Tribal Politics: America Today

Matthew Dowd

By Matthew Dowd

Nov 5, 2011 7:30pm

Does the truth really matter any more in our republic?  Is the search for truth just another martyr on the battlefield of today’s polarized political discourse?  The latest news about the allegations of sexual harassment against Herman Cain is very telling.  Not in its impact on the presidential campaign, but on the question of what our political culture has become. Have we devolved into a tribal society?

Let’s review.  The news breaks in Politico that Herman Cain’s former employer, the National Restaurant Association, agreed to a settlement with some female employees following charges they made of sexual harassment.  Those facts now are not in dispute.  But the first course of action by  the tribe of conservatigentsia:  Attack Politico and question their motives.   Then the leaders of this tribe (Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, etc.) attacked the liberal left for daring to raise these issues.  (I guess they forgot that they castigated Bill Clinton unmercifully at times based on very limited information.)

Next, the tribe of liberalagentsia (led by commentators on MSNBC) launched a full-on assault on Cain, attempting to totally disqualify him as a credible candidate.   And anyone defending Cain was dismissed out of hand.

Does the truth matter in this?  Do the women who have been thrown in the middle of this have any say?   Does Cain’s behavior both years ago at the National Restaurant Association and in how he handles the situation today give us an indication of his leadership?  All of these are valid questions, but it’s hard to ever get a measured discussion on it in the midst of this tribal warfare.

Why wasn’t Cain better prepared to answer these allegations and why didn’t he take some accountability for his own behavior?  I can only speculate that it comes from a bit of arrogance, and a feeling that candidates don’t feel they can admit a mistake without looking weak.  (The ironic thing is that the American public actually sees admitting mistakes is a sign of strength and a willingness to learn and improve. )

But the tribal nature of our political culture does not allow this type of nuanced discussion.  The leaders of each of these political tribes has a knee-jerk response to every move or moment today.  If President Obama is for it, conservatives are against it.  If Obama was successful (Libya, Iraq, etc.), then it must have been a bad idea.  If the Republicans want to reform our entitlement programs, then they are heartless.

Do people really care about the women who might have actually been harassed in this or felt their jobs were in jeopardy because of the possible actions of their boss?  Or are they merely pawns in this conflict used or abused by either side to serve an end?  Do conservatives or liberals really care about Herman Cain’s wife in this and how this might affect her?

And so we arrive at this Cain moment in this political battlefield.  And as predictable as the Shiites attacking Sunnis, and Sunnis attacking Shiites, the tribes in our culture rise up and attack each other without much regard to the collateral damage that is done to the civilians in the village.   And the most innocent victim in all of this is a genuine and passionate search for the truth.

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