I don’t know what you think of when you hear the word tribalism, but for me it evokes emotions of fear: us vs. them, Darwinism, and cavemen—but tribalism is understandable; we are naturally inclined to group together in ways that will protect us. The history of the world is a history of tribalism: ethnicities, languages, cultures, religions and eventually nations. The debates over individualism and collectivism give way to the needs of survival. Our tribe protects us from them. Once we are safe in the tribe, we can explore our individuality as long as it does not harm the tribe (think ‘tragedy of the commons’). We learn our first lessons from our tribe, our sense of
right and wrong and how to survive, but tribalism has its downsides too. It limits our perspective and can cause fear of the unknown and it’s what makes your crazy in-law so unreasonable when it comes to politics.
The United States has always been unique in its desire to work around tribalism. As Andrew Sullivan puts it in his great NY Magazine piece Here
“The project of American democracy — to live beyond such tribal identities, to construct a society based on the individual, to see ourselves as citizens of a people’s republic, to place religion off-limits, and even in recent years to embrace a multiracial and post-religious society — was always an extremely precarious endeavor. It rested, from the beginning, on an 18th-century hope that deep divides can be bridged by a culture of compromise, and that emotion can be defeated by reason.”
Sullivan argues that the United States fell back to our primitive need for tribalism during the Civil War and that we are in danger of falling back to our base tribalistic instincts again. One reason he gives is that our narrative is changing with our demographics:
“The myths that helped us unite as a nation began to fray. We once had a widely accepted
narrative of our origins, shared icons that defined us, and a common pseudo-ethnicity —
“whiteness” — into which new immigrants were encouraged to assimilate. Our much broader ethnic mix and the truths of history make this much harder today — as, of course, they should. But we should be clear-eyed about the consequence. We can no longer think of the Puritans without acknowledging the genocide that followed them; we cannot celebrate our Founding Fathers without seeing that slavery undergirded the society they constructed; we must tear down our Confederate statues and relitigate our oldest rifts. Even the national anthem now divides those who stand from those who kneel. We dismantled many of our myths, but have not yet formed new ones to replace them.”
Conservative columnist David Brooks wrote about this idea too Here
“One of the things we’ve lost in this country is our story. It is the narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project, that gives an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history. For most of the past 400 years, Americans did have an overarching story. It was the Exodus story. The Puritans came to this continent and felt they were escaping the bondage of their Egypt and building a new Jerusalem.”
Like Sullivan, Brooks sees the shifting narrative as one of the reasons we are defaulting back to a more tribalistic society.
“Today’s students get steeped in American tales of genocide, slavery, oppression and
segregation. American history is taught less as a progressively realized grand narrative and more as a series of power conflicts between oppressor and oppressed. The academic left pushed this reinterpretation, but as usual the extreme right ended up claiming the spoils.”
To put it simply, when faced with a major identity crisis we go back to our most basic identities, we go back to our tribes. The United States is less white, less Christian, less European than it has ever been– now add to that the fact that we are more divided by education, income and geography (urban vs. rural) than ever before and it is easy to understand why many find solace in the comforting narrative of the tribe. To even further complicate it, we see our politics divided in ways that encourage tribalism: the right is more and more identified as Christian, rural and white; the left is more urban, non-white, non-Christian, and non-religious. The right is clinging to the Exodus narrative, the left finds it offensive. Both political ideologies now become less about
the way we solve agreed-upon problems and more about how we identify as people. Sullivan illustrates this well:
“The result of all this is that a lopsided 69 percent of white Christians now vote Republican, while the Democrats get only 31. In the last decade, the gap in Christian identification between Democrats and Republicans has increased by 50 percent. In 2004, 44 percent of Latinos voted Republican for president; in 2016, 29 percent did. Forty-three percent of Asian-Americans voted Republican in 2004; in 2016, 29 percent did. Since 2004, the most populous urban counties have also swung decisively toward the Democrats, in both blue and red states, while rural counties have shifted sharply to the GOP. When three core components of a tribal identity — race, religion, and geography — define your political parties, you’re in serious trouble.”
The danger in this is that tribalism views the world as a zero-sum game. If you win, I lose. It becomes less of which perspective will we chose to solve our problems and more of a blood sport to blame all problems on the opposing tribe. It blinds us to the real issues, warps our reality and makes defeating the opposing tribe the only goal! To illustrate, again, Andrew Sullivan:
“As for indifference to reality, today’s Republicans cannot accept that human-produced carbon is destroying the planet, and today’s Democrats must believe that different outcomes for men and women in society are entirely a function of sexism. Even now, Democrats cannot say the words illegal immigrants or concede that affirmative action means discriminating against people because of their race. Republicans cannot own the fact that big tax cuts have not trickled down, or that President Bush authorized the brutal torture of prisoners, thereby unequivocally committing war crimes.”
Sullivan then goes on to quote George Orwell:
“There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case … still one cannot feel that it is wrong.”
Societies are strengthened by conflicting ideas. Multiple perspectives, different approaches and an acknowledgment of both the enormity and complexity of our challenges is not only healthy, but the bedrock of modern pluralistic democracies. What we have now, instead, is a cage match where we lose by winning– because the goal is not a more perfect union, the goal is winning at all costs. So, what is to be done? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, good grief, I’m not sure I have any! I do, however, have some suggestions that have worked for me. Hopefully they can work for you and your tribal political friends and family.
1. See people as people, not as opposition. This is especially tricky on social media. It is
harder to see people as people when you’re not standing before them.
2. Acknowledge the need to understand someone, not just listen to them. I try to
listen to someone until I feel I understand their perspective. That does not mean I will
agree with their perspective, however, almost without exception, it reshapes my views to
one degree or another. One exercise I try to do is this: after listening to someone I will try
to restate their position using these words, “I would say you would say.” If get it right,
then I know I understand them.
3. Be informed. To me this is more than just hours of drinking from my own tribal well.
Instead, spent substantive time at other watering holes. Read, watch and listen to a
variety of news outlets.
4. Find substantive ways to spend protracted periods of time with those outside of
your tribe. This is hard in our modern world where we more often than not live with our
tribe. One of the greatest blessings of my life is that I have lived in the reddest of the red
states and the bluest of the blue.
5. Find values and experiences that transcend your political world view. For me, that
is religion and spirituality, and to lesser degree art, sports, etc.
I am, at my core, an optimist. I believe our best days are ahead of us. I am confident we build the world we want to live in by being the kind of people we want to live with. I cannot change the world, but I can change me. Like the old Quaker adage says, “Thee lift me and I lift thee and we’ll ascend together.” True, our tribal instincts are strong, but I believe we can, will and must rise above them.