Political science research tells us that people affiliate with a political party for one of two reasons: They agree with the party’s basic approach to issues of governance, or they identify with the other people in that party. Humans are admittedly hard-wired to be tribal, to prefer those they see as their “own kind” over those who register as “other.” America’s history has been a struggle to develop a more capacious understanding of who qualifies as a member of the tribe we call American.
Our current political tribalism, abetted by media bubbles and geographic sorting, is extreme. Political scientist Lilliana Mason argues that, “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preferences as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.” Democrat and Republican have become our new mega-identities.
Because this tribalism is so pronounced, November’s election presents thoughtful members of the Republican “tribe” with a wrenching dilemma: Do they ignore the danger posed to the Constitution and democratic self-government by a lawless and corrupt president of their own party, and elevate partisan loyalty over all else, or do they emulate the Republican senators who told Richard Nixon it was time to resign?
In last week’s IBJ, two notable Republicans—John Mutz and Scott Newman—opted for country over party. They joined an unprecedented number of “defectors” nationally. (Wikipedia has an impressively long entry titled “List of Republicans Who Oppose Trump”).
For people who have been lifetime Republicans—who have campaigned as Republicans, held office as Republicans, and embraced what used to be Republican principles—people whose friends and families remain part of the Republican “tribe,” a decision to publicly endorse Joe Biden has to be incredibly difficult.
The behaviors that have prompted all these defections are too numerous to list. I have previously characterized the Trump administration as a combination of the mafia and the Keystone Cops—the degree of self-dealing and shamelessly criminal behavior has been matched only by daily displays of incompetence.
Most of the Republicans who have “defected” are voters and officeholders whose partisan allegiance was rooted in political ideology: preference for free markets, fiscal restraint, limited but effective governance. That today’s GOP no longer embraces any of those principles has been evident for some time, but became too obvious to ignore this year when the party didn’t even bother to produce a platform. The Republican Party I belonged to for 35 years no longer exists, and a chilling White Nationalism too obvious to ignore pervades what remains.
As Dana Milbank wrote in the Sept. 25 Washington Post:
“Let’s be clear. There is only one political party in American politics embracing violence. There is only one side refusing to denounce all political violence. There is only one side talking about bringing guns to the polls; one side attempting to turn federal law-enforcement officials into an arm of a political party. And Trump is trying to use law enforcement to revive tactics historically used to bully voters of color from voting—tactics not seen in 40 years.”
If the survey research and polling are correct, a majority of Americans agree with Mutz and Newman. Assuming a free and fair election—something we cannot, unfortunately, take for granted—the task for Republican defectors will be to rebuild an adult, sane GOP. America desperately needs two responsible, thoughtful parties with contending ideas about what constitutes workable public policy.
What we don’t need are tribes based upon identity rather than ideas.•
Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.