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Posted by on Mar 25, 2007 in Politics | 14 comments

Alberto Gonzales And The Sports Team Tribalism Of American Politics

The continued controversies breaking around Attorney General Alberto Gonzales underscore one fact: partisanship that has morphed into a kind of sports team loyalty and tribalism is what has helped keep him in office.

The New York Times notes that Gonzales’ support continues to rapidly erode:”The conflicts between the documentary record and Mr. Gonzales’s version of events have contributed to an erosion of support for him in Congress, where lawmakers from both parties have called for him to step down.”

If Gonzales was to be judged by the standard of effectivness and in terms of competent job performance and good management, he would come up lacking in comparison with past Attorneys General. But this is the era of mega-partisanship where “the get” doesn’t always meaning Katie Couric getting ahold of a newsmaker to interview. And “defense” often means support your party no matter what — even if it means casually tossing aside previously held principles or even standards of competence. E.J. Dionne, Jr. writes:

The senator vigorously rejected the president’s claim of executive privilege. “I find this extraordinary and troublesome,” he said, “and I think it will ultimately be damaging to the president. . . . This is an attempt to stonewall our committee, and the public will be outraged.”

Doesn’t that sound like one of those tough statements by Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the Democratic point man on the U.S. attorney scandal? The speaker was actually the Republican whom Schumer defeated nine years ago, Alfonse D’Amato, discussing Bill Clinton’s invocation of executive privilege in the Whitewater investigation. Nice to see Chuck and Al agree on something.

So many principles that Republicans held dear when they were trying to take Clinton down are no longer operative. This certainly applies to a 1998 column now whizzing around the Internet that ran under the headline “Executive Privilege Is a Dodge.” It was written by Tony Snow, who is now President Bush’s press secretary.

To investigate Clinton — even his Christmas card list — was God’s work. To investigate Bush is “to head down the partisan road of issuing subpoenas and demanding show trials,” as the president put it this week.

Bush is nothing if not shrewd. By trying to recast the controversy as a partisan catfight, the president has temporarily diverted attention from the central issues in this inquiry: whether any of the eight fired U.S. attorneys were asked to step down for political reasons; whether political aides in the White House played an important role in the firings; and whether replacing independent-minded prosecutors was a way of influencing ongoing or future investigations.

Yet, it’s truly a bum rap to suggest that ALL Republicans are doing Sean Hannity imitations and playing defense lawyer or p.r. spokesman for the administration’s latest explanation of this controversy. There are a growing number of thoughtful and independent-thinking conservatives who are not relaxing their ideological or performance-related standards.

Read Ed Morrissey’s post here IN FULL A small part:

All of this still doesn’t make the case that any of the firings were illegal. So far, no one has offered any proof of evil intent. That’s what makes Gonzales’ handling of this issue so poor. Even if Gonzales didn’t intend to deceive — that is to say that he honestly didn’t recall sitting in on that meeting — wouldn’t a competent CEO (as he described himself) do some research before making categorical statements? Every time a Justice official has offered a version of the firings, it has foundered on the shoals of Justice’s own documentation, which one would assume these professionals would have checked before creating their explanations.

And who would accept the competence of the AG if Gonzales really had no idea how his own department drew up a list of federal prosecutors for termination? What Cabinet officer would have so little interest in how his underling fired presidential appointees?

That’s why I wrote earlier that Gonzales and others who have presented misleading versions of the project are either incompetent or deceptive. We should not accept either in the office of the highest-ranking law enforcement officer of the United States, regardless of whether he is a Republican or Democrat. America existed before the Bush administration, and it will exist after it, and we had better insist on a level of competence and/or honesty that exceeds what we’re getting at the moment — or else we will live to regret it in later administrations.

What’s happening? Due to the advent of talk radio — first conservative talk radio, and now its increasingly popular counter programming competitor, progressive talk radio — and other factors, American politics increasingly resembles a perpetual Super Bowl where each team screeches at the other side’s fouls and overlooks, rationalizes or intentially ignores its own…because the NUMBER ONE GOAL is to WIN and DEFEAT the other side. And those who don’t choose sides, or like a little of each side, are wimps or secretly rooting for the other side (or so the loyal members of each side say).

As Dionne points out, George Bush knows how to press the political buttons and he has framed this now as Democratic grandstanding. That suggests there are no other substantive issues here and Gonzales is being supported by all Republicans (he is not).

Increasingly, American politics fits the definition of tribalism. Wikipedia:

The first is a social system where human society is divided into small, roughly independent subgroups, called tribes. Tribal societies lacked any organizational level beyond that of the local tribe, with each tribe consisting only of a very small, local population. The internal social structure of a tribe can vary greatly from case to case, but, due to the small size of tribes, it is always a relatively simple structure, with few (if any) significant social distinctions between individuals. Some tribes are particularly egalitarian, and most tribes have only a vague notion of private property; many have none at all. A shared sense of identity and kinship encourages the development of kin selection. Tribalism has also been sometimes been called “primitive communism” but this is rather misleading since allegiance to a communist state is not based on kin-selective altruism. One thing that is certain is that tribalism is the very first social system that human beings ever lived in, and it has lasted much longer than any other kind of society to date.

The other concept to which the word “tribalism” frequently refers is the possession of a strong cultural or ethnic identity that separates oneself as a member of one group from the members of another. This phenomenon is related to the concept of tribal society in that it is a precondition for members of a tribe to possess a strong feeling of identity for a true tribal society to form. The distinction between these two definitions for tribalism is an important one because, while tribal society no longer strictly exists in the western world, tribalism, by this second definition, is arguably undiminished. People have postulated that the human brain is hard-wired towards tribalism due to its evolutionary advantages.


Tribalism, as a mentality, can and has taken many forms. Since tribalism involves categorizing oneself into a group, it also entails the categorization of others into other groups, often leading to prejudice and, in extreme cases, even genocide. The presence and difference of other groups aids in creating identities. Sometimes, as in the case of street gangs, differences are artificially created specifically for this purpose.

Is this the growing trend? If the trend is towards an increasing compartmentalization of American politics, narrowcasting in entertainment and television, readership for newspapers and weblogs where people will only read what they already agree with — what is likely to happen 10 or 15 years from now?

And, in the short term, will Bush’s approach succeed? Dionne again:”The administration should not be allowed to turn attention away from substantive issues by pretending that this is only a “partisan” battle over “subpoenas” and “show trials.””

Tribalism and Politics Obsidian Wings
Pick a Side: Politics and Tribalism Pandagon
Yay Team Tim Blair
Tribalism and Politics Dean Esmay
The Identity Voter Huffington Post

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Copyright 2007 The Moderate Voice
  • Eric Forhan

    While I agree with much of this theory, two things bother me: E.J. Dionne, Jr. seems to compare the proverbial apples to oranges with comparing the Gonzales firings with a Whitewater probe rather than with firings of attorneys from past presidents. But, I suppose we’re all victims of our own biases to an extent.

    The other thing that bothers me is, respectfully, in quoting Wikipedia as fact. While often a good source, it’s still a socially-run website prone to opinions of the current author. Quoting the source of the source would be the way to go, IMHO.

  • Funny,
    I just had a discussion about “team-politics” last night with my family. I think you can point the finger at Limbaugh, Coulter, Malkin, Hannity, and O’Reilly if you want someone to blame for the “my side is right, facts be damned” environment of politics we are facing.

    The Limbaugh types always have a somewhat logical sounding reason that the latest Bush scandal isn’t a scandal, if you ignore the facts.

  • kritter

    In the last 25 years only 10 US attorneys have been fired for performance issues. Of those all but 2 were for incompetence on the job. The USA’s themselves are upset at this politicization of Justice, as it is ingrained in them to follow the evidence in a case, not one’s political party.

  • stevesh

    “Due to the advent of talk radio…”

    If, only.

    Been in a middle school social studies class lately? Teach multiculturalism as the demotic sine qua non without context. Drive the source of the expression, “the lion lays down with the lamb,” from the public square. Wilberforce, who? Barzun? Vilify (even) Jefferson,

    Pound away at it for two generations (creating, ironically, heads of mush predisposed to either/or: Limbaugh – Maher).


  • Angereticca

    It seems so impossible for a voice to be heard that is not yelling about the evil talk radio shows. I tried to be fair and listened to Air America for a whole show, but I couldn’t stand the insessant villification of our country. There is a whole population that feels that you should root for the home team. If there really was only two voices/sides, then there might be less screaming, but there is a constant stream of micro-cast ideals that continue to be fought over by the loudest groups.

    Does it seem that the problems aren’t really problems until someone claims they fix them? Maybe less is more. The over driving principle to get something done, and be an accomplisher isn’t working. If you can take the infotainers as they are its fine, unfortunately a lot of people take them as gospel. At least they are trying.

    Stevesh is right. White males are not the enemy. Culturally When you force the most heavily pressured (by taxes & responsibility) demographic of your population they get angry. Patriarchy has been superseeded by Angerarchy! No one is in charge. Ergo everyone is in charge. Nothing gets a fair shake.

    The population centers are overburdened by the everflowing greed of free. Free food, free money, shelter, drugs, etc. When the benefits of society out live their true intrinsic value they become indemic of the ill they were created to save. Unemployment insurance. It is part of the problem of unemployment. Carrot/stick. I am not vilifying unemployment insurance, but it is an easy example. Help is supposed to be just that. Help. I think when you replace god with government you give up a host of opportunity. Faith is inside of you to do all things. When you make it your political choice to help every one and thing you steal the right to make those choices for future generations. I am not opposed to help, honest. I am talking about incessant, ceaseless, neverending help. Hmm, maybe term limits to all laws, and not politicians…(?).

    Maybe there should be stricter rules for help. Like a urine test for every government check. Any one or any organization that gets a grant or has a public contract should have to pee in a cup. Yes, I know its rediculous, but hear me out. Every person that benefits from the money. If a compny gets a huge government contract, then every time they get a check, every employee has got to pee. Welfare, student loans, educators, social security, little league teams, politicians, tax returns, etc. Now they would be monitored tests, no peeing behind a door, and scrutinized for every peice of celery. Funny, huh? Every check. Every single one. That would make a lot of sense. Maybe we would need less money flowing from our government. Our government funds its enemies. That really isn’t freedom.

  • kritter

    Stevesh- You think they should teach about Wilberforce in a middle school social studies class? I have a degree in government, but I had to google him! Stop blaming multiculturism for everything that goes wrong- that’s a straw man.

  • Rudi

    KR Ease up on the dittoheads, the US culture is Christian and WASP in nature. The Pat Buchanan’s of the Right don’t like anything out of the Anglo-Saxon mold. It’s not like Eastern Europe or Asian groups have any influence on the US culture. The Southwest influence and Hispanic history has nothing to to with the WASPish view of angry rich White men.

  • stevesh

    You think they should teach about Wilberforce in a middle school social studies class? I have a degree in government, but I had to google him!


    Google “Jacques Barzun.”

    Google “Abolition of Man CS Lewis The Tao” – for the contributions of all cultures to the Western concepts of liberty, brotherhood of man, reason, faith.

    Dead tree perusal is highly recommended, however.

    Jai Bhagwan

  • kritter

    Well, I was educated pre-multicultural approach and went to a very good middle school, and never learned about Jacques Barzun. So doesn’t that put a little dent in your theory? But, nice switch from E. J. Dionne and Gonzo, Stevesh. I forgot to add that I was in the top 10% of my class when I graduated from high school, with SAT’s in the top 5% of the country.

  • kritter

    KR Ease up on the dittoheads, the US culture is Christian and WASP in nature. The Pat Buchanan’s of the Right don’t like anything out of the Anglo-Saxon mold. It’s not like Eastern Europe or Asian groups have any influence on the US culture. The Southwest influence and Hispanic history has nothing to to with the WASPish view of angry rich White men.

    Yes, Rudi it must drive them nuts that in a few years they will be in the minority, and might even be speaking Spanish as a second language! Oh the humanity! Our offspring will all come out like mongrel dogs, in shades of brown and beige. Maybe a few of these people should get out more in the world to become more , hmm what is the word? Oh yeah multicultural!

  • stevesh

    SAT’s in the top 5% of the country.

    Infinite geometric series where |QED| Our offspring will all come out like mongrel dogs, in shades of brown and beige.

    A barbarous thing to say, even as a straw argument: In mala fide. Tribalistic.

    “Jai Bhagwan” (Hindi) = “I bow to the Divine light within you.”

  • kritter

    A barbarous thing to say, even as a straw argument: In mala fide. Tribalistic.

    Yes, I confess I got carried away, because as many problems as multiculturalism presents, extreme nationalism presents more. Mea culpa to the mongrel dogs, I didn’t mean any insult to them, actually am somewhat of an animal lover.

  • Cicero

    I completely understand this and agree it is a problem.

    But I also understand why Republicans are banding together.

    I’m conservative, but have never been very partisan untill now- last election was the first year I’ve ever voted a straight Republican ticket.

    I feel like I’m being radicalized against my will, but what can I do? The Democracts have have abandoned all pretense of concern for fair play, or reasoned debate. Instead they push lies and break election rules, all in the pursuit of power. (I’m from Washington State).

    Their handeling of the Iraq War is the grossest example of this.

    How is it possible that the same people who voted for authorizing the war, are now voting to undermine the war effort. – It is intolerable that constituents allow this. Now I disagree with those who voted against the war, and still oppose it- but I can understand their reasoning. I’m with those who supported the war, and still do.

    However, the majority of Democratic leaders voted to send our men off to die (the inevitable result of war) and now want to vote to cripple the war effort thus making the deaths of those who have already dies meaningless. There’s a term for that: “Betraying your own troops” and I find it dispicable that this is being tolerated.

    There are a few Republicans who have done this- but they’ll be dead in the next primary. Can you say the same of Democrats? No.

    Nor is this the first time Democrats have done this. They supported the Vietnam War when it started, but then backed out after it got tough. If you’re not willing to support a war when it gets tough- then don’t vote for war! Lieberman is the only one of the bunch with any charactor or integrity left.

    I highly doubt I’ll ever vote Democrat again.

  • Angereticca

    It solves nothing to point and label. No one is worried about mongrelization of species. Sitting on a university library porch and slinging quotes is not the effort of someone trying to move debate forward. Rather, it is someone trying to piss off internet readers. It is sad. Just say what you mean: “Maybe I could defecate on a flag while you rape a slave.” It’s ridiculous and not worth it. Get over it.

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