Two new programs with New Yorker staff writer George Packer explore the association between American politics and identity. “Americans, aided by cable news and social media, have sorted themselves geographically and mentally into mutually hostile and incomprehensible worlds,” says Packer. This tribalism makes it very difficult for people to communicate or to truly listen to one another.
“None of those groups speaks to the whole country… they don’t speak to us as citizens, and they don’t find a way of being truly inclusive,” he says. “Where we cannot understand each other, we see each other as illegitimate in some ways. To even speak to someone from a different tribe is to give them a legitimacy they don’t deserve. And each tribe hopes and thinks the other will somehow disappear, either by being beaten in the polls, or by dying off, or being walled off. It’s as if they can’t acknowledge that the country is made up of more than their own tribe.”
There are many reasons for this increased tribalism, but the collapse of the institutions that have traditionally supported people economically is a contributing factor. In recent decades, fewer and fewer corporations offer job security or competitive wages, and the middle class is disappearing. “The simple answer I think,” says Packer, “is that a smaller pie, divided into less and less equal slices among people who look less and less alike, drives them towards cynical and hateful extremes.”
Watch Harry Kreisler’s interview with George Packer, Identity Politics and the Decline of American Institutions, as well as Packer’s UC Berkeley Graduate Lecture, American Identity in the Age of Trump.