Thursday, June 14, 2012


TRIBE: “A social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent.”

The hoped for reform movements in the “Arab Spring” nations have exposed the underlying weakness of these societies with respect to democratic structures and processes. That weakness is tribalism. It is an ancient and entrenched basis for social organization which now unfettered by authoritarian suppression, is dividing the respective nations into hostile, even violent groups competing for political power.

The current federal election campaigns in the United States provide a sharp contrast to the seemingly intractable social, and thus political, divisions in these countries as they struggle to create representative governments. But while the U.S. manages to avoid election violence and citizens generally accept the legitimacy of election outcomes, the nation's political environment is taking on more and more of the characteristics of a tribal society. These include divisions and group identity based on race, ethnicity, religion, and region.

Certainly there is no complete homogeneity with respect to political views in these groups but there is historic consistency in voting patterns with respect to majorities within the groups. The problem is that political operatives promote and exploit the identification of individuals as an electoral strategy while self appointed “leaders” and politicians demagogue the groups for personal gain. The result of years of this appeal to differences is the further division of American society into competing, aggrieved groups. This breeds further intolerance and a tribal like mutual hostility which has on occasion deteriorated into open hostility. The Congress recognizes and abets these divisions by including in its organizational structure sub-groups or caucuses which are driven by the perceived need to address group identities and agendas. Thus the Congress has, among many others, the Congressional Black Caucus; the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Now, in an election year, pursuit of electoral support in the groups quickly becomes pandering on narrow topics. While all Americans are, or should be, concerned primarily with economic well being and opportunity for their children, personal and national security and quality and affordable health care, the caucuses, non-governmental organizations and periodically, political campaigns, emphasize grievances. For black Americans, the campaigns offer affirmative action, government financial assistance and the seemingly permanent claim of institutional racism. The campaign issue for Hispanics is immigration reform which is short hand for more liberal entry and amnesty for illegals currently in the country. Asians represent only 4.8 percent of the population but have followed the lead of the other aggrieved groups and their “leaders” are quick to condemn any public remark or joke referencing Asian stereotypes as well as seeking “representation” on non-representative executive branch bodies and bureaucracies.

These racial/ethnic divisions are reenforced in the public school systems and institutions of higher education by the misguided celebration of “multiculturalism” and “diversity”. This is based on the notion that individual foreign cultures which are simplistically represented by individual American students with different family ancestries, when grouped together, foster mutual respect. In reality, the effort diminishes respect for American's common cultural heritage, political history and sense of national identity as well as discouraging new immigrants from making efforts to assimilate.

The media insists on promoting simple differences in ethnic background of natural born Americans by describing hyphenated “firsts”: the “first Hispanic-American Supreme Court Justice (Sonia Sotomayor); the “first” female Hispanic-American governor (Susana Martinez); the “first” Chinese-American play in the NBA (Jeremy Lin).
There are no religious based American “tribes” as such because even though most Americans self identify with some organized religion, the major political issues in general cut across the major religious groups. There are however, sub-groups or what might be the political equivalent of “clans” within the major groups which are bound together in support of one or two specific issues at the expense of the larger issues. Thus, as seen in the Republican presidential primaries, self identified Evangelicals focused on the issues of abortion and gay rights as their primary qualification for support.
The recent controversy among religiously conservative Roman Catholics concerning the federal government's (Obamacare) requirement that religious based organizations provide health insurance coverage for birth control has been a major call to arms by Catholic bishops who are attempting to use the election as leverage for their position.

The political efforts by Evangelical preachers and the Catholic bishops is not unlike the claims of the religious (Islamic) political parties in recent elections in Tunisia and Egypt who demand strict adherence to their interpretation of Koranic principles.

Region also presents a significant and semi-permanent divide as described by “red”, “blue” and “purple” states. The red states are in the South and non-coastal West, the blue are on both coasts and the upper mid-west, with the purple being a few states undergoing demographic changes i.e. Colorado, New Mexico, Florida. In a country as vast as the United States, cultural differences are to be expected in different regions. The troubling aspect of this in terms of national politics is the divisive demagoguery that has resulted. Liberal leaning California, Oregon and Washington are disparaged as the “Left Coast”, the western and mid-western states are referred to dismissively as unimportant “fly over states” while the socially conservative southern states are still vilified by self described intellectual superiors in the urban centers further north, as the home of backward, dentally challenged “red necks”.

The United States is indeed a diverse nation and people by nature tend to aggregate in neighborhoods and social organizations with others most like themselves. It is unfortunate that the political efforts of parties, national media and self serving group “leaders” seek to create political advantage by creating political divisions among these social groups. Political analysts and “strategists” will be measuring the success of these dividers by keeping track of the “women's(feminist) vote, the Hispanic vote, the Evangelical vote, the black vote (in this case, turnout), blue collar union vote, Jewish vote, and Islamic vote.

Because the parties and group leaders will characterize the campaigns for the president and Congress in terms of “victims” and “perpetrators” the post election political environment will be even more hostile than it is currently, and further the creation of a permanent and entrenched opposition no matter which party wins.

Addendum: The 2008 presidential election

                    % of total vote:   % Obama:  %  McCain:

Men            47                         49                48
Women       53                         56                43
White          74                         43                55
Black          13                          95                 4
Hispanic       9                          67                31
Asian            2                          62                35
Protestant                                 45                54
Catholic                                    54                45
Jews                                          78                21
Evangelicals                              24               74
Union Homes 21                       59                39
East            21                            59                40
Midwest     24                            54                44
South          32                            45                54
West           23                            57                40

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