Tribal Summit

Use this holiday to bridge some political divides



illustration by peter noonan

One reason this presidential election year was particularly nasty is that we really don’t have a national conversation anymore. It’s more like a national argument consisting mostly of buzzwords and snarky phrases.

It is not just that we have become more politically polarized between left and right — we’ve separated ourselves into numerous tribes. We typically live, work, play and shop with people who (broadly) make as much money as we do, have the same education level, are of the same race and age, and vote the same way. As tribal members, we root for the tribe and accept its prevailing worldview.

Our news consumption habits are even more selective. We no longer seek news to tell us what is going on, but to confirm what we already think is happening. Some say this has led the country to a very dangerous place.

Where, before, people of different backgrounds might look at the same facts and disagree about what to do next, now people from different parts of the town, state or country disagree on the fundamental facts for the most basic questions.

For example, the question of whether the economy is in good shape should be a rather simple one to answer. There are all kinds of data on employment rates, business activity and housing prices. Those not into boring spreadsheets can simply look around and see if there are boarded-up storefronts.

But even the basic status of the economy could not be agreed upon in this election. People in both parties questioned the statistics that showed the economy was generally getting better. Democrats said that unemployment numbers didn’t tell the whole story, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump questioned whether the numbers used were rigged.

All of this brings us to an important value of the holiday season. Families separated by many miles reunite to catch up, cook and celebrate. They also might deal with a lot of awkwardness when talk turns to current events and the political tribes begin to wave their ideological banners.

Political scientists such as Francis Fukuyama point out that “family” is the original tribe. Politics and governments originally formed out of family relations, which then extended to neighbors. Why democracies formed in some places (like the West) and more authoritarian governments in others (like the Middle East) had much to do with whether powerful and successful families could engage in civil conversations and concern themselves with other families to find solutions for the larger good.

But, in 2016, we find ourselves in an almost entirely different situation. Siblings, parents and cousins may all live in different parts of the country, live at different income levels and identify with differing political or ideological views. When families get together, it can be the one chance to engage meaningfully with members of other tribes.

After an election season where all of us — not just candidates — often talked past each other on Facebook and in person, we owe it to ourselves and each other to take time to reconnect as human beings.

Defining ourselves by political tribes hasn’t worked so well for the country. Maybe it is time we define ourselves in a different way. Maybe it should start this holiday season.

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