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The political tribalism of Andrew Sullivan

Sullivan’s essay on political tribalism shows he’s blinded by his own.

The problem with Andrew Sullivan’s diagnosis of political tribalism.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

I knew when we launched Vox that there would be criticisms I didn’t anticipate, but I’ll admit, I never foresaw one of them being that writing explainers doesn’t satisfyingly replace the role of religion in people’s lives.

Yet here we are:

But the banality of the god of progress, the idea that the best life is writing explainers for Vox in order to make the world a better place, never quite slakes the thirst for something deeper.

Rats. Foiled again!

That’s Andrew Sullivan writing in New York magazine, and while the column caught my attention for that line, which I will now have needlepointed on a pillow, the broader piece is wrong in more important, less amusing, ways.

Sullivan claims that the modern West has lost Christian practice and gained, in its place, a monstrous political tribalism. It’s a looping, strange argument in which he stitches together eloquent reflections on the hollowness of human existence, musings about electronic distraction, and concerns that an ethos of materialist progress has replaced an appreciation of metaphysical awe, all to end in a slashing justification of his own political resentments.

To be clear, I have no interest in litigating anyone’s faith. What I am interested in is American politics, and in this essay, Sullivan offers a nostalgic analysis of our current problems that has become popular among a certain class of pundits — David Brooks calls Sullivan’s essay a shoe-in for his annual Sidney Awards — but that doesn’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny, and in fact displays the very biases it laments.

Let’s begin here, with Sullivan’s thesis:

Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation to mortality. But, critically, it has long been complemented and supported in America by a religion distinctly separate from politics, a tamed Christianity that rests, in Jesus’ formulation, on a distinction between God and Caesar. And this separation is vital for liberalism, because if your ultimate meaning is derived from religion, you have less need of deriving it from politics or ideology or trusting entirely in a single, secular leader. It’s only when your meaning has been secured that you can allow politics to be merely procedural.

To put this more simply, Sullivan is saying that Christianity lowers the stakes of political conflict. A politics moderated by Christianity is merely procedural because the fundamental questions of human dignity have been answered elsewhere.

Absent the calming effects of Christianity, he continues, Americans look to politics to find their meaning, and that escalates the stakes of political conflict. Politics ceases to be procedural and becomes fundamental. Boundaries must be drawn and tribal membership policed. This is Sullivan’s diagnosis of our current divisions. He writes:

Now look at our politics. We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.

This is a relentlessly ahistorical read of American politics. America’s political past was not more procedural and restrained than its present, and religion does not, in general, calm political divides. What Sullivan is missing in these sections is precisely the perspective of the groups he’s dismissing.

But if Sullivan’s essay fails as historical analysis, it succeeds as a metaphor for our times. What he has done is come up with a tribal explanation for political tribalism: The problem is not enough people like him, too many people unlike him. Speaking of what he calls American’s “political cults,” Sullivan writes:

They do not believe in the primacy of the individual, they believe the ends justify the means, they do not allow for doubt or reason, and their religious politics can brook no compromise.

Political tribalism is first and foremost a psychological phenomenon, a way of looking at what you’ve defined as your out-groups and seeing in them something very different from what you see in your allies. Yet even as Sullivan decries political tribalism, here is his theory of it: A decline in people practicing his form of Christian faith has led to a rise in “political cultists” who find their ultimate meaning in politics, who will stop at nothing to achieve their political goals, and who cannot be reasoned or compromised with.

This is not an analysis of the thinking deepening our political divides, but a demonstration of it.

When was American politics merely procedural?

The simplest objection to Sullivan’s narrative is that American politics has never been merely procedural — and, indeed, the more procedural it has felt, the more fundamental its internal conflicts have often been.

The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer put it well in our podcast conversation. “A lot of what people nostalgically consider eras without tribalism are in fact moments in American history where people of color, particularly black people, have been deprived of political power, and so things like ethnic and racial lines became less salient.”

I have written about this before, but politics was certainly not mere proceduralism in the country’s early years, when new arrivals from Europe drove out the Native Americans, brought over millions of enslaved Africans, and wrote laws making women second-class citizens.

Presumably, Sullivan isn’t thinking of the runup to the Civil War, either. He can’t possibly be describing the Civil War itself as a period of procedural politics calmed by Christian practice. There’s no way it could’ve been the bloody aftermath of the Civil War, when Southern whites reestablished control of their territory through a campaign of state violence and political repression.

That brings us to the 20th century, when partisanship did indeed ebb as the Dixiecrats’ commitment to white supremacy scrambled the parties ideologically. But this was hardly a calm era in American politics. For much of the 20th century, the right to vote was, for African Americans, no right at all. Lynchings were common. Freedom Riders were murdered across the American South. Suffragists were beaten and tortured for seeking the franchise. National Guard members fired on, and killed, student protesters at Kent State. Police had to escort young African-American children into schools as jeering crowds shouted racial epithets and threatened to attack.

“What happens when this religious rampart of the entire system is removed?” asks Sullivan. “I think what happens is illiberal politics.”

Here, too, the evidence contradicts his thesis. The consensus is that American politics was far more illiberal in our past than in our present. The Varieties of Democracy project, which has been surveying experts on the state of global democracies since 1900, gave the US political system a 48 on a 1-to-100 scale in 1945 and a 59 in 1965. It was only after the civil rights movement that America began scoring in the 70s and 80s, marking it as a largely successful democracy.

The US has lost a couple points in the past few years, to be sure, but its 2017 rating was still 73. The era Sullivan looks back on fondly was, by almost any measure, more illiberal in its politics and more fundamental in its conflicts, in part because the meaning of America — who got to participate in it, and whose claims it heard — was so deeply contested.

But if Sullivan’s sense of history is wrong, it’s not unusual. He looks back on American history and sees a politics of becalmed proceduralism, which was often — though certainly not always — true for white men. He looks around now and he sees identity politics everywhere, political cults warring over fundamental questions of dignity and belonging.

This speaks to a paradox of American politics: It often feels most stable when it is least just, and it often feels least stable when progress is being made. This is a point Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt make powerfully in their book How Democracies Die:

The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion. The stability of the period between the end of Reconstruction and the 1980s was rooted in an original sin: the Compromise of 1877 and its aftermath, which permitted the de-democratization of the South and the consolidation of Jim Crow. Racial exclusion contributed directly to the partisan civility and cooperation that came to characterize twentieth-century American politics. The “solid South” emerged as a powerful conservative force within the Democratic Party, simultaneously vetoing civil rights and serving as a bridge to Republicans. Southern Democrats’ ideological proximity to conservative Republicans reduced polarization and facilitated bipartisanship. But it did so at the great cost of keeping civil rights — and America’s full democratization — off the political agenda.

Sullivan’s essay is animated by animus at the “woke” warriors he loathes. “‘Social justice’ theory requires the admission of white privilege in ways that are strikingly like the admission of original sin,” he writes. That’s one way to put it.

Another way to put it is that social justice theory encourages the consideration of privilege in order to prevent people from being so blinded by their own perspective that they look at America’s political past and declaim this the era in which we departed from political proceduralism and collapsed into illiberalism.

The “No true Christian” problem

An alert reader, absorbing Sullivan’s thesis, might notice another problem: Doesn’t religion regularly escalate the stakes of politics beyond proceduralism? Indeed, in many of the periods I’ve mentioned, Christianity was the handmaiden of political escalation, for both great good and great ill. Sullivan himself gestures toward one side of this reality, writing that “it was Christianity that gave us successive social movements, which enabled more people to be included in the liberal project.” And today, there’s no single group that supports President Trump as intensely as white evangelicals.

Ah, but Sullivan has thought of this:

Their leaders have turned Christianity into a political and social identity, not a lived faith, and much of their flock — a staggering 81 percent voted for Trump — has signed on. They have tribalized a religion explicitly built by Jesus as anti-tribal. They have turned to idols — including their blasphemous belief in America as God’s chosen country. They have embraced wealth and nationalism as core goods, two ideas utterly anathema to Christ. They are indifferent to the destruction of the creation they say they believe God made. And because their faith is unmoored but their religious impulse is strong, they seek a replacement for religion. This is why they could suddenly rally to a cult called Trump.

There’s a logical fallacy called the “no true Scotsman” problem. As the handy website (ain’t the internet grand?) explains, “in this form of faulty reasoning one’s belief is rendered unfalsifiable because no matter how compelling the evidence is, one simply shifts the goalposts so that it wouldn’t apply to a supposedly ‘true’ example.”

I am not here to judge anyone’s religion, and I’ve been moved many times in the past by how Sullivan writes of his faith. But as a matter of political analysis, Sullivan is trying to close a gaping hole in his argument by defining his Christian practice as true and competing interpretations, no matter how widespread they are, as aberrant. That’s a fine hobby, but it’s not a useful interpretive lens for understanding America’s past or guiding our future.

To state the obvious: Christians were found among both the abolitionists and the secessionists, the segregationists and the Freedom Riders. Study the moments of maximum collision in America’s past and you will find them thick with godly rhetoric and devout believers. Political rhetoric in America is filled with signifiers of Christian identity, and it always has been. It is absurd to suggest that Christianity was somehow less of a social and political identity in the past.

Towards a better explanation of political tribalism

Sullivan is grappling for an explanation of rising political tribalism, and there, he may want to dispense with the introspection and explore the work of people who actually study it, like political scientist Lilliana Mason. Her work shows that groups’ behavior hardens when identities stack on top of each other and weakens when they pull in different directions.

All else being equal, a 62-year-old white, Christian Democrat who lives in rural Montana will loathe Republicans less than a 23-year-old Hispanic, agnostic Democrat who lives in Los Angeles. A young, conservative atheist will be more open toward liberals than a conservative evangelical (which neatly solves the mystery of Trump’s intense support among the Christian right).

Polarization is rising, and to the extent that Sullivan senses a hardening of tribal lines, he’s not wrong. But the driving force here isn’t the waning of Christianity but the politicized sorting of it, and much else. Married white Christians made up 80 percent of voters in the 1950s, and were evenly split between the two parties; today, they make up less than 40 percent of voters, and they’re overwhelmingly concentrated in the Republican Party. The parties have similarly organized around race, geography, and even age.

“The two parties are now divided over race and religion — two deeply polarizing issues that tend to generate greater intolerance and hostility than traditional policy issues such as taxes and government spending,” write Levitsky and Ziblatt. Their work finds what seems obvious: Adding religious identity into political conflict often makes it worse, not better.

The particular pathologies of politics in an age of rapid demographic and cultural change are serious and worrying. Indeed, I am working on a book trying to understand them, and my main lesson, so far, is that mapping the workings of a sociopolitical system this complex, this human, is maddeningly difficult. It demands humility of us all. That is not to say that all groups are equal, that all ideologies are the same, or that some actors are not worse than others. But if our explanation for political tribalism takes the form of “it’s everyone else’s fault,” more likely than not, we have gone awry.