Most people recognize the quotation from Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House from 1977-87, who said “all politics is local.” But in many places the truth is that almost all politics are ethnic or religious.
Take Iraq for example, where there are Shia, Sunni, Kurdish, Assyrian, Turkmen, Yezidi and probably other such parties. In Lebanon, which may have the most political parties of any nation on earth, the great majority of its MP’s represent parties associated with ethnic or religious groups.
Israel has a few smaller religious parties, several Arab parties, and some which are favored by ethnic groups — Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu [Israel is our home] party is considered the ‘Russian’ party — but the majority of political discourse (except in the case of the Arab parties — and that’s a problem) crosses these lines. In the US, the phenomenon is practically nonexistent.
In some places this is considered desirable. Islamist parties that advocate Shaaria-based law in effect favor a system which institutionalizes bias against non-Muslims. Not only do they see nothing wrong with this, they see it as appropriate and desirable. In Western democracies ethno-religious politics is generally considered a bad thing, because it leads to politically powerful groups obtaining special privileges for their members. Ethnic politics is also highly divisive and often violent (viz. Lebanon).
Even on a smaller scale — for example, when Hispanic voters in the US vote for a Hispanic candidate because he or she is expected to look out for their narrow interests — it tends to skew priorities in a suboptimal way. The best interest of the society as a whole is usually not the same as the sum of the interests of organized ethnic or religious groups.
Which brings us to the Quote of the Week, a parenthetical remark from Barry Rubin’s blog:
…this story, told to me first-hand, really shook me up. A doctor regularly receives referrals from the local office of the Immigration Service. One day a patient was sent over because, the officials said, he needed to get a certain shot to stay in the United States. The man insisted he didn’t need it, but the doctor pointed out that, according to the regulations, he did. The man said to the doctor, “You’re Jewish, aren’t you? You don’t like Syrians.” Just like that the whole Weberian, rational, laws-not-man, equal-treatment-under-law infrastructure that holds up Western civilization collapsed and the Middle Ages had returned.
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