BREAKDOWN

America’s Political Parties Are Just Tribes Now

In 2015, once high-minded disagreements over policy and ideology descended into something much more primitive.

01.02.16 6:01 AM ET

When it comes to politics, in 2015 we witnessed nothing less than a paradigm shift. The old rules are out the window. Technology and changing mores have conspired to lower barriers of entry—and acceptability. Gatekeepers no longer exist. What we have right now is closer to direct democracy than we’ve ever seen, and our civilization is regressing as a result.

One party (the Democrats) already represents the liberal half of the nation. The other half seems to consist of modern, Buckleyite conservatives, but also an increasingly large horde of populist, nationalist, individualistic Americans—who now have a megaphone and a vessel in the form of Donald Trump.

Times change, and political parties adapt or are replaced. And make no mistake; if the Party of Lincoln becomes the Party of Trump, it would essentially redefine what it means to be a Republican. Conservatism, a coherent political philosophy, looks as if it’s being replaced by messy right-wing populism.

Just as the political parties sorted themselves out so that there are no more “conservative Democrats” or “liberal Republicans,” I fear we may be entering a new stage where there are essentially two distinct political tribes: One tribe consists of minorities and educated elites, while the other tribe increasingly consists of working-class whites.

The trends that brought us this situation have been in existence for decades, but 2015 may be remembered as the year when we broke apart, and political differences became primary cultural signifiers. Disagreements about ideological principles, or even policy preferences, seem to be taking a back seat to identity politics. It doesn’t matter what you believe in so much as what grouping you belong to, and how willing you are to fight for the sliver of America you represent. 2015 was the year of tribalism. Our politics are less high-minded than ever.

If tribes strike you as primitive, it’s not just you. Tribes tend to assign leadership, not based on experience or wisdom, but based on strength. Much of what we are witnessing today is very base (no pun intended) and essentially comes down to machismo: The other guys are out to get us so we need our toughest guy to get them first. This is the major rationale for Trump supporters, who see him as an “alpha” in a sea of wishy-washy Beltway insiders.

Conservatives once hated identity politics and victimhood—but then again, we once supported free trade, too. Perhaps our disdain for tribalism was always a high-minded, yet doomed, effort to suppress the natural, carnal state of a fallen humanity. You and I may view politics as being about ideas and human flourishing, but a lot of people believe it’s really about power—about making sure scarce resources are allocated to “our” people.

Although I didn’t see the Trump phenomenon coming, I think I sensed the populist zeitgeist that led both to him and to this larger breakdown into tribes. Here’s something I wrote back in April for the Beast—long before Trump was in the race:

…I think there is a huge underserved constituency in the GOP—and that constituency is what might best be termed populist conservatives. These folks tend to be white and working-class and who feel they’ve been left behind in America. They are culturally conservative—but they also want to keep government out of their Medicare.

Mitt Romney was arguably the worst candidate Republicans could have ever nominated to appeal to this constituency. But while candidates like Huckabee and Rick Santorum flirted with going full populist, something always seemed to keep them from really doubling down on it.

… The last time someone really tried this was when “Pitchfork” Pat Buchanan, and then Ross Perot, ran in 1992. It resonated then, but that was before the “giant sucking sound” really kicked in. Whether it’s globalization or immigration—or whatever “-ation” might have taken your job—it stands to reason that the same grassroots phenomenon that helped Buchanan and Perot tap into an underserved constituency might be even more potent today

I still think there’s a decent chance that this fever—which has been aided by an economic downturn, Obama’s election, and the rise of ISIS—will break. And I think that the rules governing the way the GOP allocates delegates will probably benefit someone who is a more mainstream and thoughtful conservative, like Marco Rubio.

It’s easy to see how a Rubio presidency could help reorder things in a different way—in a way that I believe would be healthier both for America and in terms of making sure conservatism can survive and thrive in the 21st century. A Rubio presidency would have the potential to grow the conservative movement by modernizing (not moderating) it—to make it more appealing to Hispanics, urbanites, and millennials. If conservatism is about ideas like freedom and entrepreneurship, not merely cultural signaling (the stereotype being that the definition of a conservative is a white guy with a gun rack), then there’s no reason the guy who orders an Uber shouldn’t be a conservative.

But this only works if the conservatives want to actually grow their numbers by choosing a modernizer. The last CNN/ORC poll I saw suggested that if you add Trump’s supporters together with those of Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, you were at about two-thirds of the national GOP primary voters. The rejection of candidates favored by the GOP establishment this past year has been unprecedented. The Republican base, at least right now, is rallying to the candidates who embrace this new tribalism.

Earlier, I said the rules have changed. And, indeed, they have. Conservatives used to care about electing men and women who have wisdom, experience or expertise, and will comport themselves in an appropriate or “statesmanlike” manner, and who have a conservative temperament. They were deeply invested in defending abstract concepts like a culture of life, the rule of law, and religious liberty, while also worrying about things like unintentional consequences. They wanted to unleash the power of a free market (of products and ideas) to encourage human flourishing.

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These are the hallmarks of conservative philosophy, consistency, and a coherent worldview—something that looks increasingly passé to Republican voters.

In some cases, much of today’s GOP base is skeptical or even hostile to these conservative values. For example, they believe a conservative temperament is an antiquated concept guaranteed to produce weak leaders who won’t fight, and that conservatism as a temperament was essentially designed to fail. How else can you explain the near-triumph of contemporary liberalism, and the fact that the GOP has only won the popular vote in a presidential election once since the end of the Reagan era?

It’s hard to summon people to their better angels when those people feel aggrieved. It’s hard to advise those people to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs”—when there are literal beheadings taking place around the globe. The problem is that people like me are calling for civilized behavior and for modernization at a time when Republican voters want to get medieval. 2015 belonged to Donald Trump. But the real question is this: Who will own 2016?