The Evolution of Special Interests and Decline of the Two-Party System

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The concept of tribalism has become central to understanding politics in America. It is commonly defined as a source of identity for Americans, often based on ethnic, religious, or gender characteristics. It is a group dynamic that forms around a sense of defensiveness or victimization related to a primary economic, social, or political issue. Not only are there an increasing number of political tribes in America, they are more aggressive and less compromising than political parties. And perhaps most importantly, the tribes of America are becoming more powerful than the Democratic and Republican parties with the potential to change the very nature of politics in the country.

Most observers see tribalism as a dark cloud over American society, corrupting long-standing traditions of civility, negotiation, and compromise in politics. At a minimum the rise of American tribalism has reignited old battles within the conscience of the country making everyone more anxious and defensive. At its worst it has created chasms between several distinct groups of Americans, each of which seems unbridgeable. The real fear however is that American tribalism will slowly erode the democratic systems that have kept the country strong since its founding. What is clear is that politics today has become less civil with even the most benign issues becoming a zero-sum political contest. For a growing number of Americans seeing your opponent lose has become more important than your own victory. And no matter what the outcome everyone thinks their version of America is the best, and thus competing perspectives are a threat to the country.

The reality is that there are some fundamental misunderstandings about American tribalism. It is not a new phenomenon, but it is also not a concept that can be traced back to the foundations of the country. Most people are aware that the Founding Fathers never intended for the development of political parties in America. Parties as the dominant actor in American politics have gone through several stages of development with the two-party system we know today not taking full form until after the Civil War. This is because while the federal government took care of large issues like diplomacy and the economy, it was local communities that made most of the political decisions that affected the daily lives of citizens.

This is important because it was not until the government began engaging sociopolitical issues at the national level after the Civil War that the concept of special interests developed. It was only after Emancipation that the idea of the government being responsible for the daily lives of citizens came into being. It was the growing responsibility of the government to newly freed slaves that is the origin of special interests as most people understand it today. It was the recognition that society was not providing fully or equally for all Americans and thus a targeted safety net of social, political, and economic systems was necessary. It was also a direct indictment of how the country had been run previously. So, as the country moved to protect those who had been left out at the founding, “the good old boys network” increasingly came under attack culminating with today’s #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements.

Exchange between pro- and anti-gun advocates

The development of special interests in America was the direct result of long-standing racial and gender discrimination in the country. The calls for equality by African-Americans, Native Americans, and women came to be known as special interests precisely because they were not automatically included in American culture. The essential characteristic of special interests was their fight for inclusion as equal citizens. Up until recently all these groups saw some form of compromise or cooperation with political and legal systems as the most appropriate path to equality. Their goal was to be included in how the country would define itself through being given a seat at the proverbial ‘table of power’. The fundamental difference between today’s political tribes and special interest groups of 20 years ago is the degree to which the tribes are no longer concerned with that seat. Many are realizing that they can build their own table without compromising with existing systems at all.

From the 1950s to the early 2000’s special interest groups grew exponentially as an increasing number of Americans decided to fight against what they saw as discrimination. The handicapped, the LGBTQ community, Latino-Americans, and religious minorities are just some of the groups who began promoting their participation in American society as a special interest needing protection in the same way as African-Americans and women. The more groups were able to establish their identities as legitimate within American society, the more others sought to create their own identity with unique interests worthy of protection. The key however is that up until recently all these groups focused on being equally incorporated into American society. The fundamental difference between special interest groups and today’s political tribes is that they no longer have this focus. More and more each seeks to redefine American society itself, or to at least be left alone to live their lives according to their own definition of America.

So, the first key difference between special interests and political tribes is the former sought inclusion to legitimize identity, while the latter seeks to redefine American society in its image. But there is a second component to the rise of tribalism in America and its potential threat to the two-party system. While their messages and goals have become hardened and unyielding, the real impact of American tribes has been their exponential increase in power and influence. Through development of the Internet and social media special interest groups gained the ability to promote their platforms to national audiences as easily as the traditional parties. Not only could they sidestep the need for party platforms to support their cause, they could elevate their key issue to much higher levels of importance than was possible when it was just one of many issues on a broad agenda. As a result, America’s political culture is no longer predicated on special interest groups being patient or compromising in their quest to be included in one of the major party platforms. Instead, each party is facing increasing pressure to reshape itself in order to accommodate tribal perspectives.

The first and most important impact of the Internet and social media on the rise of American tribalism was the newfound ability of Americans to find others who shared their philosophies and perspectives. This meant that environmentalists and pro-life advocates, evangelists and immigrants, could all circumvent the long-established systems that had forced them to compromise in the past. Partisan media outlets were no longer the primary determinant of whether your message got out. You no longer needed to rely on expensive marketing or large groups of political analysts to formulate your positions and then sell them to Democrats or Republicans. And all this could now be done outside the confines of an individual’s community or social circle which was often the most significant restraint on their political ideologies. Americans from every conceivable point on the political spectrum could now engage the entire country instantaneously while focusing only on those who agreed with them. It is this ability to legitimize your viewpoints through popular confirmation while ignoring anyone who disagrees that has fueled the rise of the American tribe.

And it is in this environment that we find ourselves approaching another presidential election. Only this time it is not a contest between Democrats and Republicans over who is going to have their hands on the steering wheel. It is a more fractured and diverse contest, and the outcome will determine whether we all keep riding in the same car. American tribes have elevated the idea of the ‘Right vs. Left’ above traditional Democratic-Republican understandings precisely because there are so many more critical issues that will impact the election. Americans are now more loyal to a philosophical perspective on a few key issues than they are the broader maintenance of power for one of the two national parties. And this is because we no longer see a party’s promotion of social equality, abortion, immigration, or environmentalism policies as a way to improve America. We now see the uncensored and guilt free promotion of our own opinions as the best way to define the country the way we want it. And you better believe we are willing to fight against anyone who questions that definition because they are unpatriotic and a threat to the country.

This is the age of American tribalism.


Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.