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Thomas Friedman: Trying to rescue political parties from tribal warfare

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Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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By Thomas Friedman
The New York Times

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Back in the late 1970s, when I was covering the Lebanese civil war, a story made the rounds in Beirut that the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia had come up with a novel way of discovering a Palestinian trying to pass through one of its checkpoints. The Phalangists would show the driver a tomato and ask: What’s this? If the driver used the standard Lebanese pronunciation, “banadurra,” he was allowed to pass. If he used the Palestinian pronunciation, “bandora,” he could be pulled out of his car and shot on the spot.

That is tribal politics at its raw essence: It doesn’t matter how you live your life or what you aspire to for your society. All that matters is your sectarian or tribal identity, revealed by how you pronounce the word for tomato.

The Alabama Senate race reminded me of that story – not the shooting part, of course, but the way so many people were ready to vote along raw tribal lines, ready to vote for a credibly accused child molester, Roy Moore, just because he was a Republican and just to prevent a Democrat from taking office in Washington. When people are ready to let someone baby-sit the country – whom they wouldn’t let baby-sit their kids – you know some raw cultural/tribal emotions are playing out, not standard politics.

Middle Easterners have a saying for this kind of thinking: “Me and my brother against my cousin. Me, my brother and my cousin against the outsider.”

I’m not naive about U.S. history. We’ve confronted such thinking before. But here’s what worries me. In past moments of raw, tribal/cultural divisions, our system was always able to produce leaders able to summon our better angels and pull us together to rise to the challenges of the day.

I don’t see that right now, and I worry that technology – social networks in particular – and archaic laws that prevent new players from entering politics actually work against the emergence of such national leaders.

Consider the example of President Lincoln and his Congress. In the middle of a civil war and in the middle of our transition from an agrarian to an industrial society, Lincoln and Congress approved the Homestead Act of 1862, which opened the West for settlement; the Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864, which connected the eastern and western halves the country, laying the basis for a truly national economy; the Morrill Act of 1862, which established the land-grant colleges to teach agriculture, science and engineering, skills the country needed to go to the next level; and the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, to encourage America’s best researchers to experiment “upon any subject of science or art.”

Lincoln, a sort of liberal Republican, could not get through most GOP primaries today, and he’d be eaten alive on Twitter for his centrism.

And yet we are going through a similar period of rapid change today: The pace of destructive weather events is quickening; the world is going from interconnected to interdependent; and machines and software are devouring ever more middle- and even high-skill jobs. The country needs a plan for investing in more resilient cities, in life-learning systems for every worker and in a safety net of mobile/universal health care.

And what do we have instead? A highly tribal Republican tax bill that targets none of those issues.

The GOP has totally lost its mind and soul. Democrats have been more responsible, but they’ve hardly been daring in offering their own tax reform, with innovations like a carbon tax, either. Nothing will sustainably improve without “institutional reform” in how we elect candidates, argues Stanford University democracy expert Larry Diamond, “and fortunately I see the ground starting to shift. Pay attention to Maine.”

Many Maine voters, after a series of nutty gubernatorial elections, grew fed up with how their state was being torn apart by tribal politics and was becoming dysfunctional. “They knew they needed bridging politicians,” says Diamond, but the low-turnout primary system of both parties disproportionately favored candidates with strong ideological bents, not bridge builders. “It was very hard for moderates to surface in the system, let alone win.”

A grass-roots effort is underway in Maine to gather enough signatures for a June referendum to require all primaries for state offices and Congress to use rank-choice voting, where you vote for your first-choice and your second-choice candidate. That way, if you want, you can vote for a third-party candidate first and then for a Republican or a Democrat second. It not only gives third-party candidates more of a chance, but it also forces Republicans and Democrats to move closer to the center to make sure they pick up every possible second vote.

Maybe we are living in a hopelessly polarized and tribalized America, or, maybe, says Diamond, our system has just “super-empowered all the partisans on the edges” and we need to fix it by super-empowering the voters in the center. I say: What do we have to lose? When so many people voted for an apparent child molester over a Democrat, we’ve surely hit rock bottom.

There is only one level lower, and that’s when people with guns start asking you how to pronounce “tomato.”

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