In the wake of the 2016 election, Michael Gerson has proved to be one of the more thoughtful observers of our depressing political scene. Gerson, as many of you will recall, was a speechwriter for George W. Bush, but he is no partisan hack; although he looks at our contemporary scene through a decidedly conservative political lens, he is no apologist for today’s GOP.
In a column for the Washington Post written after the election in Virginia, Gerson considered the current fragmentation of both political parties.
We have reached a moment of intellectual and moral exhaustion for both major political parties. One is dominated by ethnic politics — which a disturbingly strong majority of Republican regulars have found appealing or acceptable. The other is dominated by identity politics — a movement that counts a growing number of Robespierres. Both seem united only in their resentment of the international economic order that the United States has built and led for 70 years.
Normally, a political party would succeed by taking the best of populist passion and giving it more mainstream expression. But in this particular, polarized environment, how is that possible? Do mainstream Republicans take a dollop of nativism and a dash of racism and add them to their tax cuts? That seemed to be the approach that Ed Gillespie took in the Virginia governor’s race. But this is morally poisonous — like taking a little ricin in your tea. Do mainstream Democrats just take some angry identity politics and a serving of socialism — some extreme pro-choice rhetoric and single-payer health care — and add them to job-training programs?
What Gerson calls “ethnic politics” is, of course, virulent bigotry–mostly racism, but also homophobia, anti-Semitism, and a variety of other “isms.’ What he calls “identity politics” is class-based animus.
This fracturing of the American citizenry into tribal identities and various “us versus them” configurations is the ultimate challenge to the promise of e pluribus unum–out of the many, one.
It’s ironic that at a time when more and more Americans claim to be political independents, partisanship has become so toxic. A recent survey found a third of American parents would strenuously oppose their child’s marriage to someone who is a member of the other party. The Governor of Alabama was quoted as saying she’d vote for Roy Moore–even though she believed the allegations against him– rather than a Democrat, because keeping control of the Senate was more important than repudiating immoral behavior.
Extreme tribalism has also corrupted a significant number of evangelical Christians. Pious pronouncements about morality have proved no match for promises of power. Majorities of so-called “bible-believing’ evangelicals “forgave” Trump for his three wives, his boorish behaviors and his admitted (indeed, boasted about) sexual offenses in return for his promise to restore their theocratic version of Christianity and return its tribal adherents to the privileged position they once held–a privileged position now threatened by demographic change.
These deep-seated divisions aren’t the result of incommensurate philosophies. Political science research confirms that relatively few people vote on the basis of policy agreement or disagreement–instead, most voters choose their political affiliations based upon identity–upon a perception that “the people in this political party are like me,” and the comfort that comes with being among those who are like- minded.
Among the many unprecedented challenges we face–politically, economically, socially–the most important of all may be re-knitting the various racial, religious and social class threads into a single cloth, a fabric representing an inclusive American tribe.