Every day, any number of political and cultural commentators can be heard lamenting the “tribalism” that has taken hold in America. Ironically, the ubiquity of this lament, sung in chorus by people from both the left and the right (our “tribes”), is evidence that perhaps some hope remains in finding common ground about the direction of the nation. The prudent conservatives at the National Review have warned us about the corrosive effect of tribalism, as have the enlightened progressives at Mother Jones. At the risk of undermining one of the few points of political consensus, it’s still worth asking: Is tribalism bad? And if so, why?
The current cultural fragmentation of the United States is in large part due to multiculturalism…
Of course, when we speak about “tribalism” in highly developed western societies, we are speaking metaphorically; we are using an anthropological concept that typically referred to premodern cultures to describe the political conditions in a much different sort of community. But it is worth noting that there is a contentious debate in anthropology about the definition of a “tribe” and its usefulness as an idea, even when used in the traditional sense. Basically, “tribe” refers to a group of people whose association with one another is rooted in shared cultural traits and history. The people within a tribe usually share a language, a genetic lineage, and a constellation of beliefs, values, and traditions. Tribal membership tends to be premised on the acceptance of a particular structural organization that governs social life, and the common understanding of the tribe assumes that most members exist in relative proximity with one another and that they share an understanding of who is a member and who is not.
In short, shared convention is what makes a tribe visible to outsiders. The characteristics that tribal members share are viewed as different or unique to the external observer. The recognition of these collective manifestations of cultural difference enables an outsider to observe and describe tribal identities—a practice that had been common to anthropology for decades. Of course, the fact that the label of “tribe” is typically one that is attributed to a group of people by an outsider lies at the core of the contemporary criticism of the concept: the defining characteristics and boundaries of the tribe come to be determined on the basis of their unfamiliarity to an observer who carries the biases that extend from his own membership in a different community, which often serves as the normative example of what a culture “ought” to be. This, however, is a criticism of the politics of anthropology more than it is the concept of “tribe.” Tribes and tribal identities exist regardless of any anthropologist’s misgivings.
The reticence about tribalism isn’t limited to these concerns about the colonial attitudes of observers of the tribe. It also extends from the fact that many Americans do not feel as though they belong to a tribe. In large part, they are correct. But this lack of belonging, this cultural homelessness, is actually the cause of the phenomena that critics deplore as “tribalism.” The current cultural fragmentation of the United States is in large part due to multiculturalism, which has encouraged tribal expressions of difference in such a way that we have become a nation of outsiders. The average American now holds few things of meaning in common with other citizens. Instead of the sense of community that the nation used to share, people now retreat to smaller and smaller “affinity groups” that they hope will provide a sense of belonging that a multicultural polity can no longer provide.
Surprisingly, the antidote to this alienation and fragmentation is not a rejection of tribalism. It is a reintegration of the tribe.
TRIBALISM: THE ENEMY OF LIBERAL DEMOCRACY?
In contrast to traditional understandings which saw cultural pluralism as anathema to the concept of the nation, today’s modern western minds see the democratic nation-state as the antithesis of the tribe: it is an amalgam of a variety of diverse subcultures (the boundaries of which are geographically indeterminate), functioning as one society through the bureaucratic mediation of a centralized (and distant) government. The presumed friction between the tribe and the nation explains why calling the latter “tribalistic” is usually a criticism.
[T]ribalism is seen as a pathology because it is a threat to the pluralism that lies at the heart of creedal democracy.
But what do we mean when we say that “tribalism” has taken hold in the United States? A survey of the recent usage of the term shows that it refers to a cultural environment that is prone to unproductive and unnecessary strife. The implied meaning of tribalism, then, is the tendency of a particular society toward internecine conflict. To say that America is becoming mired in tribalism is to say that the bonds that unite the diverse subcultures that make up the nation-state are being weakened; that the “common interest” that Americans had shared is giving way to competing ideological commitments that cannot be reconciled to one another. In short, tribalism is seen as a pathology because it is a threat to the pluralism that lies at the heart of creedal democracy.
But there is great irony in the claim that “tribalism” is the cause of our fractious culture, if only because the classic feature of a tribe in premodern societies was its remarkable unity in terms of culture. While many tribes were intolerant of extreme expressions of individual difference that ran counter to the shared values of the tribe, it was this resistance to “cultural diversity” that formed the strong bonds that united the tribe. From the perspective of its members, the tribe is defined by a rich communal life, strong family ties, and an enduring dedication to shared values, traditions, and the collective mythos. Together, these things embody the network of meaning (linguistic, cultural, and spiritual meaning) that allows individuals to feel a social sense of belonging.
Compare the attitudes of American elites and their institutions to these essential features of the tribe, and you will learn why modern ideology views tribalism as a great threat to the social order. As noted by the political theorist Patrick Deneen, and many other thinkers, the central commitment of contemporary liberalism is the autonomy of the individual. This means that the existing liberal order sees the rich communal life exhibited within tribes as a problem: part of what individual autonomy means is independence from the reciprocal relationships of dependency that tribal life depends on. The secular liberal idea of autonomy is affirmed through the self-chosenness of all aspects of one’s life. Thus, traditional values and social expectations are a threat in that they impose a coercive force that constrains individual choice.
For similar reasons, secular liberalism works to undermine the strong family ties that bind tribal societies. No-fault divorce, widespread premarital parenthood and cohabitation, abortion on demand, an expansive welfare state, the growing normalization of alternative family structures, parental surrogacy, and “reproductive autonomy” in general have a secondary (but intended) effect of weakening families and dissolving the complex networks of authority that obtain within them. Any communally-shared standard for family formation necessarily imposes limitations on the choices available to the individual within the family. Why, after all, should one be obligated to raise an unwanted child? Why should one remain bound to the other parent of one’s child if one no longer feels romantic love for that person? Why should grown children be obligated to provide for older family members as they near the end of life? All of these obligations restrict the autonomous right of the individual to pursue a life free of obligation to others. The rigid family structures that characterize most tribal societies are anathema to liberal democracy.
If the core characteristic of the tribe is the endurance of shared values, beliefs, and traditions, it is clear that any society where the central values are diversity, pluralism, and tolerance of difference will necessarily be wary of tribalism. But one might pause here: what if the sacred status of diversity, pluralism, and individual difference themselves constitute the “shared values” that enable a bond among the various groups within the nation-state? This idea—that sharing a high valuation of difference and pluralism is enough to unify otherwise diverse groups of people—is a major component of the American experiment. As Francis Fukuyama explains in his most recent book, this is commonly called “creedal identity” in America. The wager of multiculturalism was implicit at the Founding: that a shared commitment to the belief that a limited government that imposed no ethnic, religious, or cultural limitations on who could lay claim to the national identity would be enough to create one people out of many.
The problem is that these ideas are paradoxical. Americans seek a kind of cultural belonging that was a hallmark of tribal life without subjecting themselves to any of the externally-imposed obligations that secure one’s membership in the tribe. It makes sense, then, that the left is hostile to those promoting the prerequisites of tribal life. Their goal is to overcome the narrowness of the tribe in favor of a cosmopolitan globalism that valorizes the expression of individual differences. They advance diffuse notions of the “common good” that are applied universally without accommodation of divergent local interests and subcultures. As things stand, the dissidents who oppose their efforts must retreat from public culture if they are to secure the benefits of the tribe.
THE DECLINE OF CREEDAL IDENTITY AND THE RISE OF ALIENATION
For much of American history, the pluralistic values inherent to the American order were enough to forge a shared national identity. Although the state deprived blacks, women, and other marginalized groups of autonomy and political agency, the first two centuries of America tells the story of heroic efforts to eliminate limitations on who could authentically lay claim to national identity. During that time, individual identity was a political concern, but most Americans agreed that it should be subordinated to collective identity extending from our creed.
The expression of individual difference (the ways that one sets oneself apart from the tribe) replaced the creed as the defining characteristic of American identity.
But since the great cultural revolutions that unfolded across the west in the 1960s, the creedalism that had bound Americans continues to dissolve. The expression of individual difference (the ways that one sets oneself apart from the tribe) replaced the creed as the defining characteristic of American identity. The shared creedal heritage came to be understood as one more infringement of the collective upon individual autonomy. Over the last few decades, the allegiance to the creed has declined in direct proportion to the rise of multiculturalism. Expressing the unique features of who you necessarily emphasize the ways that you significantly differ from the larger community or tribe. This fosters not mere indifference, but hostility toward the creedal devotion that served as the basis of national unity for over a century.
Today, the subordination of creedal identification to personal identity ensures that the American creed is now openly questioned and attacked. This is the function of interventions like the 1619 Project, which paint the creed as a form of intolerance or hatred masquerading as a means of unification. This also explains the new zeal in banishing any reference to, or representation of, the American founders from the public sphere. Those figures are implicit reminders of a shared past, a shared cultural inheritance that must be subverted in order to liberate individuals from the expectation that they see themselves as a part of this tradition (rather than another one that might be foreign to our society, which might serve as a means to signify individual difference, the high virtue of the multicultural order). To the degree that suspicion of the creed expands, our society becomes increasingly fragmented.
RETURN TO THE PRIMITIVE: TRIBALISM AND THE TIES THAT BIND
The main benefit of the tribe for the individual was the sense of belonging it provided. Without a universal dedication to the American creed, our nation can no longer provide that sense of belonging. But this belonging is a natural desire for social animals like human beings. As the broader national identity breaks apart, then, we should not be surprised to see that individuals are seeking belonging in smaller groups where deep communal ties, strong family bonds, and shared traditions and beliefs still persist.
Without a universal dedication to the American creed, our nation can no longer provide that sense of belonging.
Put differently, the current fragmentation of America—our growing “tribalism”—is an organic byproduct of marginalizing a shared culture in favor of multicultural difference. (Here, I do not condemn the virtue of tolerance, but only the core of multiculturalist ideology, which holds that the expression of cultural difference is an inherent good that should be maximized and proliferated in the public sphere). As the multicultural nation-state becomes increasingly unable to perform the cultural unification that humans naturally desire, they begin to form tribes of their own.
This reveals the confusion within the critique of American tribalism: people don’t retreat to communities premised on a shared identity because they are seeking conflict (as the typical narrative suggests). Rather, they organize themselves into smaller groups with shared commitments precisely because they are looking to escape the conflicts that multiply in a society that consists of people who no longer have anything in common. This search for a collective identity rooted in commonalities is a worthy goal. The tribalism that we see today is the means by which people pursue it.
Although commentators are nearly unanimous in their disdain for tribalism, not everyone sees it as a bad thing. As I have shown, it is often perceived as a threat to society because of an erroneous assumption that it gives rise to conflict. As a mouthpiece of the radical left, it is fitting that this misperception is the very reason that the magazine Jacobin calls for more tribalism: they want to intensify the culture war in order to prepare the conditions for fundamental reforms to American society. Conflict, Jacobin asserts, is a “constitutive part of American life,” and “progress […] of any genuine kind” cannot be achieved without the inflammation of “cultural polarities.”
Jacobin is right that we need more tribalism, but they are right for the wrong reasons. They fall into error because they misunderstand tribalism: it doesn’t cause more internecine fighting; it causes less. A society where people share strong bonds on the basis of deeply held values and traditions usually has less internal conflict than a multicultural society that refuses to endorse any particular values or revere any particular tradition. As long as multiculturalist ideology remains America’s state religion, it will appear that our tribalism creates internal conflict: people will only be able to find belonging in smaller groups with exclusive interests. But if we deprioritized multiculturalism, then the nation-state could reintegrate Americans as one tribe, united through a creedal identity. There would be less internal strife, not more.
In the classic sense, the tribe’s violent energies are directed outward, towards those who do not have membership. This is enough for the left to decry tribalism as militaristic and exclusionary. But anthropologically speaking, the wars that tribes undertake are usually wars of existential necessity. Their conflicts are inevitable battles fought for water access, or hunting rights, or in defense of tribal homelands. They are not fights over abstractions. Consider how the wars of our modern democracy compare: our battles are internal ones fought over ideologies. We fight over masks, and ballot counting, and children’s books, and pronouns, and the minimum wage. When our government declares an actual war, it is usually against a distant foe, in pursuit of an outcome that has very little bearing on the lives of Americans, many of whom actively undermine their nation’s war effort in whatever ways they can.
Ultimately, it seems that the societies like ours, which have purposely undermined tribalism, endure more internal conflict than tribal ones. And when we go to war against external enemies, it is usually over issues so abstract that the war itself becomes an abstraction to everyone except those who are paid to fight it (and their families). If these divisions, hostilities, and alienations are the cost of a modern, technocratic, pluralistic democracy that values individual difference and autonomy above everything… well, we might do better to return to the tribe.