John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and he has just completed a book on the 2016 elections titled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track, available from Amazon.
Increasingly, pundits, politicians, and columnists are attributing America’s ills to tribalism. Google “tribal politics” and you’ll get pages of articles detailing how tribalism is turning us against one another or showing just how divided we are, most of them written within the last year. It’s become the go-to explanation for what’s wrong with us as a country.
Problem is, it really doesn’t explain much. It’s sort of like asking someone why they’re tired, and accepting, “…Didn’t sleep too well,” as the answer. But of course, the real question – and therefore the real source of any solutions – isn’t why someone is tired, but why they didn’t sleep well. Until that question is answered, the problem is likely to go on … and on.
Similarly, the real question behind the country’s dysfunctional politics is why have we become so tribal, and what can we do about it?
The roots of modern tribalism in American politics
The standard answer to the question of modern tribalism is that we all move around in media bubbles of our own choosing which reinforce our biases, prejudices, and beliefs. This, in turn, is attributed to technology – the rise of cable news shows and the advent of the Internet and social media, both of which enable the formation of salons of the ignorant – and it’s always the “others” who comprise the stupid.
And while there’s some truth to this, our fractured media landscape is as much a result of tribalism as it is a cause of it. The reality is, the reason the Internet and new media tilted toward tribalism is that the oligarchy in America launched a coup in the 70’s, designed to convince Americans that government was the cause of all that ailed us; the free market the solution. They did this so they could eliminate any constraints on their wholesale theft of our wealth and our freedoms.
To this end, they launched a well-funded campaign designed to convert the people’s belief in a commonweal – a “we the people” — into a host of “thems,” each intent on taking the other’s money, rights, freedoms etc. It was a classic divide and conquer strategy intended to distract us, to set us against each other, and split up any group with a critical mass capable of confronting the coup.
As the oligarchs were launching a rhetorical campaign designed to foster this fracturing of the people – featuring the likes of Ronnie “government is the problem” Reagan — they also sought to eviscerate any regulations designed to assure that media ownership was diverse, and that news was fair, accurate, and truthful. Ultimately, successfully splintering the citizenry into tribes (or reinforcing existing racial, ethnic or religious prejudices) depended upon neutering the Federal Communications Commission.
It started with Reagan, who appointed Mark Fowler to chair the FCC. Fowler, who made his living representing telecommunication companies before his appointment, was a free-market ideologue of the first degree who once said, “The television is just another appliance…a toaster with pictures.” Once approved, Fowler promptly went about the business of deregulating the media. By the time Reagan stepped down, the media had been converted from a public trust with a public purpose, to a commodity subject primarily to the whims of the free market.
But the DLC Democrats, in thrall to corporate interests, doubled down on this deregulation, and it accelerated under Clinton. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, passed with the backing of the Clinton Administration, contained several crucial provisions sought by telecommunications companies including:
With deregulation, the barriers and costs of entry into the news market, together with the long tail economics of niche marketing, created an ever-increasing demand for news shows targeted at specific audiences. The result was a fractured media that operated 24-7, with a huge appetite for stories and an addiction to sensationalism, controversy, and all too often, conspiracy.
Prior to the coup, an individual media market had to have diversity in ownership; owners had to present opposing viewpoints; and there were consequences and accountability built into the system. Thus, the kind of misinforming media monocultures that operate today could not exist.
There is nothing inherently preventing the US from giving the FCC the kind of authority needed to assure this kind of equity and honesty in today’s media environment. For example, Germany recently put rules in place governing social media, and several other countries have moved to assure greater accuracy and accountability in news and social media.
But here in the US, the assault on a media continues today. Three trends: the death of net neutrality, further scuttling FCC rules limiting cross media ownership in local markets, and the culmination of two decades of mergers have left citizens a press of, by, and for the corporations.
Tribalism, then, was not an inevitable result of technological changes in the media; rather it was the product of a conscious effort to splinter the majority into groups and pit them one against the other, and deregulating the media was one of the primary tools used to accomplish this.
The consequences of tribalism
Speaking of the “majority,” by far, the largest cohort among eligible voters are those who no longer choose to participate in what they consider to be an elaborate Kabuki dance. Cynicism gets a bad rap, but when people’s choices are reduced to Democrats who pretend to be progressive right before each election but represent the interests of the oligarchy the rest of the time on the one hand, and Republicans who have grown increasingly lunatic on the other, choosing not to participate can be seen as a reasonable response. Particularly when you realize that the vast majority of Americans hold progressive views on an issue-by-issue basis.
The rationally cynical are the new silent majority, and they have very few politicians who actually represent them. There’s a reason Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in America.
This is the real problem with tribalism. When a plurality of voters believe that politics and politicians are tools of the uber-rich and corporations and choose to sit out elections, a mere 27 percent of Americans can now decide the results of a national election. That’s why we have Trump.
But tribalism is a symptom. The real problem is there’s been a coup, and America is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporations and the ultra-rich.
The lesson from Virginia – a southern state – is that progressive candidates can and will win elections because they will get the new progressive silent majority back into the voting booths. All we need is a political Party that truly embraces progressive values.
Sadly, with ten months to go until the mid-term elections, no such Party exists.
Top photo: “Tribalism, then, was not an inevitable result of technological changes in the media; rather it was the product of a conscious effort to splinter the majority into groups and pit them one against the other, and deregulating the media was one of the primary tools used to accomplish this.” (Photo: Shawn Thew, European Pressphoto Agency)
First, a Little Background
This op-ed didn’t appear in a vacuum. The Party’s Unity Reform Commission adjourned on December 9th after seven months of deliberations, and led by progressives, issued a series of recommendations that would take some limited measures to democratize the Democratic Party.
Among the key changes the Commission recommended were proposals to reduce the number of Super Delegates by 60 percent, make participation in caucuses less difficult, provide incentives and penalties designed to encourage states to open up the primary process, and make the Party’s financial transactions more transparent. Progressives on the Commission won a hard-fought battle to include an Ombudsman Council responsible for assuring transparency and accountability in the Party’s financial transactions.
The Unity Commission’s recommendations will not become effective until the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee approves them. But DNC Chair Tom Perez removed the Sanders supporters from the Committee two months ago, decreasing the likelihood that the Committee would approve these measures.
So while progressives won some changes in the Unity Commission, the war for the heart and soul of the Party is still raging. And clearly, the neoliberals are loath to let go of the reins. This article, written by two academics who clearly belong to what Thomas Frank referred to as the liberal elite, is the first salvo in the establishment’s battle against the democratization of the Democratic Party.
Welcome to the Orwellian World of the Liberal Elite
The article is so poorly argued that it wouldn’t be worth acknowledging if it weren’t for the fact that it stems from the war for control of the Democratic Party, and the stakes for the people, the party and the country couldn’t be higher. If the neoliberals win this war, many voters—denied a real choice once again—will continue to stay home on election day, allowing extreme right wing candidates to continue winning elections with a relatively small percentage of eligible voters.
Let’s look at Professors Azari and Masket’s key arguments since they reveal the indefensible assumptions the neoliberals are using to retain control of the party.
We Know Best: After giving a brief summary of the history of selecting candidates from the days of smoke-filled rooms filled with Party bosses and apparatchiks, they detail the increasing democratization of candidate selection, before suggesting it’s gone too far.
To use their own words:
Part of the problem for parties is our insistence that they be run democratically. That turns out not to be a very realistic concept. Yes, we can hold elections within parties, but party leaders will always have vastly more information about candidates — their strengths and flaws, their ability to govern and work with Congress, their backing among various interest groups and coalitions — than voters and caucusgoers do.
Really? Besides sounding like a rationalization one could find in Pravda in the 1960’s, there’s the fact that these same Party leaders just managed to lose to Trump — the most disliked and distrusted candidate in the history of polling. If that’s what their inside knowledge buys us, then we need new leaders.
But the fact is, the real reason Democrats lost and have been losing for decades, is that their dependence upon corporations and the ultra-rich to fund campaigns has made it all but impossible for them to back policies that reverse the exploding crisis of income and wealth disparity, or to take stands on climate change that go beyond cynical cosmetics, or to take actions to rein in big banks and Wall Street. As a result, the biggest block of voters has been the no-shows for several decades now. This is what left the way open for the passionately ignorant minority to elect an idiot like Trump.
Back to the article: the authors acknowledge that transparency and democratization helps create legitimacy and voter buy-in, then they note that there is a crisis of faith in the two party system. Their solution for Democrats? Reverse the trends that would increase faith in the system, apparently.
It’s Bernie’s Fault: So, having dispatched transparency and democratization as solutions to the widespread sense that the Democratic Party is corrupt and the sense of illegitimacy that breeds for the candidates it fields, they need to come up with a reason for that illegitimacy.
They resort to the neoliberal’s favorite fantasy … that Hillary lost because Sanders undermined her in the campaign, and Sanders supporters refused to close ranks around Clinton once her nomination was certain. But here again, people have been bailing on the Democratic Party for decades now, and it’s because the party refuses to back candidates who represent the people’s interests.
Blaming the voter for not backing your flawed—and pre-selected—candidate is just plain stupid. If the party wants to have folks turn out and support their candidates they should nominate candidates who don’t have a record of backing policies that are anathema to the people’s interests. As Trump’s own pollster acknowledged, had Sanders won the nomination, he would have trounced Trump, and turnout is the reason.
The good professors also ignore the fact that Sanders campaigned tirelessly and arguably more effectively for Clinton than anyone, including Hillary herself.
This article is exhibit A of the war the neoliberals are waging against a more democratic means of selecting candidates. The corporatist wing of the Democratic Party wants control, more than they want to win. The Rules and Bylaws Committee has six months to consider the changes proposed by the Unity Commission.
Establishment Democrats have not done a good job telling people about their internal deliberations, preferring to operate in secret. In the days, weeks and months ahead, we the people must be vigilant and diligent and work to ensure that the Rules Committee approves the Commission’s changes.
The alternative is more candidates of, by, and for the oligarchy, and more victories for Republicans.
Top photo: Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez and his deputy, Rep. Kieth Ellison.
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