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Tribalism Is Not the Problem

Tribes do not behave as moronically as described, and the problem with American politics has more to do with modernity

The latest meme from the Davos elite set is that America is afflicted with "tribalism." (Photo: KissClipArt)

The latest meme from the Davos elite set is that America is afflicted with "tribalism." We're splitting up into two irreconcilable tribes, so the argument goes, and politics is becoming more and more an all-out war to the death. People like Yale Law professor Amy ChuaSen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Brookings Institution fellow Shadi Hamid, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and many others have sounded the tribalism alarm.

The suggestion is that tribes are groups with a zealous, irrational attachment to their own group, and thus forever fight other groups for no reason. "When politics becomes a perpetual tribal war, ends justify almost any means and individuals are absolved from the constraints of normal decency," writes George Packer in The New Yorker.

This is garbage history and garbage analysis. Tribes do not behave as moronically as described, and the problem with American politics has more to do with modernity than Americans reverting to some imagined atavistic state.

For starters, what alarmists mean by the word "tribe" is unclear at best. Are we talking hunter-gatherers bands, which tended to be smaller, more peaceful, and more egalitarian? Or (bracketing enormous variation) are we talking chieftain-style groups, which tend to be larger, more hierarchical, and more aggressive?

The meaning appears to be just a vague notion of primitive societies and contains a giant whiff of cultural chauvinism. It suggests, as Packer writes in his article, a "primal" history—connoting a past when humans were more irrational, less intelligent, and more violent. Sometimes the subtext is extremely blatant: What "tribes" do in Africa, writes Daniel Emmons, is massacre each other for no reason, over and over. (You would not be surprised to learn that examples from recent history have a lot to do with European colonialism.)

Read the full article here.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.

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