“Where you stand depends on where you sit” is favorite aphorism of progressive activists. It’s used to imply that “privilege” can blind someone to inconvenient facts, e.g. police aggression against minorities. But based on the events of the past few months, from Ferguson onward, it has become pretty clear that both left- and right-leaning groups suffer from this sort of narrowed vision. Writing in USA Today, Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a. Instapundit) points out that tribalism—the desire to identify “your” group and stick with it, no matter what—explains an awful lot about these recent national tensions:
[T]here is much opportunity for political empire-building in tribalism, and if the benefits of stoking tribal fires exceed the costs for political actors, then expect political actors to pour gasoline on even the smallest spark.That’s pretty much what’s happened in the last few months, and the results haven’t been good. In America, we have both a police culture that is too quick to escalate force, and an aggressive victim culture, embodied by the loathsome Al Sharpton, that seeks to portray every police use of force, at least against members of the wrong racial and ethnic groups, as excessive.A healthy society would stigmatize, marginalize and shun the tribalizers. Sharpton, who has incited racial violencein the past, would not have a network TV show (even on MSNBC), and would not be treated as a legitimate civil rights spokesman. Police unions, which have a history of interfering with efforts to hold officers accountable for acts that, if they were committed by civilians, would be prosecuted as crimes, would not be given a preferred political position, if they were allowed to exist at all. (Personally, I agree with FDR that public employee unions are essentially a conspiracy against the taxpayers; it’s an even more significant matter when they’re public employees who carry guns.)
Tribalism would seem to explain the “police wars” better than racism: as we have pointed out, the NYPD is roughly 50 percent minority, a number that closely echoes the figure for the city as a whole, so for most people, allegations of “New Jim Crow” just don’t wash. But the idea that people reflexively retreat to “their” side during a time of crisis certainly makes sense. And often that side is as much ideological (or job- and culture-based, in the case of the NYPD cops who turned their backs on de Blasio) as racial.Read Reynolds’s whole article; it’s a necessary look at a phenomenon that should disturb us all. Tribalism afflicts everyone, no matter their affiliations and no matter how they reassure themselves that they operate on the basis of fact alone. Indeed, one of the chief causes behind the “Peak Left” moment that Walter Russell Mead addressed recently is leftist intellectuals’ inability to recognize that they, too, are a tribe. For various reasons, the elite progressive world is much more insulated than its right-wing counterpart. In fact, the divide between the left’s view of the world (and consequently its rhetoric) and the way the rest of the country views things seems to be increasing, fueling an unhappy cycle. Recognizing the tribal dynamics at work within its own movement may be the left’s first step toward correcting this—if it’s willing to take it.