When I suggested on this blog that “all politics is tribal,” Conor Friedersdorf, Daniel Larison, and Andrew Sullivan all slapped me down like I’d talked about their mothers. Which I suppose, in a way, I had. 

Their argument was that, by comparing politics to family, I had degraded politics—settling for a contest of muscle when I should have aimed for real dialogue and eventual consensus, sacrificing conservatism’s ability to be self-critical for the sake of movement loyalty, wanting to be strong when I should want to be right. Now, between the lines of Reihan’s post on Animal Collective, I detect the other objection to “All politics is tribal”: When we compare politics to family, we degrade family

Politics can’t look like family, because family is our refuge from the political—Reihan puts this argument in the mouths of Animal Collective and Rod Dreher, but they’re certainly not the only ones who have said so. When cultural conservatives threaten to withdraw from politics—the right-wing equivalent of threatening to move to Canada—they talk about going out to the sticks, raising a family, and pulling the white picket drawbridge behind them. For them, family is the opposite of politics. 

But this idea, like the latest Animal Collective album, is awful. Something is lost when we put a double yellow line between our Getting & Spending and Having & Holding. Consider this model as an alternative to Reihan’s: Someone who spends every workday sweeping floors can hold onto his manly dignity by coming home to a kingdom of his own—family as a different kind of refuge, one that depends on regarding home and hearth as a playground for power and authority. I can imagine a world in which fatherhood (or motherhood) is simply a matter of love and tenderness, but do we really want to relieve parents of the burden of leadership? 

I can understand wanting that particular relief. Leadership means putting on the mask of command, and, if we can’t drop all our masks at home, then where can hope to?* Good old Richard Sennett thinks this is a dumb question that only someone raised in a nuclear family would ask:

The nuclear family simplifies the problem of order by reducing the number of actors and thereby the reducing the number of roles any person in the family must play. Each adult need have only two, spouse and parent; with no grandparents in the house, the child will never see them as someone else’s children. The child himself will have only one image of adult love and adult expectation before him; he will not have to sort out what is different about the way you are supposed to behave in front of parents from the way you behave in front of grandparents or uncles.

Authenticity is not a family value. 

I would be interested to hear someone weigh in on the relationship between the Reihan/Animal Collective/Crunchy Con model of family and smaller family size, so, to that end, I’ll quote a friend of mine: “I only want one or two children—I don’t want them to have to compete with each other for my love.” A fine sentiment, but one that ignores the helpful side of growing up with eight siblings and struggling to find your own place in the family hierarchy. And then, of course, struggling to keep it. (Call it the What’s Eating Gilbert Grape model.) The give-and-take of political negotiation could be seen as a burden from which we periodically escape, or it could be second nature. Politics, like charity, begins at home. 

*Um, at prayer

UPDATE: Consider this quote from the First Provincial Council of Mexico (1555), as cited by Claudio Lomnitz in Death and the Idea of Mexico:

The Indians shall be brought together in towns to live politically . . . And because in order to be true Christians and political, like the rational men they are, it is necessary to be congregated and subjected in towns, and in convenient and accessible places, that they not live dispersed through the sierras and jungles, and that they be congregated where they can live politically, like Christians.

“To be true Christians and political”; we cannot love except politically. Read it twice.
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Articles by Helen Andrews

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