Right on time for Halloween, there is supposedly an eerie and spooky ghoul lurking and haunting the land, posing a dire threat to our democracy. The name of this ghoulish entity: tribalism in politics.
Gorging on U.S. cable television news, some domestic commentators cannot help but regurgitate the trite analysis of many of the babbling talk heads and pundits on American television, mindlessly transposing the American political drama and heated commentary over Bahamian politics.
It is enough to make our Founders, most of whom have passed, awake from their resting places, aghast that today’s political leaders in the sovereign nation they helped to birth, are engaged in the same and necessary party and political contestation on which our independent Bahamas was founded.
The fierce arguments, vigorous political debates and sustained political action leading to majority rule and independence, make today’s parliamentary debates seem like the sometimes heated conversations family members from opposing political parties might have around some drinks or at the dinner table.
Many in the media/commentary/pundit tribe, in typical herd mentality, are once again pushing the notion that today’s politics are too frighteningly tribal. Oh, how ghastly!
This silly notion is also being promoted by jilted freshman members of parliament who rode into office under a party banner but who are now desperately seeking to mask their political failure by ranting about partisanship.
This chant cum incantation of tribalism, which supposedly should summon us to a better time that never existed, is not new here at home or abroad.
It is a falsehood and complaint based on a noxious concoction — a misconception and widespread ignorance about the genesis and nature of our political system, together with an ahistorical mindset — which is verily supposedly stalking the land as might goblins and various nocturnal phantoms.
This a-historicism, or lack of historical knowledge and context, appears to have taken up permanent residence in those who stubbornly refuse to educate themselves about history and politics beyond the latest squabble in parliament, which is often blown dramatically out of proportion.
Sociologically and biologically, humans are tribal by nature. Being a member of a familial or tribal group is seen as essential for development. But like all human instincts, tribalism can lead to violent conflict, war and genocide.
Tribalism can become poisonous and excessive as we are witnessing in the virulent immigrant loathing and bashing, especially post-Hurricane Dorian.
Still, politics and political groupings are an advancement in how human societies are organized, a means of taming our baser instincts and penchant for violence and unchecked group- and self-interests.
Democratic and parliamentary politics is necessarily adversarial. It is a civilized alternative to settling differences through violence on a battlefield or in the streets. It descends into tribalism when we revert to victimization, spite and societal exclusion as political weapons.
“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary,” stated the late Reinhold Niebuhr, a pastor and one of the preeminent theologians and political commentators of the 20th Century.
Niebuhr observed that democratic political systems are naturally confrontational, partisan and privy to conflict. Democratic politics is an advancement for human groups that throughout history were prone to settle many conflict without the rules of democracy, which are designed to check group interests and the lust for power.
Human beings are naturally competitive. The contesting of values and viewpoints are designed to produce better outcomes, though given human fallibility and corruption, the best outcomes often do not come to fruition.
Our court system is based on contestation, with prosecution and defense teams vigorously promoting their cases to be adjudicated by judges and juries. There are safeguards like rules of evidence, precedence, judicial reviews and appellate courts.
Likewise, in a party-based democracy there are institutions, principally parliament, and rules, conventions and traditions, where the final adjudicators in a democracy, the people, elect representatives to debate and to decide on matters affecting the common good.
It is in the political arena that humans contest values, ideas, beliefs – and balance group and individual interests. The lifeblood of parliamentary democracy is a party system based on competition and contest, which are necessary for democratic flourishing. Any citizen may join or support a party to promote their ideas and interests.
Democracy partially evolved in reaction to monarchical or autocratic forms of government. As messy and dysfunctional as it sometimes seems, a competitive party-based system is an advancement in how a society is organized and governed.
Our pluralist constitutional cum parliamentary democracy is designed to ensure a contest for power as a check against one-party rule and dictatorship. Partisans debate their views in a parliament where there are well-established rules to guide its proceedings.
Lawmakers and politicians are also guided and bound by the constitution and the courts. And they are checked also by voters and their parties. Our system has even more checks on the political power of the executive than the U.S. system of government.
Those in the media and academia who are stubbornly and arrogantly incurious or too lazy to research and inquire, are constantly hobbled by what political writer Adam Gopnik describes as “presentism”.
The New Yorker writer observed: “Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest.” One strand of presentism is the navel gazing and limited viewpoint of those who see human history nearly entirely from the perspective of their own life experience and the daily headlines.
Some time spent at the National Archives or reading the clippings in the well-kept archives of The Tribune may provide younger reporters as well as older reporters and editors with greater perspective and insight as they write stories and offer commentary on contemporary politics and parliamentary debates.
The ferocious debates from the 1960s to the 1990s and 2000s, joined by politicians like Sir Lynden Pindling, Sir Cecil Wallace Whitfield, Sir Arthur Foulkes, Hubert Ingraham and other parliamentarians, make contemporary parliamentary contests appear like much tamer affairs.
Those too young to remember might ask some older heads about when Sir Lynden and then-MP Michael Lightbourne almost came to blows. With folk wisdom, tenacity and creative showmanship, the late Edmund Moxey patched hell on Sir Lynden and the PLP.
Some will recall the heated arguments on the floor of the House of Assembly during the debate on the Public Disclosure Bill, the contemptuous treatment by Sir Lynden of the late Speaker Sir Arlington Butler and Sir Arlington’s masterful response.
A quick world tour, which can be done by any smart device, will quickly reveal how much tamer and less tribal are Bahamian politics and parliamentary debate.
From South and Central America to Africa, Europe, the Middle East and to Asia, Bahamians will discover parliaments decidedly more rambunctious and divided than The Bahamas.
A turbulent period in the “mother of parliaments” at Westminster came to a head only this week in the United Kingdom with a vote to hold an election in December, the first in over a century.
The goings-on in the South Korean National Assembly were so bad that lawmakers had to bring in stricter regulations to stop fights from breaking out. Some parliaments have had to fine members who broke rules and engaged in fighting within the parliamentary chambers.
Our democracy is not threatened by the sometimes overheated rhetoric and sometimes unnecessary tribalism in politics, though we must constantly and vigorously work to uphold rules and conventions.
The greater threat is the ignorance about our system and political history by politicians, parliamentarians, journalists, commentators, who continue to fail to offer their fellow-citizens greater perspective and understanding of national affairs.