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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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