What’s a ‘Georgia Democrat’?

“All politics is local,” the late Tip O’Neill used to say, but I don’t think that’s as true as it used to be and maybe ought to be.

Increasingly, all politics is national, and even worse, all politics is tribal. When most Americans vote, they don’t cast ballots based on issues or even on the qualifications of particular candidates; they vote to express loyalty to those whom they see as “one of us,” and to vote against those perceived as “one of them.”

And while that’s hardly a novel dynamic in politics, it has taken on a new intensity over the last generation. As optimism is replaced by fear, as people feel besieged by social, technological and economic change, and as media chase profit and audience through divisive programming, the temptation to retreat into the safety offered by tribal identity has grown more powerful.

And that in turn has profound implications for Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter, the top two Democrats hoping to lead a revival of their party’s prospects here in Georgia. Polls continue to show that Nunn faces an uphill yet winnable fight for a U.S. Senate seat, and that Carter has at least a shot to upset Gov. Nathan Deal. Both candidates also have shown a continued ability to raise money in quantities large enough to be competitive.

However, the way they’ve chosen to run their campaigns tells you a lot about the Georgia political landscape. They are both acutely aware that in this state, in 2014, they have no chance to win a campaign that comes down to a test of tribal loyalties. That may change in years to come, but right now the numbers just don’t work.

As a result, Nunn runs commercials that highlight her ties to former President George Bush, and that make no mention of her party. In another ad, she tells Georgians that “no one in Congress should get a subsidy to pay for their own health care,” an oblique reference to ObamaCare that was undoubtedly poll-tested for its appeal to conservatives.

As public policy, her suggestion that members of Congress should be denied employer-provided health care that tens of millions of their fellow Americans enjoy is pretty dumb. But as an inoculation against being seen as a Washington Democrat, it’s pretty smart.

The same can be said of Carter’s deservedly controversial vote in the state Senate in favor of an extreme gun bill. It’s a bad piece of legislation, and in its particulars, most Georgians would probably agree that it’s bad. But in a statewide gubernatorial race, the particulars of the bill don’t matter. What matters is the symbolism. Republicans want to cast both Nunn and Carter as “them,” and the gun issue has more power to make people retreat back into their respective tribal camps than any other issue in American politics. It may not be rational, but it’s real.

And though they’d like to think otherwise, Democrats are hardly immune to the appeal of tribalism. Republicans want Nunn and Carter to be “Washington Democrats,” with all that implies. Because politics has become so nationalized, a lot of Democrats want that same thing. The concept that “Georgia Democrats,” like “Massachusetts Republicans,” might have to deviate from the checklist to compete is something that both parties have a hard time accepting these days.