'Tribalism’ doesn’t explain our political conflicts

tags: politics, Tribalism

Adam Rothman is a professor of history at Georgetown University.

“Tribalism” is a hot concept right now — one many people believe is at the root of America’s deep divisions. During the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) complained that “Tribalism is ruining us.” Many of our pundits, in particular, are obsessed with tribalism. New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan warns tribalism is “corrupting and even threatening our system of government.”

Academics such as Jonathan Haidt and Amy Chua have also taken the pulse of the country and found tribal instincts thrumming in our veins. Alarmed by the conflicts in U.S. society and politics today, the tribunes of tribalism yearn for a mythic past when Americans set their differences aside and largely got along with each other. For Sullivan, this is “roughly the century after the Civil War,” when racial and political conflict was “diluted by myriad ethnic loyalties” and two World Wars unified and integrated the citizenry.

This is not history but nostalgia. Despite our abiding national myths regarding individualism, Americans have always bought into group identities such as race, ethnicity and religion. These identities have often been exclusive and hostile to people on the outside, and, what is more, they used to be enacted with far greater violence than today. The savage history of lynching in the United States is sufficient proof. There is no reason to think our intergroup differences are more dangerous than they have been at most other times in U.S. history. Yet at the same time, that past offers plentiful guidance for how to live with, and harness, our differences for good.

In short, we need to pay attention to history, not prehistory, to understand complex modern politics and society.

Complaints about tribalism typically fall into two distinct, if overlapping, categories. On one hand are the well-worn laments about identity politics. This is the idea that Americans have divided into hard-shell groups (or “tribes”) based on racial, religious and sexual identities; people who possess those identities, the argument goes, then organize their politics around the belief that they are victims. Critics often focus their ire about this kind of tribalism on college campuses, where a particularly intolerant form of identity politics is said to have taken root. ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post

comments powered by Disqus