For some reason, when someone links to my blog, it sometimes shows up as a comment awaiting my approval. I don’t know why. Anyway, that happened today, and it led to a response from me, so I thought I’d share it.
I was being quoted in the context of a much longer post. Actually, I’m not sure why what I had said fit into this post — as the writer said, it was about conservative propaganda, and as he or she said, my point comes from the center — but it did, so I’m just going to address that portion of the post.
The writer was referring to this post from this past Election Day. It was one in which I (and others) objected to people who actually vote on Election Day “late voters.” I then went on to object to the term “ticket-splitting.” My point was that there should be no such term, that the practice should simply be called “voting.” As opposed to what people who pull the party lever and ignore the ballot itself, thereby abdicating their responsibility to think, to discern, to discriminate, to make decisions about each individual candidate, to vote.
Here’s the passage of mine that was selected for quotation:
You know what I call ticket-splitting? “Voting.” True voting, serious voting, responsible voting, nonfrivolous voting. I am deeply shocked by the very idea of surrendering to a party your sacred duty to pay attention, to think, to discern, to discriminate, to exercise your judgment in the consideration of each and every candidate on the ballot, and make separate decisions.
If you don’t go through that careful discernment, you aren’t a voter, you are an automaton — a tool of the false dichotomy presented by the parties, a willing participant in mindless tribalism.
Sure, you might carefully discern in each case and end up voting only for members of one party or the others. And that’s fine — kind of weird, given the unevenness of quality in both parties’ slates of candidates — but if that’s where you end up.
And here’s what the person quoting it had to say about it:
Kernel of truth:
Human beings are certainly tribal, just in general. The idea that political parties are becoming tribes is an obvious extension of this, especially bolstered by worrying observations like increasing polarization of political opinion in the U.S. and (very likely related) increasing physical separation (segregation) between red (suburbs/country) and blue (cities) tribes. You also don’t have to look very long or hard to find a person who has a basic, surface-level understanding of politics, who doesn’t have an elaborate, well-thought-out intellectual theory of politics guiding their positions (in fact, their positions might be a contradictory mish-mash of things) but know very well who they’re supporting in the next election.
Tribal chauvinism can be scary — the ability to ascribe Deep Differences between in-group and out-group justifies (and thus creates) violence. People instinctively wish to bridge gaps between groups. Doing so stems future violence and can even be an ego boost to the person capable of doing so — being able to see how both sides are just tribal takes the person able to see it out of the realm of primitive partiality into the era of enlightenment and clear sight free from petty bias.
Why is the use of “tribalism” messed up?
There are at least three things messed up about analyzing political disagreement as largely tribalism.
First thing: it disrupts public democratic discourse by giving people the ability to dismiss people’s positions as born from blind, unenlightened loyalty rather than being sincerely held. The ability to say, “Well, you WOULD say that because that’s your tribe’s Doctrine” is not a good way to engage with fellow citizens’ opinions.
Second thing: it elides the very real differences and very real societal implications that different positions have. Whether Muslims should be banned, in my opinion, really really isn’t a matter of, “Well, you say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to. Who’s to say what’s right, really?” The concept of political disagreement boiling down, ultimately, to tribalism spreads a weird moralized amorality throughout society, where the ability to see the value of both sides becomes valorized (morally lauded) much more than the ability to take a side decisively (such preference for one over the other is close-minded, unenlightened, tribal). I’m not saying being able to see the logic or reasoning behind the other side is bad — I will never ever turn my back on the importance of empathy. But if your idea of enlightenment extends to “seeing through the bullshit of each side impartially” and no further, not to being able to evaluate the merits and awfulness of various positions, choose a side, and fight for the more moral option, your ability to see free from bias serves you and no one else.
The example above finds it unusual that someone would uniformly choose politicians of one party after careful evaluation because the “quality” of candidates varies so much that there is likely to be overlap, which means that a straight ticket will probably select a bad quality candidate over a better quality candidate. However, this doesn’t really make sense to me as someone for whom political positions are the main criteria of “quality” in a candidate. The two parties agree on a lot, but on the issues they don’t agree on, it is very rare for me to agree more with the political positions of a Republican over even a very right-wing Democrat — my notion of “quality” does not suggest there is much overlap at all. It’s true that serious issues like corruption / criminal behavior might make me consider voting for the other candidate, or a very odd politician who runs on issues no other politician has a stance on might warrant a closer look. However, I think the view that political differences seem like the least relevant consideration only makes sense when you’re in the center.
In the place of political stances, there is an unspecific notion of “quality”, and as you can see in the post, the state of being indifferent to political differences is morally valorized.
Third thing: as someone who is not a centrist, I will tell you that you can have zero loyalty for a political party (in fact, actively have an antagonistic relationship with both), and still have a very clear preference for one party’s politics. Having a preference between two teams ≠ being guided by tribalist loyalties. It just means your politics are not located midway between the teams.
Instead of / when you encounter “tribalism” you should:
Recognize that the existence of tribalism as a psychological feature of humans doesn’t negate very real differences between political stances. Recognize that while it’s good deed to reduce partisan bias in the world, there are sometimes things much worse than being partisan, and sometimes doing the right thing means decisively taking a side and fighting for it, rather than saying “well, I can see the value of both sides”.
Yes, I know that a lot of people hate it when I say “I can see the value of both sides,” and they let me know it, but this was not a case in which I was saying that.
Pleased that this writer was approaching my point thoughtfully, but distressed that my actual point had been ignored for the sake of concentrating on a word (“tribalism”) that was neither here nor there, I responded:
I’m glad you found my blog worth quoting, and I appreciate your thoughtful approach.
But you didn’t address my point.
No one’s trying to paper over differences, or call genuine disagreement “tribalism.”
I’m attacking the indefensible practice of party-line voting. I’m talking about people paying ZERO attention to the relative qualities of individual candidates, and simply pulling the party lever, choosing the very worst candidates that party is offering along with the very best. I’m referring a gross form of intellectual laziness, which I would think — given your thoughtful approach — you would abhor.
A person who pulls that lever abdicates the profound responsibility, as a voter, to think, to discern, to honestly compare each candidate to his or her opponent(s).
Sure, I can see how you can be a Democrat and vote for Democrats most of the time because you more often agree with Democrats. But it would be absurd to say, to assume, to believe, that ALL Democrats are automatically better than ALL Republicans, and vote accordingly, without taking a moment to test your proposition with each candidate on the ballot. In other words, without thinking.
If you’re really, really into being a Democrat (and of course it works the same way with Republicans; I’m just choosing the side you’re more likely to go with), then you will usually vote for the Democrat. In a particular election, you might even end up voting for every Democrat, without engaging in intellectual dishonesty. It seems to me unlikely, but then I can’t imagine agreeing with either party — or any party in the world — on everything. But a person who truly leans that way might legitimately do that.
But if he or she has not thought through every choice on the ballot before arriving at that 100 percent, we have an abdication of responsibility.
And then — you ever notice how irritating it can be when you want to change what you wrote in a comment, but there’s no edit feature (yes, I’m trying to be funny)? Well, those of you who complain about it so much can feel a little Schadenfreude at my having experienced it myself today. So looking back and seeing I had expressed something poorly, I had to add, immediately:
Rather than “I’m attacking the indefensible practice of party-line voting,” I meant to say, “I’m attacking the indefensible practice of party-lever voting.” As I go on to say, it’s OK if you end up voting for every candidate of one party or the other — as strange as voting that way seems to me.
The irresponsible thing, the indefensible thing, is doing so without having considered the individual candidates and their relative qualities in each contest on the ballot.