Joy Reid’s Politics of Tribalism and the Democratic Party

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

In this post, I’m going to transcribe and briefly comment upon Joy Reid’s jaw-dropping interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, which has in my view received insufficient attention. I’m going to annotate it, but only for telling details; a complete exegesis will have to wait until I’ve pondered more — frankly, I’m gobsmacked — and have perhaps integrated Reid’s views with Clinton’s re-emergence on the Verrit platform. I’m also not going to focus on Reid’s identity politics, but see Adolph Reed on “ascriptive identity” and neoliberalism. However, for anybody who wants the Democrat to take a policy-focused approach — say, on monopoly power — Reid’s views must be deeply concerning.

Joy Reid is perhaps the most dominant Democrat establishment media personality after Rachel Maddow; in what follows, Reid describes a party devoid of any economic message and explicitly not making any form of universal appeal; that is, what the Democrat Party would look like were its identity politics faction able to purge all its enemies; with regard to politics and power, Reid raises issues that are not only ideological, but institutional, as the Democrat Party moves through its crack-up — or not! Here’s the complete video; the portion I am transcribing begins at 3:29:


And here is my transcript of the key portion of the interview. (The Daily Banter provides a partial transcript, but unfortunately leaves out pertinent material.)

[3:28] NOAH … You would think, in any other time, in any other place, going up against Donald Trump would mean you are a shoo-in; you’re going to win this thing, you’re going to take it all. And yet it feels like the Democrats themselves are experiencing rifts, they’re experiencing a lack of focus, it doesn’t seem like there is a concrete message that’s going to move them forward.

REID: Well, this is the Democrats; this is kind of who they are. They are very disorganized, the Democrats, are not, they’re not good at the sort of “Go for the jugular,” hard-nosed politics as they used to be, back when the Democrats were more sort of an ethnic party, they were kind of ethnic white, ethnic black, ethnic party generally. Now they’re a party that are looking for consensus, and they look for it so desperately that they never really come up with a coherent frame for themselves.

NOAH: What do you mean when you say that?

REID: Because Democrats, although they understand, I think, deep down that they’re the party of black and brown people, of gay people, of marginalized people, they still long to be the party of the sort of Pabst Blue Ribbon voter[1], the kind of Coors Lite-drinking voter.

NOAH: Could they not be both? Why could they not be both?

REID: Because those voters are Republicans. They just are.

NOAH: Do you think definitively? Across the board?

REID: Yeah! I think that vote has migrated from being a Democratic Party vote to a Republican Party vote[2], and it has done for the last 40 years.

NOAH: Right.

REID: Democrats just can’t accept it. So they don’t understand that the voters they long to have back, the sort of Archie Bunker who was a Democrat in the 70s is now a Republican. So they can long for them all they want; they’re not going to convince them by saying “We’re going to give you free college.”[3] That’s not why they’re voting. They’re voting– The way I kind of put it is this way: People say, “Why do people vote against their economic interests? Why don’t they vote values?” Democrats vote against their economic interests! If you live in New York, and you make, you know, New York salary, you’re voting against your economic interests whenever you vote for Democrats; they raise your taxes![4] You vote your values! So why do you think people on the other side don’t do the same? They’re not voting economics; they’re voting because the Republican Party represents their values. They don’t care about the economics. So Democrats keep trying to use economic lures[5] to pull them back in, but that’s not why they’re voting that way.

NOAH: It’s interesting that you put it that way, because then I, I guess my mind takes me down a very negative path, which is then there is no end to this, it just becomes a party that is separated by the color of somebody’s skin, or you know, the fact that they’re not mainstream, they’re “conservative,” or they are now a fringe progressive person in some way, shape, or form. Does that mean that’s the end for American politics? What then tips an election?

REID: I think what tips an election is which party goes out and find more people who are like[6] them. I mean, you know, this country has always been very tribal. Um, the tribes[7] have sort of shifted back and forth between the parties, but we’re the same tribal country we’ve always been. Republicans are very good in going out and finding all the Republicans, every available potential Republican and getting them to vote. Democrats leave a lot of people by the wayside, who should be voting with them, who agree with them, who believe in what they believe in, but they don’t go get them. Because they’re so busy longing for the people in the other party.[8]

(Reid then goes on to trash “A Better Deal” for being vague. Alrighty, then.)

Notes on the Transcript

[1] I’m so old I remember 2008, when PBR was a class and cultural marker for the young professionals of Richard Florida’s “creative class” who were the ideal type of Obama voter, and the future of the Democrat Party.

[2] Reid erases the voters who flipped to Trump after voting for Obama twice.

[3] Reid conflates the older voters who flipped from Obama with the younger voters who greatly prefer Sanders on policy, both in 2016 and now.

[4] It’s hard to see why a Democrat who thinks raising taxes is always against your interest isn’t a Republican; the Daily Banter omits this portion of the transcript.

[5] It’s hard to see how #MedicareForAll is a “lure” (as opposed to, say, being a universal concrete material benefit).

[6] For some definition of “like.” Why, for example, are not all wage workers “like” each other? Or all people who will one day need health care?

[7] Not Larry Tribe, of course. Or the Abolitionist Tribe, say.

[8] Interestingly, this is an implicit critique of Clinton’s post-convention attempt to appeal to suburban Republicans. It’s also a critique of the Ossoff debacle.


I need to think through Reid’s notion of “tribe” more thoroughly, and will; for whatever reason, I don’t think of a tribe as a political entity at all[1]. (Japan’s bosozoku, or “speed tribes,” seem to be more like biker gangs.) However, it’s clear that Reid’s politics of tribalism can’t advocate for universal concrete material benefits like #MedicareForAll, since there is no basis on which a universal appeal can be made. Indeed, there should not be, since universal benefits would be granted to The Other as well as one’s self. Nor can a politics of tribalism even conceptualize policies — like breaking up monopolies — that go above and beyond the tribe, and involve cross-cutting interests and values within and between tribes (assuming, arguendo, that the tribe, supposing tribes to exist, is even an appropriate analytical tool). However, kudos to Reid for being so open and direct; it’s clear, for example, that in Reid’s politics of tribalism the interests of working people will never, ever come first. This is wonderfully clarifying.


[1] Except for “The Tribes,” like the Penobscots; sovereign or quasi-sovereign Native American entities.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.