Tribal Politics in the 21st Century
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Progressives, conservatives, and libertarians each have a mythology in which they are the heroes and the other tribes are villains. Partisans of these three ideologies even speak different languages.
American politics in the 21st century often resembles prehistoric tribalism. As pundits, politicians, or highly engaged citizens posting comments on Facebook or other Internet sites, we beat the drums to say that our side is good and the other side is evil.
The progressives' myth revolves around the axis of oppressors and oppressed. Progressives see themselves as standing up for groups that were historically oppressed.
The conservatives' myth revolves around the axis of civilization and barbarism. Conservatives see themselves as standing up for the institutions and traditions that constrain man's barbarous instincts and preserve civilization. They see progressives and libertarians as contributing to the decline of civilization, either overtly or through indifference.
When a new issue or event arises in the political realm, conservative commentators will discuss it in the language of the civilization-barbarism axis. Their narrative for the mortgage debacle emphasizes the decline in lending standards. The traditional approach was to lend only to thrifty borrowers who made significant down payments and then proceeded to build up equity in their homes. Conservatives see the housing bubble as fueled by loans to profligate borrowers, who put down little or nothing, and who repeatedly borrowed against their home equity to fuel consumption. Under the traditional approach, mortgages constrained people from their natural inclinations to spend for today and ignore tomorrow. When these institutional constraints were lifted, civilization collapsed as people gorged themselves on borrowed money.
The libertarians' myth revolves around the axis of freedom and coercion. Libertarians see themselves as standing up for voluntary transactions and individual choice, and they view all government interference as coercive. They see progressives and liberals as contributing to the expansion of government power at the expense of individual choice, either overtly or through indifference.
When a new issue or event arises in the political realm, libertarian commentators will discuss it in the language of the freedom-coercion axis. Their narrative of the mortgage debacle emphasizes the role played by government agencies. For some libertarians, the Federal Reserve Board is the Dennis the Menace of financial markets, manipulating interest rates to cause bubbles and distortions. Other libertarians see the mortgage crisis as the unintended consequence of financial regulation, particularly capital regulations that put mortgage securities into a “low risk” category. See my own analysis, “Not What They Had in Mind.”
Conservatives see themselves as standing up for the institutions and traditions that constrain man's barbarous instincts and preserve civilization.
These tribal interpretations can be seen in the responses to more recent events. For example, after the school shootings at Sandy Hook, progressive commentator E.J. Dionne praised President Obama's push for gun control in terms of the oppressed-oppressor axis: “He sought to mobilize a new effort to counteract the entrenched power of those who have dictated submissiveness in the face of bloodshed.”
Meanwhile, conservative commentator Victor Davis Hanson discussed gun control in terms of the civilization-barbarism axis: “Homeowners should have the right to own weapons comparable to those of criminals, who often pack illicit semi-automatic handguns.”
Finally, libertarian commentator Nick Gillespie saw the aftermath of the shooting in terms of the freedom-coercion axis:
Many of the same people who are now calling for immediate action with regard to gun control recognize that the Patriot Act, rushed through Congress in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, was a terrible piece of legislation that ultimately did nothing to protect Americans even as it vastly expanded the state's ability to surveil law-abiding citizens. There's no reason to think that federal, state, or local gun control laws promulgated now would result in anything different.
Political commentary tends to reinforce tribal myths while failing to persuade those who belong to other tribes. By speaking different languages, pundits increase polarization, not understanding.
This essay is adapted from the e-book “The Three Languages of Politics.”
Arnold Kling is a member of the Mercatus Center's Financial Markets Working Group at George Mason University.
FURTHER READING: Arnold Kling also describes "The Tribal Mind: Moral Reasoning and Public Discourse," discusses "Checks, Balances, and Audits," suggests that we "Reform Government Pay with Step Decreases," and considers "The Economics of Pepco." Daniel Pletka wonders "Who Are We Again?" Norman Ornstein answers "Can a Nation Divided Really Stand?"
Image by Diana Ingram/Bergman Group