“Who are your people? Where did you grow up? Are you from around here? Where did you go to school?”
These are the familiar questions that come up early in encounters with people we don’t know. In one sense, these are opening lines in polite conversations. In another sense, these are initial probes in discovering what tribe they belong to.
If the new person we meet is African-American, Asian, Hispanic or all decked out in orange with tiger paws — these are outward signs of his or her tribal identity that are clear to everyone.
All of us are members of a tribe; in fact, we are all a member of a number of tribes. Our tribal affiliations are based on geography, race, school, class, education — and on and on it goes.
A few years back, my family playfully, but accurately, defined ourselves as WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants), Coke-drinking, Apple-using, Gamecock-loving, Lowcountry-living, Democratic-voting South Carolinians.
It was a pretty good shorthand description of who we are. But, even within these categories, there were nuances. We’re Presbyterians, Scots Irish, immigrants to the Lowcountry (at least the parents), rabid Gamecocks from birth and moderate Democrats by choice.
Heck, I recently saw a map that divided our state by the four types of barbecue we eat. According to the website CaveTools.com, “The four, in order of historical discovery, are vinegar and pepper, mustard, light tomato and heavy tomato.”
Probably the most amusing manifestations of this tribal difference I recently witnessed was at a Waffle House just off an interstate exit in the Upstate. There happened to be a second Waffle House a few hundred yards away on the other side of the interstate and when I commented on the close proximity my waitress remarked, “It’s a good thing you came in here, because those other folks over there are a little weird.” Priceless.
Every tribe has its own symbols, rituals, secret handshakes, uniforms and so forth. It’s part of how we identify others in the tribe. Most of these symbols are innocuous but some can become the object of major social and political battles, i.e. the Confederate flag.
Each of our tribal identities defines, at least in part, who we are, what we believe, what are our passions (or prejudices) and our residential geography. Thus, in South Carolina, a multi-layered analysis of our many tribes tells a lot about what makes us and our culture so rich, diverse, interesting and, at times, difficult.
And now the politics. As we begin to be inundated with candidates from both parties competing in their presidential primary (at last count there were about 20 of them), it’s worth considering for a moment how politicians of both parties try to play on our tribal differences — usually for their own political advantage.
Too often, these politicians use the language of us vs. them or native born vs. “illegal immigrants” or gay vs. straight, etc.
Their goal is to carve out a tribe (or sub-tribe) and convince us that they are one of us and that their opponents are not one of us. It’s called the politics of division and it’s a practice as old as politics itself.
But it is not a good thing; it divides us instead of unites us and it seems like it’s only getting worse — see Washington’s political gridlock. It’s what happens when politicians focus on so-called wedge issues. It may be good for their election campaigns, but it’s bad for our state and our nation.
And, it does not have to be this way.
In many ways, we all want the same things. We all breathe the same air and drink the same water, and we want it to be clean. We all love our children and we want them to be safe, well-educated and healthy. We all want to provide for our families and we want good jobs with decent pay and a future that is better than our past.
It’s called the American Dream and it’s what separates us (there it is again) from the folks in Europe, South America or Africa.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we had politicians (of both parties) that based their campaigns on appealing to our best hopes and not our worst fears? What if they talked about our shared values and common purpose and didn’t appeal to our divisions and suspicions?
I can hear the cynics now. “That’s not how things work … that’s the way it’s always been.”
Perhaps. But now that all the politicians are here trekking across our state and asking for our votes — maybe, just maybe, things would be a little different if we demanded better.
The next time you hear these politicians playing divisive tribal politics, tell them you want something better. Tell them you are going to vote for something better — i.e. not for them. It will get their attention.
Let’s at least give it a try and see what happens.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.