Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

May I Say Tribe?

Two and half years ago, when the situation in Iraq was pretty much at its worst Bush's popularity was already headed steeply down (though not yet as low as it is now), I was talking to one of my very liberal friends, and he commented: "You Republicans enjoy it now. We'll take back congress at the next election, and there is no Republican on earth who could win the presidency after eight years of Bush. He's destroyed your party for a generation."

"What if we nominate McCain?" I asked.

He considered. "There's no way. McCain is the one Republican I would consider voting for -- and that means you people would never elect him. Maybe he'll switch parties when we take over."

Well, here we are. And now my liberal friends assure me that "this is not the McCain we knew." He's "McSame". He's "Bush's third term". He's "McFossil". He's a "batshit insane" warmonger who wants to start World War III. And yet four years ago, when he called out Michael Moore in a speach at the Republican convention, Moore claimed he was hurt and said the he liked McCain and admired him. Senator John Kerry reportedly wanted McCain as a running mate.

What happened here? So far as I can tell, McCain is still very much whatever he always was. I'm not myself a fan, but he does have an Old Roman sort of virtue that I admire to an extent. He is not a principled conservative, or indeed an adhereant to any intellectually defined political or economic philosophy. But he is clearly a firm believer in honesty, honor, and service to the Civitas. He's devoted his life to the Res Publica, and I think he would probably do less damage to the country and the world than Obama -- though I suspect that if he is elected it will be longer before a real conservative is able to win back the presidency than if we have a Democrat in the White House. (However since we vote for the good of the country rather than the party -- I will probably vote for him.)

However, McCain has lost all his support from across the aisle because electoral politics is not just a matter of competing political philosophies -- it is also a matter of tribalism. While there are very real and important differences of political, moral and economic philosophy between the two major parties in America, the tribalism of party membership at times seems to have equal or greater force in fueling debate.

Tribalism can cut both ways. Although he sustained a good bit of criticism from conservatives, President Bush did not have the fight from congressional Republicans over No Child Left Behind, the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit or the creation of the Department of Homeland Security that any Democratic president would have recieved over such massive increases in government power and beaurocracy. In that case, tribalism protected him.

Over the years, McCain has received much admiration from liberal and moderate quarters -- but in an election year (and with a new, younger media darling for the Democratic nominee) his proposals (even some very liberal ones which I do not like, such as his cap-and-trade carbon policy) are being ignored or greeted with derision. Tribalism requires that any policies put forward by the presidential nominee of one party be scorned by members of the other party -- even if they themselves advocated similar proposals in the past.

The tribal lense also affects how people view the world. For instance, expect many Democrats to be much less worried about government wiretaps and the continued presence of US troops in Iraq if Obama is president rather than McCain. Similarly, expect a number of Republicans who have been curiously quiet on such issues to recall that they don't trust the government and don't want it doing wiretaps, and that they don't think that US troops should be used for open-ended nation-building exercises, if Obama wins.

And notice how it is always whichever party is out of power which is able to notice what things are going wrong (or may go wrong) with the economy -- while those in power may recognize are problem here or there, but are sure it is only the result of the cycle and we're doing everything we can.

None of which is to say that there aren't very real points which are made, and sincerely meant, by the most partisan. (And certainly, I can be one of the more partisan at times.) But especially for the six months leading up to the presidental election every four years, one can expect much of the political discourse to be more about tribe than about principles.


Anonymous said...

All this really only goes to show that there really isn't any philosophy at work within our own representatives.

They don't really believe in anything, except in justifying either their ascension to power or the expansion of power.

Which to some degree makes sense - for them it's much easier than having to find some another career.

There's no way I will vote for McCain or Obama. At that point its nearly justifiable to send a message by not voting (though I will be). They are just different faces attractive to different sectors of the populace. The militarists and statists love the gritty McCain, and the social engineers (also statists) love the self-satisfaction and validation Obama brings.

I guess ultimately what I'm saying is that talk of tribalism and partisanism is useless and has been for a long time thanks to both major parties blending themselves for the sake of stabilizing their power.

Both parties are liberal in the sense that they shred parts of the Constitution inconvenient to their own agenda, thus diminishing our chance at "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

TS said...

Before we went into Iraq I recall a liberal friend telling me that it didn't matter if they found WMDs -- because Bush would plant them if there weren't any. So Bush was set up to lose either way - whether they were found or not, the Left was ready with a response.

Your post reminds me of that in how your friend said that Republicans would not nominate McCain, but when they did he's Bush III. Setting it up in advance so that the other side can only lose - regardless of the impact on the country - seems to me a near perfect indicator of tribalism.

Zach said...

"However, McCain has lost all his support from across the aisle because electoral politics is not just a matter of competing political philosophies -- it is also a matter of tribalism. While there are very real and important differences of political, moral and economic philosophy between the two major parties in America, the tribalism of party membership at times seems to have equal or greater force in fueling debate."

Spot on. I hate to say it because it is rather elitist, but most people are not interested in dealing with ideas. We are a culture controlled by our feelings.

Anonymous said...

Both candidates are pro-abort. McCain w/embryonic stem cell. Send a CLEAR message this year, vote 3rd party or write in. A man of principle will vote his principles!

Anonymous said...

I 100% agree with this post. The idea of tribalism takes it back way farther than the kind of language I'm used to dealing with it through. If you've read Voegelin, then you know what I'm talking about.

@ Cliff:

I don't think this is a question of principle, at least not in the way you're suggesting. If you're presented with a bill that were to, say, illegalize 50% of all abortions, would you refuse to support it because your principles say that ALL abortions are wrong? McCain may in many, many ways be an undesirable option, but he's the only one that's remotely viable against Obama. Voting 3rd party in a case like this is (I hate the cliche, but here goes) as good as just not voting at all.

Anonymous said...

I just find it amazing that people think voting 3rd party or "voting your principles" is as good as not voting. Sure, you might lose, but you've made a statement. The voter has said he is unwilling to support the mediocrity given him by the two leading candidates.

At some point SOMEBODY has to start voting their principles if any legitimate "change" will ever occur. If not, then you will get exactly what the Republicans proved themselves to be: posers.

Figulus said...

Am I the only guy left on the internet who thinks McCain is conservative? He is more conservative than Bush, and way more than Romney! Tribalism is the right word; McCain wasn't a team player and many of his fellow republicans will always hate him for it. But he was always conservative, and his 100% anti-abortion voting record is truly remarkable in the senate.

And no Cliff, a pro stem-cell stance is no more pro-abortion than a pro organ-donation stance is pro-murder.

Darwin said...


Well, if you're actively killing people to harvest their organs, than being pro-organ-donation would be pro-murder. The reason that pro-lifers have an issue with embryonic stem cell research (not stem cell research in general) is that it involves actively producing embryos via cloning or IVF and then destroying them in order to harvest stem cells.

As for whether McCain is a conservative, let's be clear for starters: Bush is no conservative either. Sure, he is more conservative than Gore or Kerry, but he's not "a conservative" in a principled sense of the term.

Comparing the two, McCain is arguably quite a bit more fiscally conservative than Bush, and I think that's a good thing. He might also have avoided No Child Left Behind and the DHS. However, he's got his own pet non-conservative ideas, such as a massive cap-and-trade energy tax, campaign finance reform which in some important ways limits free speech, and a few unsound economic policies. I think the other thing that is sometimes latched onto is that McCain is clearly less comfortable talking about religion that Bush is, and some social conservative appreciate that specifically religious vocabulary.