Late last week, my conservative friends on Facebook started passing around a Buzzfeed link, accompanied by some chortling commentary: “14 Principled Anti-War Celebrities We Fear May Have Been Kidnapped.”
Sure, Sheryl Crow might’ve been all anti-war during the George W. Bush administration, telling the public that “war is based in greed and there are huge karmic retributions that will follow.” But where was she—and Bruce Springsteen, and George Clooney, and other liberal celebrities—now that a Democratic president appeared ready to take us to war in Syria? Nowhere, it seems. Surely they must’ve been kidnapped.
Buzzfeed’s point was, perhaps, too sarcastically made, but it’s well-taken. The run-up to an attack on Syria has proven all too well: The biggest force in American politics isn’t ideology or class or religion differences.
Democrats weren’t serious critics of the Iraq War after all, it seems. They just didn’t like the president leading it. And Republicans who never met a war they didn’t love suddenly have found their dovish side. Some other factors surely come into play—a decade of war in the Middle East has unsettled the usual expectations in our politics—but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that American policy is being shaped largely by the fact that we hate those (expletives) on the other side of the aisle.
It kind of stinks.
Now, this isn’t true of everybody. Sen. Rand Paul comes from a family that’s been vocally hesitant to use American force for years. Sen. John McCain is still ready to go to war whenever he can. Glenn Greenwald (the commentator who has exposed the NSA practices with Edward Snowden) is skeptical of power no matter who holds it. The ACLU, god bless ‘em, is still doing the hard work of defending civil liberties.
But Republicans who spent a decade asserting the president has the right to ignore Congress, torture suspects, and suspend the First Amendment in wartime were suddenly born again in 2009, about the time President Obama took office, proclaiming themselves Tea Partiers who saw incipient tyranny in the form of slightly higher marginal tax rates. It was easier to laugh at the clear and unthinking tribalism until the anti-war, pro-civil liberties Democrats went silent as reporting about the NSA and Syria piled up in recent months.
In a recent column, the lefty writer David Sirota asked, “What happened to that movement?”
The shorter answer is: It was a victim of partisanship.
That’s the conclusion that emerges from a recent study by professors at the University of Michigan and Indiana University. Evaluating surveys of more than 5,300 anti-war protestors from 2007 to 2009, the researchers discovered that the many protestors who self-identified as Democrats “withdrew from anti-war protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success” in the 2008 presidential election.
That’s more than a little troubling, as Sirota explains: “It suggests that the party affiliation of a particular president should determine whether or not we want that president to kill other human beings. It further suggests that we should all look at war not as a life-and-death issue, but instead as a sporting event in which we blindly root for a preferred political team.”
Tribalism is a natural instinct: We form teams all the time on the most abstract and irrational of bases, then stick to those teams for a lifetime. That’s not always a bad thing; sometimes it’s how we find much-needed community.
But a constitutional democracy like ours, it seems, demands that the rulers—we the people—rise above petty instincts and, well, reason together. The Founders built our government the way they did because they were afraid Americans would be seized by white-hot emotion and push their elected emotions into doing stupid things. Instead, we’ve slowed down enough to cultivate and enshrine our grievances so that sourness of long-term grudge-holding guides us instead.
Overtime, politics makes hypocrites of us all. That’s a hazard of changing times and circumstances. What we’re seeing now, though, is different: Politics is making jerks of us all—and that jerkiness is becoming the electorate’s defining feature.