For many of us, the most enduring memory of the second Trump impeachment trial will undoubtedly center on scenes of our elected representatives and their aides fleeing and hiding from the mob rampaging through the corridors of the capitol. The prosecution team did an excellent job of presenting that frightening tableau, no doubt giving some senators an even sharper picture of what had occurred on January 6 than their own experience might have provided.
History presents all too many examples of mobs disrupting the orderly processes of self-government, not least during the final decades of the Roman republic, when rival politicians resorted with increasing frequency to inciting frenzied crowds to attack their opponents. Those most adept at this form of politics were sometimes called “populares,” a designation obviously close to our term “populist.” And since we’re this far into the Latin roots of some of our political terms, we may as well note that the Roman office most readily lending itself to populism was that of the tribune, which in turn evokes our term “tribalism.”
With a bit of luck and maybe some wisdom, we won’t see mob violence gaining anything like the kind of frequency or potency in our democracy that brought the Roman republic to its knees. But regardless of what role mobs may play in our political future, tribalism has already become a deeply embedded and often deeply troubling feature of our political culture. Its contribution to the polarization of our politics has become a matter of steady (and increasingly concerned) comment among observers of our political institutions and practices. To mention just one compelling example of this prolific literature, I would commend a recent Five Thirty-Eight piece by Maggie Koerth and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux entitled “Our Radicalized Republic: Can President Biden, or anyone else, overcome years of rising partisan hatred?”
That article was brought to my attention by Oregon’s former governor John Kitzhaber, as background reading for a conversation to which I had been invited with a handful of Oregonians, veterans of watershed collaborative work, who were trying to understand what lessons their ideology-bridging experience might teach us all about our current political situation. Kitzhaber put a sharp point on the conversation when he observed, “Our problem is that we’re no longer able to solve problems.” Even when our deepening tribal polarization doesn’t lead to republic-threatening mob actions, it does – consistently and increasingly – get in the way of our solving problems together. This systemic undermining of our problem-solving capacity has thus become the meta-problem articulated by Governor Kitzhaber: our greatest problem is that we’re too often not able to solve the problems besetting our society.
I devoted an early chapter of Citizens Uniting to Restore Our Democracy to this situation, which I characterized as “partisan quicksand.” The diabolical nature of this phenomenon is evident in how many officeholders, otherwise able and honorable, find themselves trapped in this quagmire, seemingly unable to transcend its partisan imperatives. I ended that chapter with an argument that one of the main ingredients of the quicksand that keeps our elected officials ensnared is the bitter tribalism of their respective political bases. Sadly, a very large percentage of the good, capable, problem-solving citizens to whom the book is addressed are themselves caught up in the very tribalism that ensnares their elected officials.
And yet those citizens (and this surely includes you) do solve problems together– and among us we do it millions of times, every day. Let me give one very homely example, as a way of encouraging you to think of your own examples. The same evening of my conversation with the Oregonians, my wife turned over to me the job of completing the meal prep she had already begun, so that she could chair a Zoom meeting of our condominium association board. When I asked her later for a recap of the meeting, she described the plan that had begun to emerge for lining our ancient sewer lines to avoid an otherwise all-but-certain catastrophe one of these days. Here is a problem that pretty much has to be solved — and it will be, not easily, probably not cheaply — but it will be addressed by a democratic process of problem-solving.
Let’s keep that mundane tableau in mind while returning to the Oregon conversation. If one of the main reasons that too many of our governing institutions have lost their ability to solve problems is because partisanship has grown steadily more entrenched and inflexible, and if polarizing tribalism is a major contributor to that gridlock, what can any of us do about any of that?
Without pretending to offer a comprehensive solution, here are two moves within the reach of almost all of us:
First, we can each become more aware of our own engagement in problem-solving – especially where we do that in joint action with others, whether on that condo board, in our favorite nonprofit, at work, or within our own household. I am convinced that this simple act of consciousness-raising is both a necessary and a potent step toward strengthening our body politic. At a minimum, it will set a personal standard of problem-solving temperament and skill to which we will then be well-positioned to hold candidates for public office.
Second, we can each begin to devote some portion of our civic resources, whether time, attention or money, to intentional democracy-strengthening activities or organizations. Most of us are going to continue to feel the need to contribute to our favorite causes and to our tribe’s political candidates – and we should. If that is all we do, though, we may also inadvertently be helping to tighten the grip of polarization and partisan gridlock. But there are ways that we can begin to loosen that knot – by supporting citizen-driven redistricting reform, for example, or Electoral College or campaign finance reform, ranked-choice voting, or democratic deliberation across ideological chasms.
If a growing number of us began setting aside some meaningful portion of our civic or political resources in a democracy-strengthening tithe we can move beyond mobs, keep tribalism in perspective, and put problem-solving at the center of our democratic republic, where it belongs.