Political Tribalism

I am a life member of the League of Women Voters.  I organized the Clemson (SC) League in 1968 and currently serve as state co-president. So this blog reflects that particular tribe in which I am proud to claim membership.

It is human nature to identify with a tribe, whether that tribe’s base is ethnicity, religion, occupation, geography, income, politics, shared interests, or even sports teams.  (My native New England remains sharply divided even within families between Yankees and Red Sox loyalists.)  Most of us belong to multiple tribes, some overlapping more than others. Bonding with our tribes is part of how we develop our own identity and self-understanding.  But to make democracy work, we have to not only bond but also bridge—to communicate across tribal lines to others who perceive the world differently from the purview of their tribal identities.

Over the last few decades, aided and abetted by the proliferation of social media that cater to defined tribes, our civil society has degenerated into tribalism, hiding behind our barricades and shouting over the ramparts.  Theologian Paul Tillich defines neurosis as “retreating to a limited defensible fortress of ideas.”  By that definition, we are an increasingly neurotic society.

The League of Women Voters, committed to nonpartisanship, has had to learn to operate outside or across many tribal divisions. So we have a contribution to make not only to a vibrant democracy but perhaps to our collective mental health as well.  In voter service, we encourage everyone to participate in the political process, whether they share our hopes for the outcome or not.  We invite dialogue at candidate forms and insist that every candidate be treated with respect. In advocating with public officials, we seek common ground in trying to identify the public good and how we might best achieve it. In a world of yes/no, either/or, we stand for compromise, for that fundamental principle of public policy that the best is often the enemy of the good (or the good enough, or the good enough for now, or a move in the right direction.) It took 72 long years for our foremothers to win the right to vote, but they persisted. Compromise is not a  four-letter word.  It is the essence of being able to live together in spite of differences, whether it is in a family, a workplace, a neighborhood, a city, state or nation.

So as we move into the fray of electoral politics, remember that our task is, as Rudyard Kipling said, to keep our heads when all of those around us are losing theirs and blaming it on you (or us). As we begin our next century of serving the public interest and rising above our tribal allegiances, let us be mindful in this year of the centennial of the 19th amendment, we are in it for the long haul.


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