Nationalist Ideologies without Policy Differences: The Spectacle of Tribal Politics and America’s Evolving Moral Economy

I often insist that there are very few substantial policy distinctions between the Republican and Democratic Parties of the United States. Both parties are merely two closely related flavors of the same political ideology embedded in American exceptionalist nationalism. The Republican Party at least by the 1970s and 80s has become the party of Judeo-Christian traditionalist nationalism, while the Democratic Party is a party of liberal-nationalists. The former encompasses a set of beliefs which appeal to the traditionalist, Christian-evangelical, moralist white base of the country; the latter has sought to build a controlled counter-coalition achieved by extending American exceptionalist nationalism conveyed through identity politics to historically disenfranchised, marginalized, stigmatized and excluded groups (except lower/underclass convicts and prisoners).

Traditionalism in the United States thus finds itself glorifying virtues practiced in a by-gone era when racism was openly foundational to America’s social, political and economic life. Liberal Nationalism in contrast finds itself excavating legitimate concerns among groups who suffered in that by-gone dispensation including those whose exclusion only became visible after the civil rights era (such as LBGTQI people) primarily for purposes of building and sustaining a political constituency and coalition. But when it comes to economic and social policy, the two parties remain firmly embedded within right-of-center, generally conservative American exceptionalist nationalism. When I insist that there are no substantive differences between the parties, I therefore mean, there is hardly any room for a form of politics which transcends conservatism specifically, and nationalism generally between the two main parties aside from courting groups to build constituencies – such that domestic and even foreign policy is largely about identifying and overplaying superficial differences as opposed to pursuing substantively different programmes of action. By extension, I also mean that progressive politics anywhere from a center-left position towards the left are resisted jointly by the two parties. Here, both Stein’s Greens and the Bernie Sanders coalition come to mind.

The outcome is a political system sustained by sheer spectacle and commercial incentives, and by interchanging roles in which political tribalists take turns at performing moral outrage at something the others have done so as to widen non-existent or inconsequential differences from a policy standpoint: the bipartisan effort of deregulating banks is one example of non-existent differences, and the refusal by the Democrats to repeal a tax bill they were very vocal to denounce is another. This process alone, eliminating other factors which supercharge spectacle-led politics of outrage such as social media, makes for an entrenched, self-sustaining climate of obfuscation, misinformation and disinformation almost without limits as a matter of political course replete with a feverish and yet wholly manufactured polarization.

To illustrate this, I would invite anyone to tune in to Rachel Maddow or Wolf Blitzer on MSNBC and CNN, and Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson on Fox News on any evening: without identifying actual policy differences, these pundits engage in performed outrage to keep the distinct political tribes activated against their opponents – while keeping them glued to their TV night after night after night for more spectacle. Furthermore, as this form of politics begins to scrape the bottom of its barrel, foreign entities are given center-stage in wild, incoherent rants employing convoluted conspiracies built on ever-changing and therefore unfalsifiable claims. The usual culprits are mentioned, namely Russia, Iran, Syria and North Korea whose powers of mischief become almost god-like: Russia especially is now present everywhere and responsible for everything all because of the enabling, treacherous acts of the other side (the Democrats according to Carlson and Hannity, and the Republicans according to Maddow and Blitzer).

China on the other hand, slides in and out of these accusations because, I think, it is too big a force to parade and parody in this manner: under nationalist impulses, enemies must be small enough to toy with and large enough to make them appear threatening: Russia fits perfectly within this frame at the global level being a former RED country, with a large nuclear arsenal and a formidable military. But most importantly, Russia’s smaller economy with very minimal integration with the US’s makes for a perfect villain. China – a much larger economy, comparable to the US’s, and heavily intertwined with it so as it enable it to inflict real and tangible damage as we have seen recently in the tit-for-tat tariffs fiasco – is too risky a culprit even though it too boasts a rather powerful and growing military of its own while still espousing an active RED ideology, with a publicly known espionage operation targeting American intellectual property and political intelligence.

As an outcome, both political party tribalists through this spectacle essentially enjoin themselves in supporting more muscular policies against imagined “adversaries”, thereby disarming any local movements and politics geared towards peace, cooperation, dialogue, diplomacy and mutual understanding – that is, any politics which defy nationalism in preference of a grassroots, left-leaning, internationalist (as opposed to a corporate globalist) focus. Moreover, corporate interests vested in maintaining permanent hostilities with these imagined adversaries are massive as well, evidenced by the ever-growing military budget of the United States in order to counter so-called aggressive and insurgent powers. Even Black Lives Matter, a contemporary civil rights movement routinely demonized as a hate-group by the righter-wing, has been similarly vituperated by some Democratic Party affiliates for being pawns in the alleged Russian interference of the previous US election, ultimately contributing to the electoral defeat of the Clinton campaign. Black Lives Matter has in some instances rightly been critical of the Clintons because of mass incarceration resulting from the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passed during Clinton’s administration, which Mrs Clinton herself very much supported, that further institutionalized Bush senior’s “Bring Them to Heel” initiatives and Reagan’s “Mandatory Minimum Sentencing” laws. This act disproportionately impacted black and brown people and their communities. Mrs Clinton herself was filmed in 1996 describing some African American children as “super-predators” who lacked conscience and empathy, and who needed to be “brought to heel”.

Black Lives Matter’s leftist politics and critique of Clinton thus placed them into the cross-hairs not only of the Republican righter-wing but also of the Democratic right-wing from a common rubric of American exceptionalist nationalism. The posture of both parties to the DAPL protests largely organized by Native Americans during Obama’s last months of tenure is similarly illustrative as were the responses of these same parties to the Occupy Movement after the financial crash of 2008.

The implications of this type of self-propelling, spectacle-led tribal nationalist politics are that they fundamentally reconfigure and co-opt morality into a new domain of political functions. Already, the political deployment of moralist positions has been useful in shutting down people’s capacity to see and talk about what the violence engendered by their own nation does to other people. American flag worship, which is now very much a moralist expectation, for instance, makes such a comprehension almost impossible. This is because under a nationalist rubric, ideas about morals are contrived out of projected notions about the inherent rightness of the nation, sometimes aided by deities, mythologized heroic figures of the past, or a very selective recounting of a nation’s history. They thus flow from an imagined normative which provides the overarching justification for the violence which often accompanies nationalist projects.

In general, violence caused by the nation is framed as necessary and geared towards a greater goal, and the excesses of it are grafted into the narrative of the nation as its mistakes which nonetheless produce timeless lessons due to the nation’s built-in sensitivity to virtues. The violence caused by the imagined adversary, however, is viewed as deliberate, malicious, barbaric, unprovoked and immoral.

On Fox News, for instance, in February 2018, a former head of the FBI, James Woolsey, stated that American interference in other countries political processes was warranted because it was for a good cause which could not be said for others like Russia. Similar sentiments have been made for example about potential war with North Korea, and the spectacularly disastrous invasion of Iraq – cases in which millions would die, and hundreds of thousands, if not a million, already did, respectively.

But nationalism within artificial tribal factions as is the case in the United States goes even further by making unnecessary the need for normative morality. Rather than looking to an external source for its basis for moral justifications in the face of the destruction caused by nationalist violence both domestic and foreign, the readiness to pursue courses of action without considering outcomes become the very basis for public and national morality itself. This is one of the reasons for Trump’s appeal and the persistent support he enjoys from his base which includes large sections of evangelical Christians. It is also the basis for bipartisan calls for greater militarism in the Baltic regions; or for more military assets in the Syrian conflict; or the great, uncomfortable bi-tribal silence which still surrounds the Saudi-led, US-backed blockade and the continued bombing campaign of Yemen and all its humanitarian horrors; it also explains the bipartisan callousness we see towards the extra-judicial killings by drone-strikes which really came to their own under Obama and have since escalated under Trump: these unpersoned death-machines now litter the unfortunate South Asian, Middle-Eastern, and Western and Eastern African skies; and so on.

The willingness to pursue extreme courses of action with little regard for human suffering or consequences enables two political functions: Firstly, it distinguishes one political tribe from another within a context defined by spectacle and insignificant differences by erecting, within a policy vacuum, a false tower of fictitious, deeply held convictions. Secondly, it projects “burning” nationalist convictions which become a signal for morality itself – that is, the audacity to pursue undefined convictions in a dogged manner even at the cost of human life and general destruction become the evidence of morality and a criteria for ranking who is more moral than others within the political tribe and between the two political tribes. This conjures up a type of violence spurred on by a quest to project purity across the false bipartisan divide, and within the political tribes themselves.

This type of morality flattens the world of its human complexity and institutes a fierce commitment to a course of action in spite of its violence which is only possible within a nationalist political climate. Thus, it is not strange that we see growing brinksmanship in domestic and foreign policy. In a theater devoid of actual policy distinctions, a politics of moral bluffs with very real consequences in the present and the future takes precedence over any other type. The formation of a real left is thus absolutely essential in America if only to help the political system escape this disastrous trap of spectacle; but as I have already alluded, millions of Americans would be the better for it because they would have a chance at actual representation beyond voting for “the lesser of two (equal) evils”. Such representation might address the pernicious effects of structural violence and exclusion which make their lives, and especially those of brown and black people like myself, extremely precarious. Furthermore, the world at large might breathe a sigh of relief too.

 

Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

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