Some have called our “Me & Us First” politics as nationalism but I prefer to apply the label ‘tribalism’. In this COVID-19 environment, racial lines, regional preferences, current events and heavy political advertising, are not shaping public opinion as much as the identity of a specific community and the resonance of a leader to that community. Communities are built on religious and ethnic values, family preferences, housing patterns, and health habits. Their political choices have always been shaped by those cultural traits. With the economic fallout and the growing disparities in jobs and education, politics will become a complex mix of leadership styles that symbolize communities along with the body language, word choice, and facial expressions that resonate specific communities. Policy positions and biographical details will be less relevant as they are filtered through the lens of each group.
This is the definition of diversity in America today and it is divisive, daunting and often overwhelming. Understanding the appeal of candidates to diverse communities is the job of political mavens, but this year’s presidential campaign, is taking place in social and economic chaos. The tremendous amount of time and money traditionally spent trying to penetrate tribal cultures would be largely wasted. We’ve become a map of various culture-states with world views that can be wildly disparate while being perceived as wholly American.
In the last election, I had civic leaders tell me they don’t believe in diversity because it is too messy, vague, complex and unintelligible. My response was to acknowledge that while that’s true, we cannot turn aside from the facts on the ground. America is a reflection of a global reality that will continue to intensify and must be confronted as part of our geopolitical future. Global tribalism reflects a world at war over diminishing resources, energy, and food. Combined with the ability of today’s technology to reinforce passions, fueled by a sense of desperation, the battle of cultural tribes is increasingly extreme and violent.
I did not anticipate that leaders would not only be constantly subjected to the messy, vague, complex and unintelligible, but to an upended society and economy in a life and death struggle. As prescient as I was to advise that they’d need to navigate a world that is less inclined to unite than to destroy, I did not see the intensity of that reality. It was obvious that negotiations would be minimal and involve hard choices where there are no grey areas, only winners and lowers. The win-win situation was already difficult to achieve. But now, the win-win idea is only a fond piece of nostalgia.
We must revisit our tribes with a focus on their history as passionate, enthusiastic, creative and compelling. They have produced leaders in the past who are willing to take risks, to challenge what has gone before, to inspire others to do the same. If we can harness this energy without it running amok, we have the potential to meet our challenging global future. Deploying this energy is what the presidential campaign is all about. And that’s why it so noisy, contentious, and scary as well as provocative, revealing and energizing.
We have been and will continue to do battle over who gets to vote and how. The battle will be ugly and messy, but I hope that citizens do not give in to the impulse to not vote because neither candidate represents their tribe. The election is a tribal struggle to re-define America. The non-vote is an abdication of participation in what is already a loud, raucous, and, at times, vicious battle. Those who think the non-vote leaves them above the fray will only find themselves left irrelevantly on the sidelines. This is not a time for silence.