In our highly individualistic society, we sometimes have difficulty perceiving how tribalistic our politics is. You’d think that progressives, with their sensitivity to issues of class and race, would be particularly aware of this, but even they have blind spots. A very left-wing friend of mine, for example, is unable to understand what a big deal the election of Obama was. “So what if he’s black,” he says, “he’s just another middle-of-the-roader.” This friend doesn’t see much difference between Republicans and Democrats. They all look the same to him.
A few recent events have reminded me just how tribal it is. One is the triumph of the appalling Carl Paladino over Rick Lazio in the New York GOP gubernatorial primary. Paladino is a favorite of the Tea Party. During the campaign, it was discovered that his email traffic included blatantly racist “jokes”, conventional hard-core porn, and what the media have described as images of bestiality. I’m sure we all get weird emails. But if someone sent you a video of a woman fucking a horse, would you forward it to your friends? Now, let us conduct a little thought experiment. Imagine if such material were discovered on a Democrat’s computer. Paladino’s supporters would demand that Democrat to be tarred and feathered and burned in the public square. Yet polls give Paladino a credible shot at winning the election. What, except that Paladino and Andrew Cuomo lead different tribes, and a tribe forgives conduct of its members that would not be tolerated from an outsider, can account for the fact that Paladino has any adherents at all?
Then there are the TV ads with which Brian Dubie and the Republican Governors’ Association have recently favored us. According to them, Peter Shumlin is a monster of iniquity. He “always goes too far,” he is utterly unethical and unprincipled and will do anything to make government bigger, up to and including unleashing drug dealing pedophile pornsters on your neighborhood. Dubie doesn’t explain how the unleashing of drug dealing pedophile pornsters on your neighborhood will make government bigger, but clearly it’s not a good thing, and only someone with the ethics of Jabba the Hutt would do it. The thing is, nobody could possible really believe this stuff. Vermont is a small enough state so that an attempt to depict an unusually adept wheeler-dealer such as Shumlin as the Greatest Monster in History, like the campaign a few years back that caricatured Bernie Sanders as a wannabe commissar who is going to make us all wear Stalinist grey and call each other “comrade,” simply will not fly. We know who these guys are. By most accounts, Dubie and Shumlin, while not close buddies, had mutual personal respect before the campaign, so I am sure that even Dubie doesn’t believe his advertising. But the substance of it is not the point. The point is to dehumanize Shumlin, to make him the “other,” the representative of bizarre and incomprehensible evil – not a member of our tribe. A vote for Brian Dubie is a vote in favor of the tribe that makes effigies of its opponents, paints them black, and burns them in the public square.
I was asked the other day to allow my name to be used in an ad endorsing a Democrat for the Vermont House of Representatives. It is a bit mystifying why they would want my name. I’m not a Democrat. I’m not a Progressive. I’m not well known. Perhaps it is a ploy to capture that all important demographic, indie poetry lovers. After all, if you have the support of the unacknowledged legislators of the world, it doesn’t really matter if you win the election, does it? More likely, it is because I had endorsed in previous years a neighbor whom I know and respect, who is also a Democrat. But I digress. I don’t know this guy. I’ve never heard of him before. But I do know and respect the person who asked me to endorse him, and I know and respect the person who she says introduced the candidate to her, and I prefer this candidate’s tribe to the tribe of his opponents. What to do, what to do? Here’s my solution: if it seems to you that your choice on election day is between Bert Munger and a member of a tribe that makes effigies of its opponents, paints them black, and burns them in the public square, by all means please cast your ballot for Bert Munger.