I told my wife that I wished the Democratic debates were over. I saw the candidates destroying each other without adding any useful information. But, with Mike Bloomberg’s joining the debates for the first time, we watched the Feb. 19 episode.
We watched the Democratic candidates savaging each other and, at the conclusion, my wife asked me how on Earth the party could come together once the actual nominee is picked.
I said, easy. Whoever gets the nomination says as his or her first statement, “We have been saying all along that there is far more that unites us than divides us. During the debates, we tended to focus on what divides us, so that voters could understand what our differences were. But nonetheless it is absolutely true that there is far more that unites us than divides, and from here on, what you will see is our unity on our common values.”
My wife thought that made sense.
Then, as the post-debate analysis started, Brian Williams of NBC said, “Well, after the attacks we have just witnessed, you can forget that old bromide about there being more that unites them than divides them.”
I blurted out to my wife, “Didn’t he hear what I just said?!”
It is no secret to anyone who has read my comments in The Salt Lake Tribune that I believe tribalism has been and is the scourge of humanity, and our only hope is to find a way to make our national motto of “E Pluribus Unum,” – “Out of many, one” - a reality.
It wasn’t just European-introduced smallpox that decimated native Americans. It was tribal warfare and distrust. Our fairytale about the first Thanksgiving between the Pilgrims and the Indians was actually the Pilgrims being approached by the Wampanoags, who were seeking a military alliance against their tribal enemy, the Narragansetts. An exception to that tribal warfare came 250 years later, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, when the Lakota, the Dakota, the Northern Cheyenne and the Arapaho united together for one of their rare victories.
At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin said, “Either we all hang together, or we will surely all hang separately.”
Franklin, more than anyone, knew the corrosive effects of tribalism.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Recently The Tribune published a brilliant piece by David Brooks on the subject of “bildung,” a philosophy of education common to the Scandinavian countries, that helps students understand the relationships between themselves and society and what their place is in a greater national identity. What this did for the Scandinavian countries was to educate their population into a national tribalism that far surpassed the local tribalisms that they had before the late 19th Century, and thus allowed the Scandinavian countries to be the prosperous, peaceful countries they are today, consistently receiving the highest quality of life ratings in the world.
But then we come to our country and political campaigns. All the Democratic candidates agree that climate change is the great existential crisis facing our nation and the world. But instead of joining together on how they will solve this problem, they bicker on petty differences.
Even worse, each candidate builds an army of supporters who then become defined as the candidate’s tribe. Bernie Sanders has his “Bernie Bros.” Elizabeth Warren’s supporters have been accusing Sanders of sexism. Mike Bloomberg calls Sanders a communist, and advocates his own tribe of “businessmen.” Amy Klobuchar says she is the champion of rural people. Joe Biden says he is the champion of minorities. Pete Buttigieg says he is the champion of young people not from Washington.
Defining and then catering to these tribes is destructive and defeatist. It not only lowers any Democratic candidate’s chance of beating Donald Trump, it prevents common action on the truly most important problems facing us — especially the climate crisis.
I applaud both Warren and Sanders for reining in their supporters, but all the candidates need to do much more. Unity has to occur now, not in July at the national convention, if there is to be any hope of stopping the nightmare of four more years of Tr
ump, and worsening of the climate crisis.
Michael A. Kalm, M.D., is a psychiatrist with over 40 years of experience who knows only too well, the massive increase in psychiatric problems, including suicide that will occur with unchecked climate change.