Tribalism Versus Americanism

tribalism in the Trump era

We Americans are a cantankerous and argumentative lot. We hold vastly different political philosophies and policy preferences, and we increasingly inhabit alternate realities. Partisans routinely attack elected officials—especially Presidents—who don’t share their preferences or otherwise meet their expectations.

Politics as usual. Unpleasant and often unfair, but—hysteria and hyperbole notwithstanding– usually not a threat to the future of the republic. Usually.

We are beginning to understand that Donald Trump does pose such a threat.

In the wake of Trump’s moral equivocations following Charlottesville, critics on both the left and right characterized his refusal to distinguish between the “fine people” among the Nazis and KKK and the “fine people” among the protestors as an assault on core American values. His subsequent, stunning decision to pardon rogue sheriff Joe Arpaio has been described, accurately, as an assault on the rule of law.

It’s worth considering what, exactly, is at stake.

Whatever our beliefs about “American exceptionalism,” the founding of this country was genuinely exceptional—defined as dramatically different from what had gone before—in one incredibly important respect: for the first time, citizenship was made dependent upon behavior rather than identity. In the Old World, countries had been created by conquest, or as expressions of ethnic or religious solidarity. As a result, the rights of individuals were dependent upon their identities, the status of their particular “tribes” in the relevant order. (Jews, for example, rarely enjoyed the same rights as Christians, even in countries that refrained from oppressing them.)

Your rights vis a vis your government depended upon who you were—your religion, your social class, your status as conqueror or conquered.

The new United States took a different approach to citizenship. Whatever the social realities, whatever the disabilities imposed by the laws of the various states, anyone (okay, any white male) born or naturalized here was equally a citizen. We look back now at the exclusion of blacks and women and our treatment of Native Americans as shameful departures from that approach, and they were, but we sometimes fail to appreciate how novel the approach itself was at that time in history.

All of our core American values—individual rights, civic equality, due process of law—flow from the principle that government must not facilitate tribalism, must not treat people differently based upon their ethnicity or religion or other marker of identity. Eventually (and for many people, reluctantly) we extended that principle to gender, skin color and sexual orientation.

Racism is a rejection of that civic equality. Signaling that government officials will not be punished for flagrantly violating that foundational principle so long as the disobedience advances the interests of the President, fatally undermines it.

Admittedly, America’s history is filled with disgraceful episodes in which we have failed to live up to the principles we profess. In many parts of the country, communities still grapple with bitter divisions based upon tribal affiliations—race, religion and increasingly, partisanship.

When our leaders have understood the foundations of American citizenship, when they have reminded us that what makes us Americans is allegiance to core American values—not the color of our skin, not the prayers we say, not who we love—we emerge stronger from these periods of unrest. When they speak to the “better angels of our nature,” most of those “better angels” respond.

When our leaders are morally bankrupt, all bets are off. We’re not all Americans any more, we’re just a collection of warring tribes, some favored by those in power, some not.

As the old saying goes: elections have consequences.

 

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on September 10, 2017]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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