The Tribal Party

David Roberts writes:

Tonight was a full-throated reversion back to what has become the default posture for the right: resentment, tribalism, nationalism, and fear. After Carly Fiorina’s bland and widely ignored remarks, the rest of the night was pure red meat. I was somewhat surprised — I thought they’d use Palin as a hook to bring in mild-mannered soccer moms, but her speech was just as hyperpartisan as the rest. Instead of taking her appeal to the center, they are using her to elevate the culture wars.


I thought they’d use Palin as a hook to bring in mild-mannered soccer moms

One assumes that was the initial hope, but of course the news cycle complicated matters. I’m struck by this notion that there is only one side in the culture wars — or rather that only one side ever makes any transgressions, while the other side is saintly and invincibly innocent.

After Carly Fiorina’s bland and widely ignored remarks, the rest of the night was pure red meat.

Surely this is an enduring feature of American politics, richly on display during the DNC as well. But of course the politics of moral superiority plays a different, complicated role in both political parties. There certainly is a kind of social conservatives who embraces a stance of moral superiority — one rooted in rigorous adherence to traditional values, old-time religion, and that opens one up to a charge of hypocrisy. That’s a difficult stance for, say, Rudy Giuliani to embrace, and for the most part he doesn’t — his red meat comes from a different place.

The left has its own politics of moral superiority — of superior virtue, of a more broad-minded, more tolerant view of the world. Roberts invoked tribalism. And of course the opposite of tribalism is cosmopolitanism: the politics of no-place. This cosmopolitanism is a source of moral superiority. However, this cosmopolitanism can never be referred to by name — that is an ugly nationalist smear, yet another sign of the tribal right’s self-evident moral inferiority.

The politics of fear is real and it is potent. Sometimes fear is deployed against agents of economic change as well as low-wage workers struggling to get a foothold on the ladder of prosperity — people in places like my parents’ home country, Bangladesh. Sometimes the politics of fear involves invoking the threat posed by Al Qaeda terrorists. I think it is possible to exaggerate the danger posed by Al Qaeda, but surely it is also possible to exaggerate the danger posed by flourishing economies in Asia.

In fairness, Republicans are often invoking the danger posed by a liberal foreign policy — one based on a model of a world defined not by competition, but by cooperation, in which terrorist threats are more likely to recede in a more just, equitable world. There are aspects of this vision that are attractive. But you’ll be shocked to learn that conservatives also find this worldview a little naive, particularly as it regards a handful of states that don’t share our normative commitments. This seems like a pretty fair, reasonable argument to have, and it makes sense that it would be heated — the stakes are high.

Fear is also invoked on the subject of the climate emergency. But ah, you object: the climate emergency is real! Fear is appropriate. And I think that’s right. Surely, though, you can acknowledge that some believe that there are also urgent threats to our national security?

Moreover, given the threat posed by methane emissions buried in the Siberian permafrost, and given that the Kyoto Protocol was essentially devised by Gore and Chernomyrdin to serve as a massive transfer of wealth to the Russian state, it is at least plausible to argue that conventional solutions offered for the climate crisis are likely to be of limited utility, and extremely costly nonetheless.

As for resentment, well, I’m an extremely fortunate person: I have two parents, I have two sisters, I have modest expenses, and while I have professional responsibilities, I don’t have many personal ones. But yes, I resent the contempt that has been directed against Sarah Palin, I resent the deliberate misrepresentation of John McCain’s record, and I think I’m not alone in either regard. I imagine many people inclined to like Barack Obama feel a little resentful as well about what they see as misrepresentations of his past association with Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, Tony Rezko, and other figures. And I think Democrats are fully capable of deploying that resentment to great political effect — Chris Hayes wrote a wonderful essay on the subject, referring to MoveOn’s appeal to today’s silent majority of the left — a group that, incidentally, I take to be a metaphorical majority in the manner of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority:

Though its politics are in many ways the opposite of the Nixon silent majority’s, they share a disposition. They are people not inclined to protest but whose rising unease with the direction of the country has led to a new political consciousness. For citizens angered, upset and disappointed with their government but unsure how to channel those sentiments, MoveOn provides simple, discrete actions: sign this petition, donate money to run this ad, show up at this vigil.

Anger is a powerful force in political life. A unifying grievance, as Jon Henke calls it, has motored the spectacular rise of the Democrats — the war in Iraq — and unifying grievances have also mobilized the political right. “But grievances mobilize the right more!” I’m not so sure. Really, though: isn’t it a silly conversation?

My politics of moral superiority is right. You are a rootless cosmopolitan who doesn’t put country first, and your moral fecklessness will send us all to hell. What do you expect us to do — defend out country with spitbaaaaaaaaaaalls?

No, mine is. You are a mean, nasty nationalist-tribalist, while I am an enlightened citizen of the world. How dare you call me a cosmopolitan! I am also a pork-rind-chewing populist. Except I hate pork-rinds, as evidenced by my visible distaste.

The Democrats have more esprit de corps this year. They are the happy warriors. The pendulum will swing. But let’s lay off on the “You’re resentful! I hate you with a virulent passion and will now stab you in the heart!” “No, you’re resentful! I will tear you limb from limb with my bare hands.” It’s unedifying.