Anthropologist E.E. Evans-Prichard studied the Nuer, a pastoral people living in the Upper Nile region of Africa, herders who moved with their animals to the tune of the region’s rivers. In flood times, Nuer tribes retreated to higher ground, and when the waters receded, the Nuer clans moved to the grassy valleys.
Nuer tribes were constantly crossing paths, and so they could easily fall into conflict over lost animals and scarce forage. Professor Evans-Prichard wrote in the 1940s about the intricate ways the Nuer encouraged cooperation and resolved conflicts.
The Nuer put special faith in a group of arbiters known as “men of the earth.” Men of the earth had no formal powers. They couldn’t arrest people or make arbitrary decisions. But the Nuer granted these people a kind of local authority to settle disputes. If a fight broke out, a man of the earth could stop the conflict by running between the combatants and hoeing a line in the dirt. If a tribal member was killed in a fight, a man of the earth arbitrated compensation to be paid by the winner to the dead man’s family.
The “man of the earth” was a deal-maker, a negotiator, a compromiser. He was the person given the job of representing all the conflicting interests of the tribes.
A man of the earth was a politician.
John McCain and Barack Obama began this campaign running as men of the earth—post partisans who promised to race between the red and the blue, hoeing a line in the turf that would bring the bickering to an end. That’s not how these races ended, of course, not just because McCain or Obama changed but because the country didn’t.
Over the last 30 years, most communities have grown either more Democratic or more Republican. Through an incremental process of migration and self-selection, people have clustered in like-minded neighborhoods, clubs, and churches.
Migration had consequences. Legislative districts grew more lopsided, and they elected more-partisan representatives. Politicians no longer mediated competing interests in their districts. They represented increasingly one-sided constituencies that grew more extreme in their ideological isolation.
The meaning of politics changed. Voters didn’t want men of the earth. They wanted partisans.
Republicans, perhaps, first realized how the country was changing and catered to the division that Americans were creating. By 2008, however, it didn’t matter who started it. This was the way we lived. A Guardian reporter in deep-blue Brooklyn found a checkout clerk who wondered, as a “social experiment,” what would happen if he donned a McCain button. A nearby shopper admitted she was still concerned about what might transpire on Election Day. “I’m worried about all the ignorant people—I don’t mean that pejoratively, I mean uninformed people—who are out there and who will swing it away from Obama,” Tamara said.
At McCain rallies, Obama is a “socialist,” and a member of the Texas State Board of Education wrote that the Democrat “truly sympathizes” with terrorists and intends to declare martial law if elected. At one East Coast public university, a dean of undergraduate studies sent an e-mail to faculty reporting that there had been “an increase in complaints by students who believe a chilly climate exists for conservative view points. …” Americans appear ready to end a culture of racism with this election—symbolically, at least—but prejudices based on what others think and where they live run wild.
The earth was what the Nuer had in common. If locusts swarmed or a drought persisted, every tribe suffered. When the grass was thick, they all prospered. They were called “men of the earth,” anthropologist Max Gluckman wrote, because “the earth, undivided as the basis of society, (symbolized) not individual prosperity, fertility, and good fortune, but the general prosperity, fertility, and good fortune on which individual life depends.”
What do Americans have in common today? Not much. Oh, we share a lot with our neighbors, with the people at our church. Too much, in fact. But we don’t know fellow citizens just a few counties over. It takes a “social experiment” in some parts to imagine how it would be to live as a member of a different political party.
The danger the next president faces comes from his single-minded friends as much as his political opponents. Politicians need room to do their jobs. They need the authority to make deals with the other side. This isn’t a power that’s won on Election Day. It can come only from a people who come to realize that their well-being depends as much on the “ignorant people … out there” as their like-minded and righteous neighbors.