Many Republican voters consider the GOP presidential primaries to be a righteous struggle over fundamental values. To my ears, however, the candidates’ speeches, debates and attack ads echo the sort of tribal mentality that fueled Lebanon’s nightmarish civil war between 1975 and1990.
Is this too far-fetched an analogy? Yes and no.
Admittedly, I’m not expecting the U.S. to turn overnight into war-torn Beirut, split into numerous armed camps, with barricades and checkpoints at every street corner and private militias indiscriminately firing mortars, machine guns and sniper rifles into rival neighborhoods. After all, Lebanon’s bloody internecine struggle — which claimed an estimated 200,000 lives, wounded about a million people (roughly a quarter of the country’s population) and displaced hundreds of thousands more — was decades in the making and represented a “perfect storm.”
But the mentality behind Lebanon’s struggle is reminiscent of today’s GOP “value” politics in which tea-partiers, libertarians and evangelicals savagely wrestle for the “soul” of the Republican Party and ultimately the country’s. And it threatens to splinter the middle ground of American political life.
The assumption of these right-wing groups is that they represent the only truth, that their particular views should be universally accepted, and that anyone who believes differently is un-American, at best, and evil, at worst. For them, pragmatism, accommodation and compromise are a form of heresy.
This may be why leading GOP contender Mitt Romney is struggling to maintain front-runner status, since his record, if not his rhetoric, shows him to have been a pragmatic politician while governor of Massachusetts. It may also explain why the Republican right seems in a perpetual state of purple rage.
The English-born radio, television and newspaper commentator Alistair Cooke, an astute observer of the U.S., once remarked that America’s 18th century experiment in democracy had triumphed over two centuries because of three very precious principles – “compromise, compromise, compromise.”
No so, the Middle East.
According to Thomas L. Friedman’s 1989 bestseller, “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” the long Lebanese civil war, which reduced Beirut from the “Paris of the Middle East” to a pile of rubble, was rooted in the Bedouin culture of the Arabian Peninsula — one marked by bonds of personal loyalty stretching outward from family, to clan, to tribe.
Fidelity to a sectarian group and its narrow viewpoint, rather than allegiance to a country comprised of diverse groups and outlooks, was considered necessary for survival in a harsh desert environment scarce in resources and populated by ruthless enemies. This attitude coupled with a fierce determination to violently avenge any wrongs committed against the group by outsiders. Ties did exist between such groups, but they were usually brief, shifting marriages of convenience in a relentless series of inter-tribal conflicts.
Hence the Bedouin proverb, “Me and my brother against our cousin. Me, my brother, and my cousin against the stranger.” And another proverb, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
Because this Bedouin ethic permeated small, urbanized, cosmopolitan Lebanon, a country crammed with diverse ethnic and religious groups (including Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Druses and Palestinian Arabs), only a spark was needed to ignite an explosion.
That spark came in the form of a power struggle for control of the government between Maronites and Sunnis, each of whom succeeding in gaining armed assistance from outsiders, including Syria, the PLO, Israel and ultimately the U.S.
In such an environment, it mattered not what would benefit the common good. It only mattered who had the fighters, firepower, money and stamina to prevail. Compromise was off the table.
The tradition of American national politics, by contrast, has been for presidential contenders to claim the political center and build broad coalitions, since a candidate can only win election if he has wide popular appeal. For that reason, in caucuses, primaries and conventions, the major parties have tended to nominate the candidate who best projected a centrist image.
To be sure, Republican candidates have consistently advocated reduced regulation, smaller bureaucracy, balanced budgets, lower taxes and pro-business policies, while Democrats have advocated increased business regulation, higher public spending, and policies favorable to the poor, minorities and organized labor. Despite these real differences, however, there has been plenty of common ground among contending candidates, who have often had to work hard to distinguish their own positions from those of their opponents.
And while candidates from both parties have regularly invoked God’s blessings upon America and have made certain to be seen by the media attending Sunday church services, all have clearly understood the difference between running for chief executive and running for vicar-in-chief.
The Republican primary contenders off 2012, however, seem to be a different breed of cat. Their approach is tribal, their tactics scorched earth, their message to their base clear and uncompromising, “I share and support your values and your values alone.”
This attitude was stated with unusual clarity by Texas Governor and former GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry, who said, during the Iowa caucuses, “somebody’s values are going to decide the issues of the day … somebody’s values are going to be installed. The question is going to be whose values? Is it going to be those of us of faith or somebody else’s values?”
It was also reflected in Rick Santorum’s remark this month, in an interview with Fox TV’s Sean Hannity, that President Obama’s attempts to limit carbon monoxide emissions derived from some “phony theology …not a theology based on Bible.”
In a country as complex and diverse as the United States, such an attitude does not point the way to Washington, D.C. but, instead, marks the crossroad to Beirut.
Some – notably Herman Cain and Rick Perry, who have now dropped out of the campaign — showed themselves as knowledgeable about public affairs as 10th grade high school dropouts. Others seem to think they’re running for the pontificate, instead of the presidency, making daily pronouncements about the importance of keeping God in the forefront of decision-making in the White House. Rick Santorum is the exemplar of the latter, although Perry, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have also thumped the pulpit at every opportunity.
You might disagree with the likes of Wendell Willke, Thomas Dewey, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, or George H.W. Bush, but you couldn’t doubt their intelligence, competence or sanity.