. As mass American society has become more politically conscious and ideologically sorted, senators must perform their duties knowing a vast network of citizen activists, affected lobby groups, and media commentators will not only be judging and pressuring them, but holding the very future of their careers in their hands.

In the smoldering aftermath of every contentious political debate, there is always much demand for more “civility” and “good faith” the next time around. Such calls are theoretically admirable, but it’s a difficult order for politicians to deliver in a society as democratic as 21st-century America, where the pressure to satisfy the transactional demands of the public is so high. In a more elitist political culture, politicians can sacrifice a great deal in the name of maintaining a certain degree of social peace because they won’t have to fear the consequences of offending the New York Times, or the NRA, or Black Lives Matter, or the Club for Growth, or some other institution of accountability. In a democratic culture, politics is exactly as tumultuous as the society it governs, which in America’s case is plenty.

If you don’t like how the Kavanaugh process went down, in short, the prescription is obvious: America needs less political journalism, fewer citizen activists, an unelected Senate, ideologically arbitrary political parties, and a more politically oblivious public.

That demand for such things is so admirably low reveals the lack of desire to cure what supposedly ails us.


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