Ornstein says tribalism root cause of political tension

American Enterprise Institute Scholar Emeritus Norman Ornstein delivers the morning lecture Wednesday in the Amphitheater. Jess Kszos/Staff Photographer

Alton Northup
Staff writer

As a longtime political scientist, Norman Ornstein is used to the dysfunction of Washington – the same cannot be said about the republic.

Ornstein, senior fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute, continued the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Three theme, “Can the Center Hold? – A Question for Our Moment,” at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater, replacing previously announced speaker Eric Liu, co-founder of Citizen University.

He agreed with Monday’s speaker, Bill Kristol, that the United States is a deeply divided nation. However, he disagreed with Kristol’s labeling of the issue as polarization. Tribalism, Ornstein said, is a better term for the country’s division.

He recalled the relationship between the liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy and conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch – an odd couple who had developed a personal relationship and crossed the political aisle when they felt legislation was above partisanship, most notably the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides healthcare coverage to children of low-income families.

“Polarization means that you have very different political views — but it doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to compromise, come together, and make something happen,” Ornstein said.

In the past, politicians understood that while they disagreed with their colleagues, they were still decent people trying to do the right thing for their country. Now, “it would be, ‘You’re evil and you’re trying to destroy our way of life,’ ” Ornstein said.

He attributed the rise of political tribalism to Newt Gingrich, who — years before he was Speaker of the House — was a newly elected representative for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in 1979. At the time, Democrats held a majority in the House for 27 consecutive years – something Gingrich wanted to change by “convincing people that the system was so awful and corrupt, anything would be better than what they had.” 

“That’s now metastasized from what we saw in Washington — and what I lived with for decades — around the country to states and to the public as a whole,” Ornstein said.

The result of that, he argued, is a nation living in two different worlds with two sets of facts that inform two sets of policies. In polling, the top issues for Democrats vary widely from the top issues for Republicans.

“We don’t agree on what issues are important, and we don’t agree at all on what the solutions are,” he said. “In a broader sense, we’re moving even more apart.”

At America’s founding, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists disagreed over what power national government should hold. The Federalists won, Ornstein said, and the Constitution reflects that.

Prior to the Civil War, Southern states wanted to remain in the Union, but with the freedom to enact their own policies without concern for the rest of the country. When they pushed the country to war, they lost.

“Frankly, in many ways, the Anti-Federalists and the Southerners and the Confederacy … are now winning,” Ornstein said. “We are seeing the development of separate states moving in very different directions, and the whole concept, which is essential to our society of equal protection under the law, is dissipating.”

He pointed to states now showing a “willingness to punish those who decide to go to other states to get what they believe are their rights.” In April, Idaho became the first state to pass a law restricting out-of-state travel for abortions.

This division further complicates Congress’ ability to craft laws that reflect public consensus, Ornstein said. When the nation’s framers decided the country would have a congress, instead of the familiar parliamentary system, it was because the word’s origin in Latin means “come together.”

The Founding Fathers hoped people from different backgrounds would come together, debate, then organically arrive at an agreement. This system, Ornstein said, is not possible without a common set of facts and agreed norms for disagreement.

Previously non-political issues such as disease prevention, immunizations and climate change have become political, resulting in death threats against experts such as Anthony Faucci and Peter Hotez, who now require personal protection because of their work.

“We’re not in a place where it’s simply, ‘I disagree with you,’ or ‘I  don’t think this issue is important,’ or ‘I don’t believe that there’s anything like climate change,’ ” Ornstein said. “It’s ‘If you promote that idea, we’re going to come after you.’ ”

Following the 2020 election, 23 million Americans supported installing former President Donald Trump by force if need be, Ornstein said, and 63% of Republicans still believe the 2020 election was illegitimate.

The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was not the culmination of these beliefs, Ornstein said; he thinks it will only get worse as tribalism spreads throughout American society and institutions.

The Supreme Court has made a string of controversial decisions overturning landmark rulings in recent years, garnering allegations of a politicized bench. 

“It is not good when you reach a point where you can predict the votes of justices of the Supreme Court based on which president nominated them,” Ornstein said.

He is also concerned with growing income inequality in the country. The top one-tenth of 1% of earners in the United States hold as much wealth as the bottom 80%, and the 400 wealthiest families in the country pay a lower effective tax rate than the bottom 50%, he said. Inversely, the bottom 50% hold just 1.6% of the country’s wealth.

“In any society, think back to Juan Perón’s Argentina, where you have such an enormous gap in what those at the top have and what those at the bottom don’t, it seeds for authoritarianism to arise,” he said.

Ornstein offered a solution in a program that would establish a $5,000 fund for every child that would help build retirement savings, relieve Social Security and give people a stake in society.

At an estimated cost of $4 billion in its first year, Ornstein said the program is a small price to pay in a trillion-dollar economy to give people a chance.

“If you give them a foothold in society they’re going to be less likely to say ‘let’s burn the whole thing down because it’s not going to cost us anything,’ ” he said.

Regional divides and structural issues are also causing tension in the country, he said, and would have regardless of whether Trump won the 2016 election or not.

There are dramatic political differences between metropolitans and rural areas, he said, but economic dynamisms also differ. Metropolitan areas account for two-thirds of the country’s gross domestic product and often have greater economic growth and opportunity, which can lead to political resentment in poorer areas that demand the very funds they vote against.

Soon, Ornstein said, 70% of Americans will live in just 15 states. Without a change to the current electoral system, 30% of Americans will elect 70 senators – more than the number required to override a presidential veto. That 30%, he said, does not represent the diversity of the country.

“What does it mean to be in a republic? It means that voters vote for representatives who represent them,” Ornstein said. “What happens when you have a system where increasingly people vote and they’re not represented? The outcomes do not reflect that larger public desire.”

Even without the divisions of tribalism and “Trumpism,” the country is headed toward a crisis of legitimacy, Ornstein said, and needs to seriously rethink what kind of structures are needed for the rest of the 21st century.

“If we project ahead, it’s Armageddon,” he said. “Now, I can’t say we won’t be at that point, but we’ve had a lot of resilience in this country. And frankly, it’s upon all of us to try and do whatever we can to make sure that the outcome is a very different one.”


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