Increasingly, pundits, politicians, and columnists are attributing America’s ills to tribalism. Google “tribal politics” and you’ll get pages of articles detailing how tribalism is turning us against one another or showing just how divided we are, most of them written within the last year. It’s become the go-to explanation for what’s wrong with us as a country.
Problem is, it really doesn’t explain much. It’s sort of like asking someone why they’re tired, and accepting, “…Didn’t sleep too well,” as the answer. But of course, the real question – and therefore the real source of any solutions – isn’t why someone is tired, but why they didn’t sleep well. Until that question is answered, the problem is likely to go on … and on.
Similarly, the real question behind the country’s dysfunctional politics is why have we become so tribal, and what can we do about it?
The roots of modern tribalism in American politics
The standard answer to the question of modern tribalism is that we all move around in media bubbles of our own choosing which reinforce our biases, prejudices, and beliefs. This, in turn, is attributed to technology – the rise of cable news shows and the advent of the Internet and social media, both of which enable the formation of salons of the ignorant – and it’s always the “others” who comprise the stupid.
And while there’s some truth to this, our fractured media landscape is as much a result of tribalism as it is a cause of it. The reality is, the reason the Internet and new media tilted toward tribalism is that the oligarchy in America launched a coup in the 70’s, designed to convince Americans that government was the cause of all that ailed us; the free market the solution. They did this so they could eliminate any constraints on their wholesale theft of our wealth and our freedoms.
To this end, they launched a well-funded campaign designed to convert the people’s belief in a commonweal – a “we the people” -- into a host of “thems,” each intent on taking the other’s money, rights, freedoms etc. It was a classic divide and conquer strategy intended to distract us, to set us against each other, and split up any group with a critical mass capable of confronting the coup.
As the oligarchs were launching a rhetorical campaign designed to foster this fracturing of the people – featuring the likes of Ronnie “government is the problem” Reagan -- they also sought to eviscerate any regulations designed to assure that media ownership was diverse, and that news was fair, accurate, and truthful. Ultimately, successfully splintering the citizenry into tribes (or reinforcing existing racial, ethnic or religious prejudices) depended upon neutering the Federal Communications Commission.
It started with Reagan, who appointed Mark Fowler to chair the FCC. Fowler, who made his living representing telecommunication companies before his appointment, was a free-market ideologue of the first degree who once said, “The television is just another appliance…a toaster with pictures.” Once approved, Fowler promptly went about the business of deregulating the media. By the time Reagan stepped down, the media had been converted from a public trust with a public purpose, to a commodity subject primarily to the whims of the free market.
But the DLC Democrats, in thrall to corporate interests, doubled down on this deregulation, and it accelerated under Clinton. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, passed with the backing of the Clinton Administration, contained several crucial provisions sought by telecommunications companies including:
- lifting the cap on the number of radio stations a single company could own—which had already grown to forty. This opened the door to mega companies such as Clear Channel, which expanded ownership to over twelve hundred stations;
- lifting the cap on the number of local TV stations a company could own, and expanding the national share a company could have from 25 percent to 35 percent (it is effectively 39 percent today);
- giving licenses to broadcasters for free—eliminating a potential revenue stream of $70 billion (in 1995 dollars—it would generate nearly $108 billion in today’s dollars);
- extending the life of broadcast licenses to eight years; and
- making it harder for citizens to challenge license renewals.
With deregulation, the barriers and costs of entry into the news market, together with the long tail economics of niche marketing, created an ever-increasing demand for news shows targeted at specific audiences. The result was a fractured media that operated 24-7, with a huge appetite for stories and an addiction to sensationalism, controversy, and all too often, conspiracy.
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Prior to the coup, an individual media market had to have diversity in ownership; owners had to present opposing viewpoints; and there were consequences and accountability built into the system. Thus, the kind of misinforming media monocultures that operate today could not exist.
There is nothing inherently preventing the US from giving the FCC the kind of authority needed to assure this kind of equity and honesty in today’s media environment. For example, Germany recently put rules in place governing social media, and several other countries have moved to assure greater accuracy and accountability in news and social media.
But here in the US, the assault on a media continues today. Three trends: the death of net neutrality, further scuttling FCC rules limiting cross media ownership in local markets, and the culmination of two decades of mergers have left citizens a press of, by, and for the corporations.
Tribalism, then, was not an inevitable result of technological changes in the media; rather it was the product of a conscious effort to splinter the majority into groups and pit them one against the other, and deregulating the media was one of the primary tools used to accomplish this.
The consequences of tribalism
Speaking of the “majority,” by far, the largest cohort among eligible voters are those who no longer choose to participate in what they consider to be an elaborate Kabuki dance. Cynicism gets a bad rap, but when people’s choices are reduced to Democrats who pretend to be progressive right before each election but represent the interests of the oligarchy the rest of the time on the one hand, and Republicans who have grown increasingly lunatic on the other, choosing not to participate can be seen as a reasonable response. Particularly when you realize that the vast majority of Americans hold progressive views on an issue-by-issue basis.
The rationally cynical are the new silent majority, and they have very few politicians who actually represent them. There’s a reason Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in America.
This is the real problem with tribalism. When a plurality of voters believe that politics and politicians are tools of the uber-rich and corporations and choose to sit out elections, a mere 27 percent of Americans can now decide the results of a national election. That’s why we have Trump.
But tribalism is a symptom. The real problem is there’s been a coup, and America is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporations and the ultra-rich.
The lesson from Virginia – a southern state – is that progressive candidates can and will win elections because they will get the new progressive silent majority back into the voting booths. All we need is a political Party that truly embraces progressive values.
Sadly, with ten months to go until the mid-term elections, no such Party exists.