Editorial: The state of American tribalism

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Can’t we all just get along? The answer, proven correct time and time again, is a resounding “no.” But why that’s the answer is complicated and involves concepts such as identity politics, social sorting and, of course, tribalism.

Last month, the Economist published an article headlined “The primeval tribalism of American politics,” in which the writer described discouraging observations made at a workshop meant to help right and left stop seeing each other as enemies. Participants were divided into two groups, red for Republicans and blue for Democrats, and asked to list how they assumed they were perceived by the opposition. The red side included “racist,” “homophobic” and “gun-loving” as stereotypes, for example, while the blues listed “smug” and “godless,” among others. The groups then discussed the legitimacy of those perceptions, and by the end of the exercise admitted that perhaps they had underestimated the diversity of opinions on the “enemy” side. There was, alas, no opening of hearts and minds or singing of “Kumbaya.” “The problem,” the writer stated, “is structural: the root of tribalism is human nature, and the current state of American democracy is distinctly primeval. People have an urge to belong to exclusive groups and to affirm their membership by beating other groups.”

Also last month, a piece appeared in Wired about an organized debate between neuroscientist Sam Harris and journalist Ezra Klein of Vox. The two had discussed race and IQ, but Wired’s Robert Wright seized on Harris’s claim that he was above tribalism on the matter. “Not only is Harris capable of transcending tribalism,” he wrote mockingly, “so is his tribe!” Wright was trying to make the point that tribalism doesn’t consist only of “rage and contempt” but “cognitive biases that easily evade our awareness,” such as attribution error (when their side does bad things it’s because they are bad people; when our side does bad things it’s because of situational factors) and confirmation bias (seeking out information that confirms one’s preconceptions). Harris’s arguments on a range of topics, Wright said, were littered with these sneaky biases. For that reason, “the biggest threat to America and to the world may be a simple lack of intellectual humility,” Wright wrote.

Amy Chua, a Yale law professor and author of Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, sees today’s tribalism through the lens of economics, specifically the tension between free markets and democracy. “Capitalism creates a small number of very wealthy people, while democracy potentially empowers a poor majority resentful of that wealth,” Chua wrote in the New York Times in February. “In the wrong conditions, that tension can set in motion intensely destructive politics.” What America needs is leaders who understand the economic roots of the divide and want to break the cycle of tribalism, Chua says, “but where are we going to find them?”

Is tribalism the result of an innate need to belong to a group and defeat other groups? Is it caused not just by anger but invasive biases? Will the restoration of upward mobility solve the problem? If the answer to all three questions is yes, what happens next? Where does change begin?

It begins with you, or more specifically how you view yourself. If you are a Republican or a Democrat, that is not all you are – just as you are not just a wife, or cancer survivor, or lawyer, or hunter. You are infinitely complex, and so is the person with whom you disagree politically. Remember that, and remember this, too: There is no strength in your political tribe, only blindness.

You don’t need your “enemies” to see that; it’s just important that you do.