When President Trump decided to pull US troops out of Syria, anyone under the naïve impression that the famously peace-loving Democratic party of the past two decades would hail his bold end to American military adventurism in the Middle Eastern nation was surely disappointed.
For these benighted few principled voters, the stark political realignment on this issue has offered a masterclass in tribal politics. Democratic leaders like Hillary Clinton bellowed, “This president is putting our national security at grave risk.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, called Trump’s decision to exit Syria “dangerous.”
Yet, politicians flip-flop all the time, so the about-face among the now suddenly war-hungry Democratic base was the real surprise. According to a Morning Consult-Politico poll from early January, nearly 60 percent of Clinton voters oppose Trump’s move to exit Syria, with just 26 percent in favor. Among 2018 midterm voters who supported Democrats, the numbers are similar: 54 percent disapprove of the president’s decision.
Likewise, after President Trump decided on December 20 to pull half of our troops out of Afghanistan, the same poll showed Clinton 2016 voters opposed by a margin of 47 to 37 percent.
To be sure, Trump was also heavily criticized by Republican insiders who are known for their reflexive war advocacy. Trump’s friend, Senator Lindsey Graham, called the decision “a huge, Obama-like mistake.” To Senator Marco Rubio, it was a “catastrophic mistake.”
But the surprise here is that these hawkish Republicans are suddenly out of touch: the GOP base, which has typically been eager for war, now favors their president’s withdrawal plans, as Glenn Greenwald recently detailed in The Intercept.
Posturing Beats Principles
What is going on? Why are Democrats, two-thirds of whom wanted a withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan in 2011, now suddenly the party urging continued war? How is it that Democrats opposed President Trump’s efforts to make peace with North Korea on the grounds that he was not “strong” enough? Whatever happened to the Democratic Party that agreed to the 1994 Framework Agreement with North Korea despite multi-decade criticism from Republicans?
Parties survive by maintaining the perception that they disagree with their opposition. After all, if they didn’t distinguish themselves, why would anyone vote for them?
The fact is that political parties are not defined by principles but by posturing. Parties survive by maintaining the perception that they disagree with their opposition. After all, if they didn’t distinguish themselves, why would anyone vote for them? So if Republicans flirt with foreign nonintervention, it’s almost inevitable that the Democrats wind up warmongering.
This particular pattern of tribal politics usually begins with a political entrepreneur, like Trump, who adopts a policy that beats the opposing party at its own game. Former President Bill Clinton’s tough-on-crime and tough-on-immigration agenda in the 1990s was calculated to undermine the Republicans in just this way. President Trump’s about-face on Syria and Afghanistan is even more clever in that it simultaneously snags the Democrats’ traditional nonaggressive image and reverses Obama’s old policies. In contrast, Trump couldn’t and wouldn’t adopt the Democrats’ dovish Iran Deal precisely because it was Obama’s policy.
Even though the political entrepreneur flipped on political principle, his or her base was likely to continue their support because tribalism requires loyalty. Trump was correct when he once said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” And so it isn’t surprising to find the Morning Consult-Politico poll revealing strong Republican support for Trump’s dovish policies. Likewise, when Barack Obama reversed course on central campaign counterterrorism issues like closing Guantanamo Bay, his base still supported him.
Tribalism Requires an External Threat
But what is tribalism without a rival tribe? The party opposing the political entrepreneur reverses course merely for the sake of opposition itself. What else could explain Republicans’ visceral resistance to President Obama’s health care plan, which was in part a repackaging of Republican and conservative plans from the previous two decades? To be sure, this doesn’t always happen, but it’s bound to happen more often in polarized climates. Hence, Democrats’ knee-jerk opposition to Trump’s embrace of international retrenchment.
When Trump says “yes,” Democrats are compelled to say “no,” because that is how tribes operate. In this way, both parties depend upon each other.
It’s just that when Trump says “yes,” Democrats are compelled to say “no,” because that is how tribes operate. In this way, both parties depend upon each other. As the Joker said to Batman in The Dark Knight, “I don’t want to kill you. What would I do without you? ... No, you complete me.” When Republicans become doves and Democrats become hawks—against voters’ expectations—they fulfill their roles as opposition parties and survive another election cycle. And thus, they complete each other, principle be damned.