A Liberal Defense of Tribalism
There’s nothing wrong with political tribes that can’t be fixed by what’s right with them.
Illustrations by JENNIFER TAPIAS DERCH
If politicians and ordinary citizens insist on using tribal metaphors to define our present identity politics, we need a more apt metaphor to understand tribes themselves. We could do worse than to think of tribes as amoebas, entities whose very shape adapts to fit changing circumstances.
American interactions with the tribes of Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate this essential adaptability. The area that comprises present-day Iraq is home to about 150 tribes, some with more than 100,000 members. But the intensity of Iraqi tribal attachments has always fluctuated — whether spontaneously or under conscious direction of tribal leaders — in response to the wider social or political situation.
When U.S. military forces invaded the country in 2003, they initially avoided interaction with residents of tribal territories, believing that the groups’ shifting alliances and allegedly autocratic leadership made them untrustworthy and ill-adapted to the development of democracy. The relationship changed during the “surge” of 2007 — but primarily at the initiative of the tribes themselves. The groups’ leaders went to the U.S. military to say they were tired of insurgents pushing them around and that they were now willing to cooperate with American forces.
It’s crucial to understand, however, that tribes’ adaptability isn’t just a matter of how they respond to shifting social circumstances. It’s also a matter of how tribes come to embody and express the distinctive identity that defines them in the first place.
Our colloquial understanding of tribes considers them essentially atavistic: They aren’t considered simply natural but primordial. The tribal mindset isn’t considered simply pre-modern, in a chronological sense; it’s thought of as a more basic element of human nature than other types of social relations. But this is incorrect. Tribes are our common human heritage. But that doesn’t mean they are some sort of primal, inescapable curse. Tribalism is a social resource that human beings ought to, and do, make use of depending on the circumstances we face.
When we nonetheless employ the atavistic image of tribes in our domestic political rhetoric, we render our own politics even more adversarial than necessary — indeed, we create the very hardened barriers we imagine must exist among groups. If we truly intend on mitigating the adverse elements of what we are now attributing to tribes, we should try to understand, and counteract, the specific circumstances that invite communities to begin to seal themselves off from one another.
That requires understanding that what holds together a modern culture — or the diverse groups within such a culture — is a common worldview. When the coherence of that worldview is challenged — as it is now in the United States by growing ethnic diversity and accelerating technological change — people may seek security in smaller groups with more tightly bound identities.
Homogenous identity groups can indeed fill the void produced by the disappearance of broader social coherence. But, unless our political institutions adapt to accommodate them, those groups can also pose problems. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison pinpointed the threat of factionalism, in the form of homogeneous parties, as the weak link in republican government. Like many of the Founding Fathers, he believed that the best hope for avoiding factional infighting lay not only in the formal structure of limited and balanced powers but in the “virtue” of its citizens — the beliefs and actions that a unified population (in this case white male landowners) would share and through which they would pressure each other to adhere to collective standards.
In our vastly more complex society, a common sense of virtue is likely to continue to elude us. But the tribal ethos, properly understood, may suggest a viable alternative. As tribesmen may have learned through long experience, it is only by reaching across boundary lines that one may reconstruct a world that seems whole.