A considerable literature has developed, particularly in psychology, centering on the notion that people’s moral judgments are essentially “tribal.” Jonathan Haidt is probably the most well-known of these writers. But the notion has wide circulation. For example, just a few days ago, I heard a radio interview on the mainstream DC news station in which the commentator pointed out that the “fake news” problem is difficult to overcome with “facts,” because believing the world is a certain way is connected to a sense of belonging. For liberals to express concerns that identity politics has gone too far or conservatives to express that climate change is real and troubling is challenging not simply because the “facts” are not known or difficult, but because to admit certain things (especially in public, to the people who need to hear them) alienates you from your tribe.
The acknowledgement of this phenomenon is urgently needed, because if ever we have had an election of split moral tribes, this one was it. And a sound analysis of the moral questions of our culture goes beyond the minute analyses over electoral maps: only one person can win an election, but the overall character of the social division would have been the same had Hillary Clinton gotten those Jill Stein votes and won a narrow electoral majority. The question we need to face is how to characterize this division.
The emerging conventional wisdom on the Democratic side is well-represented by Commonweal’s Matthew Sitman: Trump’s victory was a combination of economic anxieties and cultural grievances, and we shouldn’t waste time arguing one “over” the other. The former is a genuine wake-up call for Democrats, while the latter should be unequivocally opposed and condemned. There’s a lot of truth in this narrative, but one shouldn’t overlook how “tribally comfortable” it is. It suggests that Democrats are in fact right about both areas. It trades on a strong sense that Bernie Sanders would always have been a more attractive candidate, because he offered a better economic message for the dislocated: aggressive government benefits and redistribution. And its underlying logic is one of “inclusion,” in which the problem with identity politics is simply that it needs to include those on the edges of white-, working-class society, too.
Like Mark Lilla and others, I worry this narrative is just not good enough. An alternative is suggested by a sign I saw when I drove through the heart of Trump country on a side highway in Western Pennsylvania in October. The non-stop parade of Trump support took varied forms; one memorable sign read, “Trump: Finally Someone with Balls.” This sign complicates the packaging of grievances into economic and cultural. Too often, Democrats seem to assume that “culture” means “racism, xenophobia, etc.” And of course to some people, it does mean that. (Yes, I get the sexism of the sign!)
But this is a narrow, tribal understanding of culture. Instead, consider these the words of a Trump supporter at a pre-election rally: “Ah, this is it: the white working class in America. The ones paying for all the others. Finally we’re getting someone who’ll do something for us.” Obviously I’m not endorsing this statement. But consider whether this statement should be classified as an economic or a cultural grievance. Like the statement about Trump’s (ahem) forthrightness, it’s an expression of cultural frustration about the perceived loss of a certain set of values which have a lot to do with work. Do these issues have racial coding? To some extent. But I suspect that the immediate reduction of the claims to a racial coding is part of what frustrates these voters. It is often overlooked that it is the white working class who live in communities that are themselves breaking down between those who work hard and those… who don’t. They see “those neighbors” (white neighbors!) who are “working the system.” And they resent it when factory workers and small businesspeople seem to get the shaft, while “those neighbors” get more benefits.
Indeed, they admire those who do certain sorts of work, and do not really understand how computer programmers and professors and other people in cities seem to make so much money doing… well, what exactly do they make? Gallup regularly polls Americans about their trust and admiration for particular social groups or institutions. We often hear the low regard for Congress. Which groups are most admired? In the most recent survey, only three groups were admired by over half of Americans: members of the military, small business owners, and police officers. And “organized religion” is fourth. These are the tribal loyalties. It’s not a list coastal Democrats “get” very well.
All these issues are complicated, and this most assuredly is not a brief in favor of Trump as the savior on these problems. The point is that reducing the cultural complaint to one about race and ethnicity misses this problem, and its further links back to a certain conception of economic life. The “tribal values” at stake here – the ones that elected Trump – are in a certain sense core arguments about a certain kind of working-class culture that values straight talking, hard work, and law-abidingness; and they are frustrated by a combination of coddling institutions and distant rule-makers who “just don’t get it.” Political correctness is the lame stand-in charge for people who aren’t willing to call out this whole ensemble – and whatever else Trump did, he made clear he’s willing to call it out. Is there a dynamic about race in this conflict? Most definitely yes. Is it all about race? I don’t think it is. Trump almost won MINNESOTA, for heaven’s sake, a state that hadn’t gone for a Republican since 1972.
Again, I recognize that Haidt’s characterization of “coddling” is troubling. To tie this back to the “tribal” point, however, it seems to me that Democrats need to do a better job “within the tribe” of differentiating legitimate grievances from illegitimate whining. Two further points might help crystallize how to have a better discussion about the legitimate grievances on all sides:
One, in recognizing the complicated interplay of economic-and-cultural, economist Tim Duy has been doing outstanding work since the election. Duy’s posts (which I first discovered during the 2008 economic crisis, as I sought economists to explain what was going on) have been critical of standard neo-liberal progressive responses, particularly on the trade issue. He is candid that Trump’s promise to bring back American manufacturing to “the way it was” is simply impossible, but he suggests progressives fail badly in understanding how to respond, and in two ways. One, from the economic side, they rely on aggregate macroeconomic measures about effects, without paying attention to how economic factors actually work – and in particular, to the woefully inadequate assumption that labor can easily shift in the face of dislocation. And two, he immediately suggests that progressives then make the mistake of advocating “education and transfer payments,” when in fact these folks want a job – for all the reasons why having a job is good, not just because it provides a paycheck. Moreover, those who put these facts together and say, “well, the jobs are in the cities, move to hipster Brooklyn, and you’ll be fine” have simply ignored the good of intact community – or rather, they de facto advocate a certain sort of community, rootless and cosmopolitan, as the normatively better community.
And this gets to the second point: progressives overlook the key point made decades ago by Michael Sandel that a procedural political liberalism that pretends to absolute neutrality among competing visions of the good life is a fallacy. In fact, Trump voters perceive the gradual imposition of certain cultural norms about the good life in indirect ways. This is particularly true about certain issues which exercise symbolic power – same-sex marriage is the most obvious – but there are a whole range of matters where cultural norms (which, to be fair, always change and develop) are being pushed along, but without a full acknowledgment that this is what is being done. One’s of Sandel’s key suggestion is that agents must develop the character traits of citizens who are able to look beyond their own interests for the sake of some common good. Further, these traits require habituation within settings wherein this sort of discourse and thinking is encouraged, and mere assertion of interest is discouraged. For sure, there is no monopoly by either party on the failure to develop these habits of developing a larger moral vision of the common good. For example, simple interest assertion was the key strategy assumed by Republicans in simply refusing to co-operate, negotiate, and compromise on legislation that would serve the whole.
Duy’s attention to economic policies that support the relative stability of communities and regions as a legitimate part of the human good and Sandel’s claims about the need to develop ongoing habits of citizenship that trump self-interest are only two suggestions. The time is ripe to acknowledge that our tribal warfare is deeply moral… but the substance of it cannot be played out by one group shouting “racist” and the other shouting “political correctness” from the other. And it’s precisely the tribalism itself that sometimes makes it hard to say this!