Tribalism runs at the center of the almost-daily political controversies capturing each news cycle. Hardly anything can be safely said to unite us in what the Wall Street Journal recent dubbed the “Divided States of America.”
I came of voting age during the first election of President Barack Obama and hardly remember a time when I felt as though our nation was truly united. Maybe the inclusion of “united” in our name is merely a vestige of a time when we needed to intimidate enemies who might seek to take over a vulnerable coalition of former colonies and had yet to prove themselves on the world stage.
If you’ve ever toured the United States Capitol, you would hear a slightly less cynical reason in the introductory documentary “Out of Many, One” (a translation of the words “E Pluribus Unum,” the traditional motto of the United States), which reminds us of the differences among people, states, and cultures and the unity behind our American ideals. But what are these ideals that we share?
We like to think of the shared ideals as those that formed the foundation for our system of government – democracy, republican government, and natural human rights. But anyone who points to the importance of these uniting values must also confront the reality of the blatant disregard for the rights of many who were initially left behind in the early years of our republic.
Historians tend to stress either of two positions: 1) the Constitution (and its Amendments) was crafted primarily to protect those who wrote it, but it was cloaked in flattering terms to convince outsiders to support its ratification, or 2) the Constitution (and its Amendments) embraced an exceptional set of ideals, among them equality in self-government, making the United States what later became its motto, Novus Ordo Seclorum, or, “a new order of the ages.”
Which of these two narratives one embraces often dictates the degree of fidelity one believes we ought to show to the original public meaning of the Constitution. If you think the Framer’s simply led a “coup” against the American people and designed a system of government intended to protect the wealth of its founders, the idea of turning to the original public meaning of the document is repulsive. On other hand, if you believe the Framers’ mission was to craft a government capable of preserving liberty and ensuring self-government, there is enduring wisdom in looking to the Constitution’s design, purpose, and language when interpreting it today.
If the latter is true, it is not contradictory to simultaneously praise the ideals of the American project while also seeing the flaws in America’s development. Throughout our history, and even today, plenty of contradictions exist between the principles embodied by our Constitution and the actions of the government it created. We, and our government, are not perfect.
Today, this tension is evident everywhere. We may all nominally commit to the freedom of speech described in the First Amendment, but we disagree dramatically about the ideals behind it. Language, I would argue, has its limitations. (Lawyers know this ensures the continued employment of our chosen profession.) The First Amendment contains very few words, and an unfathomable number of words attempt to explicate them. What this leaves us with today is agreement about little more than the literal words written of the provision. What divides us, then, are the very ideas and values that animate those words.
In my opinion, this is the true threat to our nation. The growing strands of tribalism on both sides of the political spectrum have taken the principles that once formed the roots of any given ideology and made them subordinate to identity.
For the right, the identity associated with terms like “faith,” “family,” and “patriotism” has superseded the principles behind the words. For the left, the identity associated with concepts like “equality,” “tolerance,” and “progressive” have overrun the diversity each principle celebrates.
All of mankind is flawed, but identity politics has led the right and left alike to prop up politicians and leaders who exhibit little of the principles behind the words they speak. Tout the words, get the votes. For those of us who tend to lean right, it’s truly heartbreaking to see those we have propped up illustrate a clear and unrepentant hypocrisy. But the right is not alone in this.
In the age of identity politics, the center of debate is no longer the hashing out of differing principles, but is instead a contest of brute political force. This leads to populist support for the President when he says things like “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired,’” rather than inquiring into why someone has chosen to take a knee. Similarly, blanket outrage at the scores of Americans perturbed by those who appear to disrespect our flag distracts from the reasons why many believe the flag symbolizes a set of enduring truths and ideals much more than the flaws of a nation’s people.
We still have much left to unite us. Before tearing each other apart and jumping to the worst assumptions about one’s motives for kneeling or standing, I suggest we ought to return the terms of debate to underlying principles, not purely identity. A debate over principle need not be about identity. Fights centered on identity focus on “us versus them,” rather than idea versus idea.
I’ll challenge myself (I hope readers might also challenge themselves) to refrain from casting our disagreements in terms of identity – something we can still maintain while differing about policy preferences.
We all fall into groups linked by our identities, but the beauty of our system is that it is designed to break free of the tribal warring that has dominated much of the history of the world. Our Constitution is not perfect – and neither are we – but we have systems for living together and a political forum for deciding on how we might best decide on a pathway forward.
We have a federalist structure that allows different states to experiment or implement different approaches. We listen to the majority, but protect the minority. We celebrate our differences across this large body of land, but unite together for common interests. Nothing demonstrates the values of federalism like the dramatic shift in political power over the past decade.
Rather than turning our backs on those who choose to kneel or shaming those who choose to stand for our national anthem, let’s remember that we each have different reasons for doing one or the other and commit to remembering that despite these differences, out of many, we are still one.