Political tribalism is trumping accountability. That’s bad for democracy | Bruce Ledewitz

Trump supporters protest an appearance by former Vice President Joe Biden in Harrisburg, Pa., on Monday 9/7/20 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

The term “one-issue voter” is outdated.

Bruce Ledewitz (Capital-Star file)

It used to refer to voters who cared so much about an issue that they would support a candidate from either party based on the candidate’s position on a single issue.

But the idea that large numbers of politically aware voters supporting a candidate of the opposite party because of a single issue is today very unlikely. Many of us are now single-party voters. We almost always vote for the candidates of only one party.

Partly the reason for that is that both major parties are more ideologically cohesive than they used to be. The Republican candidate is not usually going to be pro-abortion rights, for example, or vice versa.

In part, the reason is that voters are more sophisticated.

A voter who opposes abortion rights, for instance, would know that even a pro-abortion Republican Senate candidate would vote for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for majority leader of the Senate. That would permit McConnell to put more judges on the bench who might vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, regardless of whether the Senate candidate supported such judges.

But the major reason is that, as journalist Ezra Klein shows in detail in his recent book Why We’re Polarized, politics has now become the place where much of our identity is focused. Our political coalition has become our tribe. It is hard to vote for someone from the outside.

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But if we are not likely to vote against our own group, then it is fair to ask, what obligation do we owe our coalition?

If we are not going to abandon our side, we then must assure that our side acts properly. We cannot pretend that we are not responsible for what our party does. We must be the loyal opposition within.

Two recent examples show that we are failing in this obligation.

One failure was the silence of the members of the Federalist Society when the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign turned the White House into a partisan political prop during the Republican National Convention. It was with the White House as backdrop that President Donald Trump uttered his infamous line, “We’re here and they’re not.”

That was a disgrace because the White House, and the presidency itself, must represent all the people of America. When the symbols of national unity are partisan, constitutional democracy becomes impossible.

The members of the Federalist Society know this perfectly well. They would never defend using the White House in a political fashion.

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The point is, however, that they did not stop it or even try to stop it, as far as anyone can tell.

The Federalist Society has an unusual place in American politics today. Although technically and legally nonpartisan, it participates in a governing role in national republican administrations. Its members occupy high office. Government officials routinely address its conventions. It vetted lists of potential judicial candidates, which then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016 promised to consult.

A concerted effort by the group, even one behind the scenes, to move convention proceedings away from the White House might have had an impact. Their duty was to try.

The failure on the Democratic Party side was even more serious. Here, the group involved is more amorphous than the Federalist Society. It consists of law professors, especially those who teach constitutional law. This group lacks organization, but overwhelmingly identifies with the Democratic Party.

The failure here was two-fold. First, silence in the face of seeming tolerance by party leaders of looting and arson during recent demonstrations protesting police brutality and racism. Law professors know better than anyone else that the first obligation of government is security.

But at least, eventually, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden condemned the violence.

Then, on the way back from listening to Trump’s acceptance speech during the Republican convention, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and his wife, were accosted by protesters and had to be escorted to safety by the Washington D.C. police. Law professors said nothing about this, either.

Paul and his wife were not injured. But that does not lessen the harm to constitutional democracy. The crowd knew who he was — the shouts of “say her name” and “Breonna Taylor” showed knowledge that he represents Kentucky, where Breonna Taylor was shot to death by police in March. So, what you have in this incident is the threat of violence against a perceived political opponent.

This is conduct that cannot be tolerated. The Weimar Republic in Germany disintegrated as Communist and Nazi mobs fought each other in the streets. If attacks like the one on Paul are not prevented, it will not be long before politicians begin walking around surrounded by armed supporters. The shootings in Kenosha predict what will happen next.

In the face of this denigration of First Amendment values, there were no circulated letters of outrage by law professors. Many of these law professors, like the Federalist Society when Republicans are in power, will have major positions in a Biden administration. They could have spoken out. It would have mattered.

I am not suggesting that we owe a duty to our political tribes that transcends political calculation. It is understandable that we hesitate to criticize our own side when such criticism might lead to victory by political opponents we abhor.

But these recent failures to hold our tribes accountable were not the result of such calculations. The misuse of the White House and the refusal to confront political violence did not benefit the campaigns of either Presidential candidate. It would have actually been politically beneficial to have changed the behavior of party leaders.

No, the silence in these instances represents something more abject. We simply do not wish to break ranks with our side. We just want to fit in.

There is a phrase that is used to describe the courage of a prophet. It is called speaking truth to power. In a world of one-coalition voters, it requires no courage to confront the wrongs of the other side. In such a world, our duty is to confront the wrongs of our own tribes and to correct them.

This we have been failing to do.

Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.  Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here.