The Problem of Political Partisanship, Tribalism, and Extremism

The Problem of Political Partisanship, Tribalism, and Extremism

Particularly during election years in America, it seems that some of our politicians have rewritten the real Pledge of Allegiance to sound more like the Pledge of Party Allegiance :

I pledge allegiance to my party, 

not the United States of America.

And to the wing of the Republicans or Democrats for which I stand,

one nation, so help us God, divisible,

bring liberty and justice, but please let us control it all.

Oh, they talk about “unifying” the country and “working across the aisle” to promote “bipartisan solutions” to our nation’s problems. What they mean by this talk, however, usually is that these politicians will invite the opposing party to come over and agree with them, on their own terms. Seldom is there discussion—and even more seldom is there action—about meeting in the middle or truly finding common ground. Never is there talk or action to go over and agree with the other side.

At Principle Based Politics, we believe there is a better way. After diagnosing the problem more fully, we will outline the remedy below.*

*For this holiday week, we interrupt our series of posts applying principles to the issues. After this essay and a special feature for the Fourth of July weekend, we will resume the issue-based posts next Tuesday.  

Perilous, Petty Pandering

There are many different names for the governing situation in our nation—all bad: polarized, fragmented, politicized, and divided.

Paying attention only to the media that cheers for “our side” and jeers the other, we split ourselves into political tribes. That is tribalism. Sadly, we treat government leadership like a game or a reality show, pulling for a favorite we want to win. We even have team colors of blue or red, with mascots and nicknames. Worst of all, our tribes/teams even have arch rivals that we want to see lose almost as much as we want our own tribe to win.

Tribalism is a set of behaviors and attitudes that stem from a strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group, and, Principle Based Politics would add, a strong aversion to the opposing tribe and its leaders.

Another facet of the problem is that our political leaders fear even speaking well of the other side, as “compromiser” has become a wholly derogatory term in American politics. The people with views furthest to the left and right control their parties by threating to support internal challengers in the next nomination contests if an incumbent commits the sin of moving toward the middle. This is political extremism. The sorry result is that politicians, who care about reelection more than anything else, believe they must pander to the fringes of their parties.

Extremism, which is the holding of far-left or far-right political views, is dangerous in that it drives good, principled people out of politics when they tire of pressure from within their own party.

Yet a third peril is when our political leaders view the country through the lens of what is best for their political party, as referenced in the “Pledge” above. This is partisanship. We see it when government policy actions are based on how they will “play” in the next election. For example, bills are proposed that have no chance of being passed, but the debate will allow one party to claim members of the other “don’t care about families,” or “don’t care about our veterans,” or “don’t care about the middle class,” or, even that the opponents are “racists.”

Partisanship is nothing more than a bias or prejudice in favor of a particular cause. That bias can be toward a class, a single issue, or even a political party itself—anything other than what is best for the American people as a whole.

Tribalism, extremism, and partisanship all have in common that they view “winning” as the goal. Tribes, extremists, and partisans try to win by focusing voters on how evil the adversary is. No alleged evil is too small to attack with vigor, and our political races turn into petty fights.

Meanwhile, the great majority of the country remains ungoverned, uninspired, unled, and unhappy.

Positive, Principled Patriotism

Thinkers from Aesop in his fables to Jesus in Matthew 12:25 to Abraham Lincoln in his “house divided” speech have recognized that we stand if united and we fall if divided. Principle Based Politics strongly agrees, but the question is how to unite rather than divide.

We see the remedy as three-fold. First, we need positivity. Americans need to believe that we all live in the best country in the world—a nation that will get even better with the right leadership. Our candidates and elected leaders must focus on this message rather than on the supposed evils of their enemies. The second thing we need is for decisions to be made and positions taken based on a set of agreed principles like those we have been promoting through this blog. When Americans see principles as the basis for politics, they will respect our leaders and government more. Third, our politicians must want the people of the United States to be the ones who “win” through politics. Putting Americans as a whole above their own wants and needs is patriotism.

Remember patriotism? Our soldiers showed it by volunteering to go oversees and invade beaches, plant the Stars and Stripes on remote islands, and, if necessary, smother grenades with their own bodies.

It is not too much to ask politicians to set aside their career and fundraising ambitions, their dislike of opponents, and their party-affirmation ego needs. Politicians, instead, should pledge their allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all. And then follow through on that pledge.

Written by Quentin R. Wittrock, founder of Principle Based Politics. 

Look for his posts twice each week, as this blog will explore and promote the idea of principle in politics, both as to individual elected leaders and our federal government as an institution.

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