Some Bernie Sanders supporters – about 10 percent of them, it seems – say they’re sick and tired of being told to suck it up and be “team players” in the general-election contest against Donald Trump. The Democrats weren’t fair to their guy, they say, so why should they do anything to help the party?
The sentiment is understandable, but it also betrays a narrow view of what divides us. Perhaps the biggest lie in American politics, first articulated by Barack Obama but repeated by a thousand hacks since, is that there’s no red or blue America – we’re all just Americans. The reality is that we’re a deeply polarized society, and that polarization goes miles beyond mere partisanship. We tend to live in different communities, we trust different media, we like different cars and we have different sexual mores. Political scientists Jonathan Weiler and Marc Hetherington found that the way a person answers a few simple questions about childrearing is highly predictive of whether that person will lean toward the left or the right.
The Democratic and Republican parties are not the teams. Very few people are deeply engaged with one of the major political parties. The parties are just vessels; they provide the infrastructure that Team Red and Team Blue need to fight for power. There are more independents today than Republicans or Democrats, but there are very few genuine swing voters – those who are about as likely to vote for one party’s candidate as the other. You may not be a Democrat or a Republican, but whether you like it or not, you’re on Team Blue or Team Red. Only the lowest of low-information voters – the folks we’re meant to laugh at during late-night man-on-the-street segments because they don’t know who won World War II – aren’t on one of these teams.
Broadly speaking, you’re on a team that embraces tolerance and diversity and believes that the federal government should play a significant role in regulating the economy and guaranteeing our civil liberties, or you’re on a team that preaches states’ rights and believes, at a minimum, that white, male European socio-political dominance developed naturally and shouldn’t be messed with, or at a maximum, that it’s just part of the natural order.
Look at the two political conventions we just witnessed. There were more transgender delegates at the DNC (27) than there were black delegates at the RNC (18). Red America sees the country as a post-apocalyptic hellscape in which crime is out of control, immigrants are raping us and running us down with their cars, and ISIS is “present in all 50 states,” as Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst claimed last week. At the Democratic convention, the bogeymen were real: rising inequality, climate change and the influence of money in politics. They had the mothers of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the families of cops who had been killed in the line of duty. The contrasts couldn’t be starker.
Political parties come and go, and occasionally face sweeping realignments. But while the specific issues of the day have changed, along with society as a whole, the fundamental social, cultural and political divide between Red and Blue America is more or less constant. Broadly speaking, if you’re a Democrat or an independent who leans blue, you would likely have been a Federalist in post-Revolutionary America and a Republican during the Civil War. You would have been part of the coalition of non-Southern Democrats and liberal Northern Republicans who fought segregation during the post-World War II era.
Once every four years, these teams battle for control of the executive branch through one party’s infrastructure or another. Don’t like your team’s nominee? There are 2,500 policy-making positions in the executive office of the president, and they’ll be occupied by Team Red or Team Blue. They’ll choose judges from non-overlapping pools of candidates. One tribe or the other will control key agencies – the EPA, the Justice Department, the Department of Labor and all the rest. You might live in a liberal People’s Republic or a conservative community that cherishes its traditional values – either way, the question of which tribe controls the executive branch will have a major impact on how hard or easy it is to vote or get an abortion. It’ll affect health care and education. You can pretend it doesn’t matter, but it does.
Now, if you really hate the party that’s aligned with your team, or its nominee, you’re in the minority. This year, Trump might be a particularly tough pill to swallow for some Republicans, but those who won’t vote for him are still vastly outnumbered. Which means that nobody gives a fuck how you’ll vote if you live in 40 or so states. You can cast a ballot for Jill Stein or write in Mao Zedong – Texas will still go red, and Massachusetts will still be blue. There’s nothing more annoying that someone from a solidly red or blue state defiantly proclaiming on Facebook that he or she could never vote for Clinton or Trump. Because who cares?
You don’t have to be a member of either party, but whether you like it or not, you’re already on a team for these quadrennial electoral clashes. You may participate, or you may sit on the bench – those are your only choices.
We can and will factionalize during the rest of each presidential cycle. That’s healthy. We have to have those intra-coalition fights the rest of the time. But this is a general-election campaign, and there’s a candidate running on a platform of naked white ethnic nationalism. More than anything else, that’s why you owe it to your tribe to suck it up and pull your weight.