If you watch cable news, you probably know the story of Jack Cassell, the Florida doctor who demonstrated his displeasure with the recently passed health-care reform by posting a sign on his office door reading, "If you voted for Obama, seek urologic care elsewhere." Never mind that Cassell knew nothing of what was in the bill: This was a policy so abominable that he could no longer associate in a professional capacity with anyone who had voted for a politician he didn't like.
I doubt that very many doctors will begin partisan practices. Yet if there is a common strain running through the unusually vituperative debates of the Obama presidency, it's that the opposition becomes intensely tribal in short order. We could be talking about health care, economic policy, or a Supreme Court nomination, and before long, conservatives will be arguing not just that the administration and its supporters are wrong but that they are the Other -- an alien group with whom there can be no compromise.
Of course, one can find this tribalism in every period in American history. But why does it seem to be getting particularly intense now? The threads that weave together this fabric are not difficult to distinguish. First, in recent years we've seen that whenever a Democrat takes office, some people on the right simply go nuts. The idea of the federal government being run by Democrats leads some to don camouflage, stock up on ammunition, and head for the woods. Just as right-wing extremism rose when Bill Clinton was president -- culminating with the Oklahoma City bombing -- it is spiking once again. In its less violent forms, it says that a government run by Democrats can do nothing that can be considered legitimate, and if they won an election, it must have been stolen.
Second, the changing demographics of our country -- which will current projectionslikely be "majority minority" in 2050 -- seem to some like the theft of the nation as they thought it would always be. As immigrants move beyond big cities, this reality intrudes into the daily lives of people who were previously able to ignore it. They begin to perceive that "their" America is disappearing, and they want it back.
Finally, you have the increasing influence of a group of conservative media figures who build their rhetoric around resentment. For years they have offered their audience an anti-elitist elitism, one that says, "You're better than them because they think they're better than you."
And now, the racial component of this argument -- always present somewhere -- has become inescapable. Since the 1960s, their have been two villains in this story: minorities, and the liberals who advance their interests. And there can be little doubt that this "threat" becomes more urgent when people are reminded every day who the most powerful man in America is. Barack Obama may seek to avoid discussions of race whenever possible, but many of his opponents work to ensure that it's always on people's minds.
When Glenn Beck proclaimed that Obama "has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture," he was making explicit an argument others of his ilk make with only marginally more subtlety. The point is only partially to convince people that Obama is actually a racist -- an idea so ridiculous it needs no refutation. Instead, the main purpose is to keep race from moving to the background. "This is a civil-rights bill," Rush Limbaugh thundered about health-care reform. "This is reparations." Beck echoed the line, saying, "The health-care bill is reparations. It's the beginning of reparations." In other words, the black president is taking your money and giving it to undeserving black people.
And so the racial itch is scratched whenever possible, the salience of race heightened so the audience will think of themselves first as white people. For years, conservatives condemned "identity politics" on the left, the idea that our racial, ethnic, or sexual identities should determine what we found important and how we organized ourselves in the political world. Today, white identity politics is taking over the right.
The figure currently defining the Republican ethos -- Sarah Palin -- is the ultimate tribal politician. The media, the elites, the liberals, the urbanites -- the Other is all around us in Palin's world, and she is eager to spin the cycle of resentment. She may hail from the northernmost American state, but her party has become increasingly of, by, and for angry Southern whites. No other region is so invested in the idea that it is different than, and aggrieved by, the rest of the country -- and so consumed with its own victimhood. We got another reminder of that when Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia declared April "Confederate History Month" without mentioning slavery. McDonnell's initial defense of the omission was that he was focusing on the aspects of the Confederacy that he "thought were most significant for Virginia." Or some Virginians, anyway. (Within a few days, McDonnell reversed himself.)
Tribalism comes in many flavors, some uglier than others. This has been the dilemma of the Tea Party movement, which for all its talk about taxes and the size of government, is nothing if not a tribal uprising. When its face gets screwed into a snarl -- as it did on the day health reform passed, with protestors spewing racial epithets at black members of Congress, and one Republican congressman telling protesters, "Let's beat that other side to a pulp! Let's take them out! Let's chase them down!" -- conservatives with cooler heads get nervous. They insist that what we see is an aberration, that most participants in this unruly movement are simply concerned Americans who love all their fellow citizens and hate only taxes and government -- all as influential conservative voices continue stoking the fire.
It would be naive to think that one day our politics will resemble some sort of Athenian fantasy in which every citizen deliberates carefully and respectfully about public issues before rendering well-considered decisions. But is it too much to ask that we stop short of concluding that those who disagree with us must be our enemies, so alien and threatening that we wouldn't even want to admit that they too are Americans? (Or, in the case of Dr. Cassell, give them a prostate exam?)
It may well be. Congress could be taking up immigration reform soon. And if you think the tribalism has been ugly up until now, just you wait.