The case for tribalism in politics

Matt K. Lewis | Senior Contributor

Conor Friedersdorf is out with an interesting post that illustrates the degree to which tribalism still exists in politics — and how failing to belong to a tribe leaves one vulnerable.

In case you missed it, Friedersdorf’s piece examines Rush Limbaugh’s recent comments regarding how the talk radio host reflexively defended Clarence Thomas in the early 90s — at least partly in order to deprive the left of claiming a conservative scalp (Limbaugh said he assumed Thomas was innocent, an opinion I share).

During the segment, Limbaugh juxtaposed his visceral defense of Thomas then with the lukewarm, qualified defense of Chris Christie coming from conservatives now. And, not surprisingly, the implication is that a person’s ideological loyalty to the cause — not their perceived guilt or innocence — is what earns a person protection. At least, initially.

“If there were a fervent ideological foundation,” Limbaugh said, “if there was a substantive reason of believing in Governor Christie, then whether he lied wouldn’t matter.  They’d be out there defending him left and right just to make sure the Democrats don’t get away with this.”

It may sound unseemly, but Limbaugh, I suspect, is absolutely correct. At the macro level, tribalism might be bad for society. But at the micro level, it makes complete sense. The first thing a lot of people do when they go to prison is join a gang (as the son of a prison guard, a disproportionate number of my stories relate to prisons; I suspect an accountant’s son is prone to talking about numbers). They do this for protection.

As much as we would like to pretend otherwise, politics, I suppose, isn’t terribly different. You and I need someone watching our backs when the other side tries to shank us in the courtyard. (This, of course, is one of the many forces pushing politicians to the right or the left. It’s not just about gerrymandering. Moving to the right or left is a rational decision based on the perfectly logical assumption that you may one day need protection.)

Let me give you a practical example of how this works in the relatively safe world of political journalism.

Let’s say that you develop a reputation as an intellectually honest, center-right contrarian. Your fans (to the degree someone who fits this description has “fans”) will tend to be like you, which is to say they will call em like they see em. As such, when you get into some sort of skirmish or hot water, there’s no guarantee these “free agents” will come rushing to your defense. Even if they agree with you (and there’s no guarantee they will), they aren’t likely to do anything about it. The trouble is, when you’re under attack, you don’t need intellectual honesty, you need unconditional loyalty.

Now, let’s suppose you get into a skirmish with a partisan right-wing blogger — someone who hews closely to conservative orthodoxy at all times. Do you think his or her fans will sit on their hands? Of course not! They will reflexively defend “their guy,” regardless of the merit — and use whatever means available to attack you. This is human nature. They do this because, as Yeats wrote, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

Meanwhile, do you think the liberals will come running to your defense when this conservative blogger is metaphorically bashing your brains in? Why would they? You’re on your own, pal. You might as well be Chris Christie in the midst of a scandal hoping for Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama to come to your rescue.

What’s the lesson here? If you want to run for office — or just write about politics — it’s smart to join a gang, kids.

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