David Bouchier: My Tribe Or Yours?

Jan 7, 2019

"The Election at Eatanswill" by Phiz, "The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club"
Credit Courtesy of the Victorian Commons

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to read or re-read more classic novels, and I have been enjoying “The Pickwick Papers” by Charles Dickens. This ever-changing carnival of stories within a story offers many pleasures, but what astonished me was that the author, writing in 1885, had such a deep grasp of politics, not just then but now.

Dickens describes an election in the small town of Eatanswill, contested between two parties, the Buffs and the Blues. These parties had no ideas, and no programs except to despise and frustrate the other side.

Whenever the Buffs and Blues met together at a public meeting...disputes and high words arose between them...Everything in Eatanswill was made a party question. If the Buffs proposed a new skylight for the market-place, the Blues got up public meetings, and denounced it; if the Blues proposed the erection of an additional pump in the High Street, the Buffs rose as one man and stood against this enormity.

The 116th Congress has been seated now for four days – and of course sitting is what they do best – and we can already see how faithfully they follow the political model observed by Dickens 134 years ago.

In fact this style of party politics is even older than that. More than a century earlier, in 1726, Jonathan Swift had described it in “Gulliver’s Travels” – a valuable book for teaching children about the real world.

In his travels Gulliver met the Emperor of the Lilliputians, who appointed his high officials according to their ability to dance on an unsteady rope rather than on their political abilities. So his government was not exactly organized along rational lines. Lilliputian society was deeply divided between those who cracked their eggs at the large end (The Big-Endians) and those who preferred small end (the Little-Endians). Between these two groups there was no sympathy, no understanding, and absolutely no cooperation. In fact their opposition was more like a holy war than a disagreement about the right way to start breakfast.

Once upon a time we might have mistaken all this for satire. But now we can see that it was political analysis of the highest order, long before the modern academic discipline of political science was even invented. As the new congressional session starts, it’s the Buffs and the Blues, the Big Endians and Little Endians all over again. 

We all understand, just as Charles Dickens and Jonathan Swift understood, that we are up against a deep and childish impulse in human nature here: our side versus their side – in other words tribalism. None of us is immune to this temptation, because it simplifies everything. I must admit that I always open my eggs at the large end, and that I have many opinions about other things too. But, in this very complicated world, simplification is not what we need, politics as a football game is not what we need. Would it be too much to hope that the members of the 116th Congress might throw away their blue and buff uniforms, scramble their breakfast eggs, and just grow up?

Copyright: David Bouchier