“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.
Teaching students to focus on their racial, gender and class identities is dangerous, Haidt warns, because students are “young human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare.” (This might be true if tribal warfare involves heavy drinking.)
On the other hand, the anti-tribalists warn against escalating tension between Democrats and Republicans, America’s supposed mega-tribes. It is true each party demonizes the other with rhetorically vicious language that embitters politics and sometimes flares into violence. The two parts of this anti-tribalist argument fit together through the notion that identity politics has fueled intense partisanship. Organizing politics around claims to identity makes it harder to compromise, since every core issue seems existential.
All of this amounts to very clumsy anthropology. The primordial “us vs. them” oppositions it evokes are, or ought to be, alien to our postmodern age of fluid self-fashioning. “I contain multitudes,” wrote Walt Whitman in the 19th century, and this is even truer for Americans today. We are many things at once; nobody wants to be reduced to a census category, and everyone has multiple allegiances.
Particular aspects of identities can be activated politically depending on our own circumstances and priorities and how our leaders talk to us. Women, for example, might have been more inclined to vote in the midterm elections after watching the Kavanaugh hearings, but their sex did not dictate whom they voted for.
Concerns about political tribalism also neglect an important trend in American politics. It may be true the parties are becoming more ideologically polarized, but a smaller proportion of Americans identify as Republicans or Democrats than they used to, and more people identify as independents than with either party. The 40 percent of Americans who now consider themselves independents do not fit into tribalist scaremongering, yet the parties spend a great deal of money and energy in every election trying to get them to vote.
Those who fear tribalism have gone so far as to conjure up nightmare scenarios of descent into civil war. Of course, once upon a time the United States did endure a terrible civil war, but no historian today argues tribalism was at its root, because “tribalism” is a vacuous concept with no explanatory power. A more plausible answer is that rival nationalism arose within the United States in the mid-19th century. One was built upon an antislavery vision of the Union, the other upon the cornerstone of slavery. These coalesced geographically, split the country, and the two sides fought it out with a horrific fervor.
If we are to avoid repeating that disaster, we might pay closer attention to another important, and more hopeful, strand of U.S. history: the tradition of religious pluralism.
At the birth of the nation, one of James Madison’s concerns was the threat of religious tyranny. Indeed, today’s identity politics are no match for the religious sectarianism of Madison’s era. America’s motto may be “In God We Trust,” but historically, the question has been, whose God? Intense rivalry among Protestant denominations, along with anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism, is a fundamental part of the American story. Protestant mobs once burned Catholic churches to the ground. Interfaith marriage used to be unthinkable in many households.
Madison assembled a diverse coalition of deists and dissenters in a successful campaign for religious liberty in Virginia in the 1780s, an experience that informed the protections for religious liberty in the Bill of Rights. Those protections hardly guaranteed religious sects would live in harmony; many distrusted one another and found their rivals’ world views immoral and incomprehensible. But it does suggest the liberal tradition of freedom of religion, which forges coexistence on the basis of equality and mutual respect, is a healthy paradigm for dealing with group differences. Indeed, the argument of Madison’s famous Federalist No. 10 was: The more differences, the better. He saw it as less likely that one sect would impose tyranny on others, if a multitude of sects — however much they opposed one another — existed to counterbalance it.
Despite the pundits’ overwrought complaints about tribalism, local communities across America are showing that diverse people can come together across our differences to support each other. On my own college campus, Georgetown — the kind of place where debilitating identity politics are supposed to run rampant — I was greatly moved to see the chaplains of many different faith traditions join at a somber vigil to honor the victims of Tree of Life synagogue and Louisville shootings. Such scenes took place across the country as the midterm elections loomed.
Americans are in for a long struggle over the kind of nation we want to be, but all the talk of tribalism misses a crucial point. Diversity, when combined with equality, makes us stronger.