"One of Us"
We humans are tribal creatures, especially so when we are enraged or frightened. We pore over every small clue in the appearance and actions of those with whom we interact, trying to quickly differentiate between those who can offer us the security of sameness and those who might be a dangerous or unpredictable “other.” We need to know who is “one of us” and who is “one of them” so we know what opinions to form; whether to justify or demonize a statement or action.
Have you ever read the comments section of a Yahoo news story? It’s a shining example of moral judgment based on group identification. The bodies aren’t cool and the details aren’t in, there’s just a headline that reads, “BREAKING: 5 killed in Alabama, suspected arrested….” Yet it’s almost a given that the first slew of comments won’t be condolences for the survivors or a search for verifiable details. More likely, it will be speculation on which “other” is responsible. Supporters of gun control will ask, “Did he use an assault weapon? I bet he was some NRA redneck.” Those living in fear of Islamic terrorism will ask, “What was his name? I bet he was a Muslim.” Those harboring racial prejudice or animosity towards police will likely speculate, ”The cops didn’t just shoot him? He must be white.”
“One of us” couldn’t possibly do that, so let’s find out which “one of them” the perpetrator was so we can reinforce our hatred of that group.
Tribalism in Politics
This tribal animosity is no clearer than in American politics these days. Your political affiliation alone invites judgment of your values and prejudices, your crimes and sins, your ability and your mettle. We consider the contest between Democrat and Republican to be “the American sport,” forgetting that we aren’t talking about teams contesting for some trophy but men and women who will write the laws that can bankrupt, imprison, or even kill many of us. We care more that “our side” wins than what an individual will - or won’t - do when we hand them the reins of power.
In 1796, George Washington himself warned of this exact dangerous distraction posed by political parties, and of the tyranny to which this path ultimately leads.
"However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion....
"The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension… gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty....
"[The spirit of party] serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection…. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume...."
But still, tribalism holds sway, not only across but within party affiliations. The two leading Democrat candidates contend for the title of “Most Likely To Punish Those With More Than You”; the Republican front-runners are campaigning less on why they would be the best candidate and more on why Donald Trump is the worst possible one; Trump seems to competing with himself for the most historic level of populism, crudity, and buffoonery. The only thing more shocking than the vitriol is the hypocrisy. “Vote for me, and I will protect you from my corrupt, pandering, exploitative, lying fascist of an opponent,” said the corrupt, pandering, exploitative, lying fascist.
Sadly, we swallow it greedily. We treat our preferred political candidates like heroes or gods, so blind with rage over the last betrayal of our Constitutional rights that we cannot see we are welcoming more of the same. We forget the apt, if unflattering, descriptions of both politicians and voters by H. L. Mencken:
“The state — or, to make matters more concrete, the government — consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can't get and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods.”
“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. “
What Can We Do About It?
So what do we do? Good question. The less we live under the delusion that our current level of government is necessary, the more we can force the organs of that government to focus on their basic administrative functions instead of micromanaging our lives – and leading us further down the road of dependence, subservience, and ruin. But unless we are willing to “throw away our vote” on independent candidates, required by definition to run on their positions rather than party affiliation, we are stuck with the choices provided to us by our current “ruling tribes.” Some changes are beyond our reach for now. But we can change ourselves and, in so doing, perhaps help others.
We can think critically, instead of reacting out of fear or anger. We can stop being selfish and short-sighted, seeking to force others to be like us or be punished. We can stop demanding things that only government can provide, recognizing it can only do so by taking from others. We can decline the supposed assistance of government, eliminating the justification of its intrusion into and regulation of our lives. We can stop trading essential liberties – others’ as well as our own – for a perceived sense of security.
Above all, we can make a conscious effort to stop being so tribal. Because when the ax starts swinging, "we, the trees" will have far bigger worries than the composition of its handle.