Our political parties are based more and more on absurd tribalism

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is a fascinating moment in world history. Yet, the Roman Empire did not cease to exist in 476 as most people believe. Rome had long before been split into two administrative divisions — a Western, Latin Empire and an Eastern, Greek Empire.

Rome’s obliteration as we think of it today was, in reality, an event that occurred only in the west. The Eastern Empire lived on, and became what we today call the Byzantine Empire, though its government and citizens continued to call themselves Romans. That empire survived in some form for another thousand years.

The greatest Byzantine Emperor was Justinian I, who undertook a mission to reconstitute the full Roman Empire once more. He succeeded in recapturing much of Rome’s former territory, which had been lost in the preceding decades.

Justinian’s time — particularly his early reign — was an interesting one. The Empire he led could not be called a democracy, yet in the capital city of Constantinople — today known as Istanbul — an interesting brand of factional mass politics had developed, which organized citizens of the city into powerful mobs that stood in opposition to one another.

These factions, however, were not organized around politics, but around sporting events, particularly the Roman passion that was chariot racing.

I won’t bore you with the particulars of Byzantine sport fandom, but essentially, competitors in sporting events were organized into four teams represented by the color uniform they wore: Green, Blue, Red and White.

These teams each had mass support from major portions of Constantinople’s citizenry, creating large factions. The supporters of each of these teams would themselves wear the same colors.

By Justinian’s time, the Reds and the Whites had lost nearly all of their influence, and sport was dominated by Greens and Blues, creating a bipolar universe of tribal affiliation.

The Greens and Blues became, however, an expression of more than sports fandom. Lacking any kind of democratic power or outlet for mass opinion, these factions grew to dominate civic life as well, organizing around social and political issues. They exerted control over local governance of neighborhoods, religious disputes, and the distribution of food. They even involved themselves in disputes over claimants to the throne.

There was virtually nothing in the everyday life of a resident of Constantinople that wasn’t affected by the struggle between the Greens and the Blues. They were political parties.

You may think that these factions actually meant something. That they organized themselves into Green or Blue based on real issues. Supporting imperial power versus fighting for republicanism. Support for merchants versus support for farmers. Opposing taxes to fund Justinian’s wars of conquest versus support for the state.

Something. Anything.

You would be wrong. For more than seven centuries, entire generations of people would live and die by their affiliation with Greens or Blues, and at their core there was nothing substantive that differed between them, outside mutual antipathy and opposition to one another.

If the Greens dominated civic life, things in Constantinople wouldn’t have looked much different than if the Blues controlled the city. The factional affiliations with Green or Blue was little more than tribal politics, but that was enough for the millions throughout history who devote themselves wholly to one faction or the other.

Delegates at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Mario Anzuoni | Reuters

Delegates at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Mario Anzuoni | Reuters

This week we are living through the absurd spectacle of tribal politics at its worst, as Republicans gather in Cleveland for their convention. We will soon be treated to an equally absurd spectacle when the Democrats come together in Philadelphia.

I have worked in politics for more than 15 years now, and I have always been a Republican. I joined the party because I believe strongly in a specific political ideology, and I viewed the party as an imperfect vessel through which to advance that ideology.

Being a libertarian-minded fusionist, the party never matched my beliefs totally, but I knew it was the closest, and my best chance to get something accomplished.

Yet, over time, I have grown more disgusted with the very notion of parties at all, regardless of their stated principles. Particularly this year as I have seen millions of people in both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party stand in favor of things on their own side that they have violently opposed in “the other faction” in the past.

Like the Greens and the Blues, they may, in the short term, exhibit some marginal differences in rhetoric, but at the end of the day, the partisan food fight is more tribal in nature and less about substance.

Is it any wonder George Washington warned us against this?

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.