A Liberal Defense of Tribalism

There’s nothing wrong with political tribes that can’t be fixed by what’s right with them.


American politics, we are told incessantly, has become “tribal.” It is not meant as a compliment. References to tribalism are intended to capture how Western, and especially American, political life has regressed in recent years into a more primitive state, one characterized by polarization, insularity, vengefulness, and lack of compromise.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman asserts that the politics reigning over “tribalized” societies is “‘rule or die’ — either my tribe or sect is in power or we’re dead.” The psychologist Steven Pinker speaks of “our impulses of authoritarianism and tribalism,” while his Harvard colleague the biologist E.O. Wilson flatly declares that “the true cause of hatred and violence is faith versus faith, an outward expression of the ancient instinct of tribalism.” Even former U.S. President Barack Obama, whose mother was an anthropologist, has stated that “the power of tribalism” to which people may naturally revert is “the source of a lot of destructive acts.”

As popular rhetoric, the tribalism metaphor, given its sheer pervasiveness, must be judged a success. But as an attempt to illuminate our present moment, it represents the worst kind of failure. It draws its force from a legitimate scientific insight that it distorts beyond recognition.

From an anthropological perspective, Western politics has, it may be argued, become more tribal. Tribes are distinguished from other human groups by their relatively clear social boundaries, often defined by kinship and demarcated territory. It’s clear that our political groups are increasingly based on single aspects of common identity with unambiguous boundaries, such as race and educational status.

Equally undeniable, however, is that most commentators vastly misunderstand the nature of tribes. The mistaken view of tribes as primitive, violent, and insular is already having pernicious effects on our response to this new era of politics. Tribalism, contrary to popular belief, is not atavistic. But American political rhetoric, by suggesting otherwise, has become essentially fatalistic; it suggests that tribalism marks a reversion to some natural and ancestral mode of thinking and, thus, even if tribes can be temporarily transcended, their pull remains inexorable.

If we hope to live productively in this new political era, it helps to understand what tribes actually are — and how, rather than simply being the cause of our political problems, tribalism can also contribute to the solution.

Our colloquial evocation of tribalism mostly reflects outmoded anthropology. Scientists once believed that tribes were defined by their rigid social structures. Their traditional social practices — such as habitual rejections of private property — were understood to be instinctual and impervious to change. Meanwhile, the structure of their social relationships was believed to be coercive; tribes were thought to be able to integrate their individual members only through the stultifying and imposed repetition of social customs.

The political implications of this armchair anthropological analysis are clear enough. If tribalism is both instinctual and exclusionary, then we should treat our present-day tribes — our identity groups or even political parties — as a natural refuge from otherwise inevitable social conflict. We should also treat the restoration of a more inclusive form of social cohesion as an impossibility, absent some social or political revolution.

But present-day anthropologists know better. Years of empirical studies of actual tribes show that even as they are defined by relatively narrow identities, they are also characterized by porous boundaries. Tribes continually sample one another’s practices and social forms. Speaking about American Indians, James Boon, a Princeton anthropologist, noted that “[e]ach tribal population appears almost to toy with patterns that are fundamental to its neighbors.”

Tribes also frequently adopt outsiders. North American tribes commonly invited captured whites into their communal life. (The subsequent process of integration was so effective that even when captives were liberated, many chose to remain with the adopting tribe.) In other instances, among certain tribes in North Africa, members could voluntarily leave their own tribe and join another.

Reciprocity, too, is a central part of traditional tribal life. Tribesmen constantly create forms of mutual obligation, both within and across tribes. Moral or material indebtedness, they know, can serve as the foundation of a strong relationship. It is common across various tribes in different cultures — including the Berbers of North Africa, for example — for leaders to be chosen or ratified by the group’s opponents on the theory that one’s current enemy may later be an ally. When Berber tribes find themselves in a dispute, one group may call on the leader of the other to settle the claim, in the knowledge that he will not risk his ability to form later alliances by simply supporting his own side.

Many tribes — among them the Mae Enga of Papua New Guinea and the Lozi of Central Africa — also share the common practice of marrying members of enemy tribes to reduce the likelihood of internecine warfare. For the same reason, tribes also frequently develop residence patterns to ensure that grandchildren are raised in a different kinship group. As a result of intermarriage and trading relations, a high proportion of tribes are multilingual.

Nor are tribes inherently authoritarian. Tribes often do not like too much power in too few hands for too long a period of time. To that end, they employ a wide variety of practices that redistribute power, whether by appointing multiple “chiefs” for limited periods and tasks or using gossip, humor, intoxicants, and ritual reversals to undermine anyone who might claim pervasive power. Perhaps most important: Historically, tribes generally have avoided claims of moral superiority, both within and among tribal groups. Most tribes, as the Oxford anthropologist Paul Dresch says of Yemeni groups, practice an “avoidance of any absolute judgment, a kind of moral particularism or pluralism.” For members of these tribes, each situation must be judged independently, with no claim to absolutes governing all eventualities and relationships.

This might sound quite distant from the partisan tribes of our present politics, which seem mostly to be characterized by their pugnaciousness. But the point is that, anthropologically, narrow identity groups such as tribes — or political parties in our hyperpartisan era — aren’t defined by exclusionary traits. The existence of narrow group identities doesn’t imply hostility among such groups.

Indeed, there is a reason that tribes historically have not embraced the rigid structural identities and institutions evident in our politics today. Excluding immigrants or cultural outsiders in the name of social solidarity comes at a price. Actual tribes know that social isolation or claims of moral superiority limit their flexibility. But we can only sustainably avoid paying such costs when we understand that resorting to defensive boundaries, even when we have gone “tribal,” is not our natural default position.

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.

Displacing a ruling metaphor is no easy task. Can one think of the brain as not being “programmed,” a computer as not being attacked by a “virus,” or political speech as not being limited when it is likened to “falsely crying fire in a crowded theater”?

But when analogies are proved empirically false, and practically debilitating, there’s no real choice — the necessary effort must be made to change them. The human heart was once thought of as a furnace, rather than a pump, and the eye as a beacon, rather than a receptor. Such metaphors, thankfully, were eventually sorted out of circulation.

We are now at a similar point with tribalism. Use of the word “tribe” in reference to political groups may seem an innocuous surrogate for truculence and exclusivity. But it is ultimately distorting. When we call our politics “tribal,” we project a sense of confinement and premonitory violence and indulge an image of humankind as instinctively hostile to outsiders.

But the metaphor can perhaps be saved if we cease to put our mistaken analogue ahead of the empirical referent — that is, if we substitute a realistic appraisal of tribalism for the prevailing caricature. Perhaps if we thought of our political groupings more like actual tribes, we would begin to act more like them, thus easing our ever-increasing social tensions.

No, we are unlikely to see members of the alt-right and the Bernie Sanders left achieve peace through the marriage of their offspring to one another. But there’s no reason we couldn’t, as tribes characteristically do, fashion crosscutting ties that mollify entrenched positions. Tribes commonly employ a series of interlocking associations that serve as a bulwark against the factionalism of family, clan, and other subdivisions. Cheyenne tribes in America’s Great Plains region policed their buffalo hunts by drawing men from separate residential and kin groups. The northwest coast tribes frequently jumbled the adherents of different clans and totemic groups in their religious rituals.

There are similar tribal-inspired political and social reforms the United States should consider. Just as many tribal councils — such as those of the historical Iroquois Confederacy or the Pashtun tribes of Pakistan and Afghanistan — encourage broad participation, so, too, should state governments consider an increase in the number of seats in their legislatures. Most state legislatures bear responsibility for designing the districts for the U.S. Congress, and wider representation could help alleviate the incentives to pursue gerrymandering. And just as many tribes have various measures to ensure they achieve consensus, legislatures on the national and state levels should consider increasing the proportion of votes needed to pass certain kinds of laws — tax reform, for example — in order to force greater consideration of opponents’ views.

Such reforms would seem to come at the expense of the political parties being asked to vote for them. But they would ultimately be in these groups’ own long-term self-interest — and, with the proper encouragement, they should be capable of understanding as much and acting accordingly. In this sense, tribalism might be seen not as our political problem but as suggestive of our political solution.

Some 150 million tribespeople continue to live in more than 60 countries around the world. They live within and mingle with nontribal societies. They also interact with and learn from one another. For centuries, this is how they — and we — have survived and thrived. In Islam, the Quran reminds humanity, “We created you from male and female and appointed you races and tribes so that you may know one another.”

Now would be a good time to embrace such a vision and to abandon our image of tribal politics as something we would choose to eradicate if we weren’t condemned to it by fate. Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with tribalism that can’t be fixed by what is right with it.

This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of  FP magazine.

Lawrence Rosen is the William Nelson Cromwell professor of anthropology at Princeton University and is both an anthropologist and a lawyer.