What Andrew Sullivan gets wrong about our tribal times.

Andrew Sullivan’s Simplistic Diagnosis—and Unrealistic Cure—for What Ails Us

Andrew Sullivan’s Simplistic Diagnosis—and Unrealistic Cure—for What Ails Us

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 19 2017 11:23 AM

All Tribes Are Not Equal

Andrew Sullivan’s simplistic diagnosis—and unrealistic cure—for what ails us.

An anti-Trump protester (L) and a Trump support clash outside a campaign rally by presumptive GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Anaheim Convention Center on May 25, 2016 in Anaheim, California.
An anti-Trump protester and a Trump support clash outside a campaign rally on May 25, 2016, in Anaheim, California.

David McNew/Getty Images

In a thought-provoking new essay in New York magazine titled “America Wasn’t Built for Humans,” Andrew Sullivan takes account of our tribal moment, seeking to explain how the country became divided into two, warning of the grave dangers division represents, and offering a solution for reuniting us. Sullivan’s piece is better-argued and more coherent than Mark Lilla’s recent attempt to offer a shared vision for bringing America together, which roughly called for our politicians to embrace a common ethos. But like Lilla, Sullivan is ultimately undone by failing to distinguish between the different strands of tribalism that ail us and refusing to reckon with the depths of right-wing pathology.

Isaac Chotiner Isaac Chotiner

Isaac Chotiner is a Slate staff writer.

The core of Sullivan’s thesis is that America has—with the exception of slavery and the Civil War—been blessedly free of tribal violence and hatred, and that the divisions in America today threaten to destabilize our democracy. “When three core components of a tribal identity—race, religion, and geography—define your political parties,” he writes, “you’re in serious trouble.” That’s exactly what we have in 2017: elite, secular coastals and nonwhite Americans looking down on their nonbrethren in the center of the country, and Christian Southerners and Midwesterners feeling contemptuous of elites, minorities, and educated liberals.

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The broad outlines of that divide are familiar by now, but Sullivan adds the crucial point that our political system actually encourages it. There are no power-sharing agreements to be made between parties; elections here are winner-take-all. The result, he writes, is a “zero-sum politics, which drags the country toward alternating administrations bent primarily on undoing everything their predecessors accomplished, or the kind of gridlock that has dominated national politics for the past seven years—or both.” Moreover, he argues, partisans look at policy through one lens when people from their own “tribe” try to enact it and a different lens when it’s coming from the other tribe (undeniably true). The result is weak, blinkered thinking and a distaste for logic and common sense. But why exactly have politics gone off the rails over the past seven years, a time frame that began when Republicans took over Congress?

One clue to where Sullivan begins to go awry comes in an early reference to the Civil War, which was of course a conflict where blame could not be apportioned evenly between the two sides. Although Sullivan acknowledges that our current divisions mirror the ones from 1861 (“a fault line that closely resembles today’s tribal boundary”), he seems more interested in comparing rather than contrasting today’s two tribes. So on the subject of tribal irrationality, he writes, “As for indifference to reality, today’s Republicans cannot accept that human-produced carbon is destroying the planet, and today’s Democrats must believe that different outcomes for men and women in society are entirely a function of sexism.”

The problem here, which recurs throughout the essay, is that one tribe’s pathologies have infected our political system (and in this case endanger the planet). The other tribe’s supposed pathology is not reflected in the policies of its party. Even if your average Democrat or your average Democratic politician believed there were no genetic differences between men and women (an odd idea in its own right), it is not a public policy issue, and I have no idea what its inclusion here has to do with anything. (Combating sexism is probably discussed more than genetic differences because there are ways to mitigate misogyny via public policy.) Sullivan’s argument here is uncomfortably close to Lilla’s, who defines the two “dominant” ideologies of our age as, essentially, mainstream Republicanism and relativism on college campuses.

This same problem arises when Sullivan discusses immigration. He says that Democrats “cannot say the words illegal immigrants” or “concede that affirmative action means discriminating against people because of their race.” The latter complaint is a semantic issue; the former, however, sits oddly with Sullivan’s contention earlier in the piece that one sign of liberal tribalism is an unwillingness to criticize President Obama for deporting so many illegal immigrants. Notice the contradiction: He wants to say liberals are PC nuts about immigration, but in another context he happens to mention that Democratic voters were happy with a president who was tough on illegal immigration. In short, the supposed “pathology” of the Democratic tribe is not actually infecting Democratic politics. This is a far cry from the Republican pathologies—or “indifferences to reality”—Sullivan lays out in the piece, including the belief in trickle-down economics and President Bush’s support for war crimes.

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Sullivan eventually turns to possible solutions, and here the essay takes a surprising turn. Near the end of the piece, he writes, “In fact, the person best positioned to get us out of this tribal trap would be … well … bear with me … Trump.” He goes on to argue that President Trump is an opportunist who has recently made bipartisan noises, so he could really become a bipartisan president. This seems like wishful thinking—at the very least—and doesn’t at all jibe with Sullivan’s other (often first-rate) writing about Trump, which correctly captures his authoritarian tendencies and pathological solipsism. Just because Trump doesn’t know policy doesn’t mean he is a blank slate.

In addition to pinning his hope on Trump, Sullivan writes that “mutual forgiveness” could help turn things around. He concedes that the “right bears the bulk of the historical blame,” but he argues we all must show a healthy respect for our ideological opponents and a recognition of our own descent into tribal thinking. In its own way, though, Sullivan’s call for “empiricism and moderation” is as out-of-touch as the campus elites whose relativism he scorns; a good chunk of the country just loudly stated that it desires neither empiricism nor moderation. Perhaps they should be ignored to implement Sullivan’s fix, but his essay is otherwise about listening to all sides.

Indeed, it should tell Sullivan something that his call for empiricism and moderation has a lot in common with the governing agenda and temperament of the president—one whom Sullivan, a self-described Catholic conservative and independent, passionately supported—whose eight years culminated in the election of a racist demagogue as his successor. Obama and Obamaism have several virtues, but those didn’t include the weakening of tribalist bonds in 21st-century America. And I think we know the crucial reason why.

I suspect Sullivan would label my argument against his the result of tribal thinking itself; this paradox is another sign of how entrenched the problem we face remains. Sullivan’s impulse to preach togetherness as a balm for divisiveness and forgiveness as a cure for rage is understandable and even laudable. But it’s not an accurate diagnosis of our moment. The alternative of an all-out blame game and a heightening of tribal tensions admittedly doesn’t sound great either; I possess no solution. Sullivan has written a very bleak essay that may not be bleak enough.

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