There are so many things I could say right now after watching Doug Jones defeat Roy Moore in the Senate race in Alabama, but for me it comes down to just two words: “Thank you.”
Thank you to the majority of Alabamians for loving our country more than you hated Democrats. Thank you for voting as citizens, not as members of a tribe. Thank you for understanding that sending a credibly accused child molester to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate would not only have denigrated your state, it would have denigrated that whole legislative body. Thank you for seeing the decency of Doug Jones, even though he is a Democrat, and seeing the indecency of Roy Moore.
And most of all, thank you for sending a message to Donald Trump and Stephen Bannon that you are not as dumb as they think you are. That you see what they are up to – trying to use divisive tweets and racist dog whistles to get as many Americans as possible so aroused and inflamed that they won’t think about the real issues, they won’t think about the actual candidates, they won’t think about the national interest, or even their own self-interest, but just how much they dislike “the other” – and you’re not buying it anymore.
God bless every one of you. Yours was a deeply patriotic act.
It’s too soon to say for sure, of course, whether this is a national trend, but when the majority in a deep-red state like Alabama – where anti-abortion sentiments run so high, making it nearly impossible for a pro-choice Democrat to be elected – repudiates the effort by Trump and Bannon to turn us from citizens into tribes, there is hope for the country after all. It is a real sign of health.
I speak from some experience, because I have peered into this tribal abyss. 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.
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.”
The Senate race in Alabama reminded me of that story – not the shooting part, of course, but the way Alabamians were being told to let someone baby-sit our precious country, someone they wouldn’t let baby-sit their own kids – just because he was supposedly from their tribe.
We’ve confronted such thinking before in our history. But in the 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.
But even with Jones’ victory in Alabama I worry that technology – social networks in particular – and archaic laws that prevent new players from entering politics work against the emergence of such national leaders. I worry that irreversible damage is being done to our norms and institutions by this poisonous cocktail of Trump, Twitter and tribalism.
I was not surprised to hear former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya tell CNBC on Tuesday that social media is creating a society that confuses “popularity” with “truth.” The tools we’ve created, he explained, “are starting to erode the social fabric of how society works.”
It’s easy to forget, in this age of Twitter, how much a daring leader who can pull people together can accomplish – even in the most difficult of times.
Think of Abe Lincoln. 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 of the country, laying the basis for a truly national economy; and 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.
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 lifelong 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.
But maybe, just maybe, the narrow majority in Alabama has sent both Trump and the country a message. We are fed up with your cynicism, we are fed up with your effort to break us into tribes, we want a president who is a uniter not a divider, because we have big hard work to do as a country right now – and it can only be done together.