Stanley Kurtz recently wrote an excellent article in National Review Online about the illusion of liberal democracy in Kenya, and how the recent election there has finally unmasked the true nature of its government--namely a system of almost pure tribalism. Here's an excerpt I found particularly thought-provoking:
The notion that the alleged personal moral failings of Africa’s political elite can somehow be separated from the phenomenon of tribalism is profoundly misleading. Networks of clan and tribal patronage are actually the basis of political power in Africa. “Big men” are elected precisely in order to channel government projects to their tribe, and to pass back personal graft to networks of kin and local tribal chiefs. Kenya’s citizens aren’t so much outraged by corruption per se, as they are eager to give their own tribe the opportunity to be every bit as corrupt as the Kikuyu. What’s more, from the perspective of many Africans, what we call “corruption” isn’t immoral at all. On the contrary, even overt vote-buying by African “big men” is often seen as generous communal sharing — proof positive that these politicians are not corrupt, but are instead heroic Robin Hoods who rob from the rich (i.e., the state) to give to their own tribal poor.
The disturbing thought this provoked in me was how closely this seemed to mirror a growing element of contemporary American politics on display in the on-going presidential primary campaigns--namely, identity politics.
On the Democrat side we see an overwhelming majority of black Americans supporting Barak Obama by virtue of racial identity alone. And yet when Oprah Winfrey publicly announced her support for Obama, she experienced an enormous backlash from many black women who expressed outrage at her betrayal of what they considered a more valuable group identity--the female sex. In other words they saw it more important to support Hillary Clinton as the possible first woman president than Obama as the possible first black president.
Particularly disheartening to me is the similar dynamic I see in operation within the Republican campaign with regard to my own identity group: evangelical Christians. I find little difference between evangelicals who will vote for Mike Huckabee solely based on his profession of faith and the identity politics at work among the Democrats. Common to all is a sort of tribalism, the same in kind if not (thankfully) in degree to that which corrupts so many African governments.
If we are to preserve the American system, it must be the ideas, policies, and values of the candidate that determine our votes; not tribalism.