Why tribalism rules everything, from politics to culture to criminal trials

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Even as the man who killed George Floyd was found guilty of murder, we are finding plenty to argue about.

Not about the conviction of Derek Chauvin, which almost everyone has accepted given the damning video that made clear exactly what happened in Minneapolis.

Instead, there’s been a collective pivot to what President Biden called “systemic racism”: How widespread is it? Does it really exist? Are we tarnishing police everywhere because Chauvin used his knee as a murder weapon? Or are African-Americans justified in fearing that every traffic stop could lead to a tragic outcome?


The flame of argument over police tactics burns more brightly than ever. When Maxine Waters threw kerosene on that fire by declaring that protesters must “get more confrontational” if the “guilty” Chauvin gets off, the parties predictably squared off. Nancy Pelosi said the 82-year-old congresswoman has nothing to apologize for, while Kevin McCarthy moved for her to be censured.

When Donald Trump said things that seemed incendiary—telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”—Democrats said he was inciting violence and Republicans called that absurd.

But when Joe Biden said he prayed for the “right” verdict in the Floyd case—even with the jury sequestered—wasn’t he acting as egregiously in proclaiming the innocence of Michael Flynn and Roger Stone?

It’s no secret that partisan politics has rarely been more polarized. We see it in the immigration debate, we see it in the Covid debate, we even see it in the vaccine debate. We see it with those who still believe the opposition stole the election from Trump, and with those who suffer from Trump Derangement Syndrome. We see it with those who believe Biden is mentally addled and not really running the White House, and those who view him as the second coming of FDR.

But politics has always been a contact sport. Most troubling of all is the way our national disputes have severed friendships and even caused trouble in marriages (see George and Kellyanne). I’ve lost track of how many people I have seen dump their former pals on Facebook. This may have been exacerbated during the Trump years, but it’s hardly letting up now.

Nate Cohn has an analysis in the New York Times about this form of “sectarianism,” where each side sees the other as essentially evil. And there’s polling to back this up. In a CBS survey in January, more than half of Republicans—and more than 40 percent of Democrats—said they view the other party as “enemies.”

And this sort of fundamental mistrust extends to the media, most members of which were famously dubbed the “enemy of the people” by the 45th president. They didn’t just get things wrong, he charged, they made up non-existent sources. I’ve got a long list of criticisms of the press, from political bias to recklessness to sensationalism, but I don’t think it’s fair to question their patriotism.

Still, after yesterday’s column on a judge ordering police in Minnesota to stop beating, harassing and arresting journalists covering the protests, a number of posters said they must be lying or offered some version of “they deserved it.”

Beyond political polarization, the Times piece says, the two parties “have simultaneously sorted along racial, religious, educational, generational and geographic lines. Partisanship has become a ‘mega-identity,’ in the words of the political scientist Lilliana Mason, representing both a division over policy and a broader clash between white, Christian conservatives and a liberal, multiracial, secular elite.”

This has some resonance. Politics used to be a sideline for most people, less important than their jobs, colleagues, family, friends and local sports teams. Now many like or dislike MLB, NFL and NBA based on political debate. Now people don’t want to date someone with opposite political views. Now many reflexively love or hate political leaders (Biden or Trump, Andrew Cuomo or Ron DeSantis) based on what their “side” says.

And now many define themselves by the media they consume—Fox, MSNBC, Journal, Times, NPR—and repeat what they hear and see. That’s a big part of why Twitter (which itself has taken sides, banning Trump, suppressing Hunter Biden stories) has become so toxic.

Cohen argues that such emotions run particularly high in the GOP, which has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential contests.


because “conservatives fear that demographic changes promise to further erode their support. And while defeat is part of the game in democracy, it is a lot harder to accept in a sectarian society.”

Well, there was a lot of “take our country back” talk in the last four years. And we saw the ultimate expression of refusing to accept defeat in January when pro-Trump supporters stormed the Capitol.

But I believe both sides have become increasingly tribal in their approach to public life. Bill Clinton railed against the “politics of personal destruction,” George W. Bush promoted compassionate conservatism, Barack Obama and Biden both campaigned on changing the tone in Washington. But the sectarian forces are proving to be too powerful, and on that score we are all losers.

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