Tribalism" has been used before as shorthand for a closed society, intolerant of others and their views. It's even been applied to corporations. But only recently has it become a more elaborate idea applied to politics, even as it has seemingly become the fashionable replacement for the previous lazy buzzword, "polarization."
The brief evolution of this trope is interesting, for things mutate fast in cyberspace. The latest round probably started with Lee Drutman at Vox about hyperpartisanship in today's politics, positing two mutually exclusive positions held by two mutually exclusive segments of the electorate, each informed by contrary and rigid ideologies, and by closed information loops to the point that anything said by the other side is automatically dismissed as, at best, untrue.
Fine, not a lot new there, until this sentence: "But for years now, we’ve been retreating into our separate tribal epistemologies, each with their own increasingly incompatible set of facts and first premises." The term 'tribal epistemologies' was hot linked to a piece by David Roberts published in May called Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology, in which he quotes Rush Limbaugh:
"We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap."
Roberts goes on to say "It is well known that Americans have been sorting themselves into like-minded communities by race, class, and ideology, creating more in-group homogeneity and cultural “bubbles.”' That it's well known doesn't stop him from adding some social science research showing that Americans have been "sorting themselves" by personality as well as the usual other categories. All of this results in the US being split into "two increasingly polarized cultures" or even "two countries."
Drutman's piece adds more social science observations, such as "As political scientist Lilliana Mason convincingly argues, 'The more sorted we become, the more emotionally we react to normal political events.'”
The justifications for these generalities or categorizations aside, both pieces use the term "tribal epistemologies" without defining it or even ever again referring to the term.
However, the tribalism motif goes into high gear with Andrew Sullivan's long mid-September essay "America Wasn’t Built for Humans," with the explanatory subtitle: "Tribalism was an urge our Founding Fathers assumed we could overcome. And so it has become our greatest vulnerability."
This time Sullivan is explicit about what he means by tribalism, if mostly through examples:
"Tribal loyalties turned Beirut, Lebanon’s beautiful, cosmopolitan capital, into an urban wasteland in the 1970s; they caused close to a million deaths in a few months in Rwanda in the 1990s; they are turning Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, into an enabler of ethnic cleansing right now in Myanmar."
African Americans, brought forcibly to America as slaves, constitute a tribe, as do Mormons. Today the political tribes are called Democrats and Republicans, with distinct geographical distribution, socioeconomic status, educational attainment and so on, in addition to race.
Despite their differences (some of which Sullivan acknowledges), he calls all of these groups tribes. His contemporary analysis of America however does not include the one group that defines itself as living in tribes: Native Americans, American Indians (known by different names in Canada, Mexico and Central America.)
In my work with American Indian organizations I learned a number of things, the first of which is that non-Indians like me should never presume to speak for Indians, because they can speak for themselves. But my recollection as well as my educated guess is that the appropriation of the term "tribes" is generally offensive to them, as it does not comport with either their contemporary realities nor their history and traditions. Nor does it, in my view, with other surviving indigenous societies.
video The Psychology of Tribalism which in images as well as words takes the next step of linking political polarization to the history of tribes.
While the voice of an academic psychologist talks about the "normative value" of "following the crowd" fostered by tribal societies, the apparently contemporary video shows a group of girls in what appears to be Northwest Coast Native regalia, following each other to presumably participate in a ceremony or an exhibition of a traditional--that is, religious--dance.
This combination of words and images I am pretty certain is specifically offensive. This is the point where the distortions of a sloppy metaphor become ignorant and dismissive.
It is more than ironic that the only American societies with the name of tribes, legally recognized as such, largely do not fit the stereotypes of the tribe in these analyses. Moreover, the history and traditions of existing Indian tribes contravene many of these stereotypes.
Even historically, the basis of American democracy and of the union of the United States can both be found in prior American Indian concepts and practices. The tribal council was the first Congress on this continent. The Iroquois Confederacy was the first union.
Today's tribes are heterogeneous, and blood relationship is usually just one of the factors required for membership, and may not be considered at all. This pertains to small tribes (though some of them don't use the term), and the few large ones. But in other ways, size matters.
Anthropologists say that humans banded together in small groups--sometimes only a dozen or so--for hundreds of thousands of years before history began. This is the basis for the idea of tribes. Small groups were often isolated, and sometimes hostile to one another. But this was not always the case. In fact, mating or marriage within the group--even if it were possible, with a group so small--was often frowned upon, or forbidden. Marriages among tribes were important even when not necessary, as extending relationships helped keep the peace.
Tribal beliefs--including an origin story, ceremonies, etc.--might be different, but often they were similar among neighboring tribes. There was enmity and stereotyping and fear, but there was also exchange of knowledge and ideas as well as goods. Often there had to be, for survival. Kim Stanley Robinson's Ice Age novel Shaman captures this very well. There are also documented traditions among tribal groups (in Africa for instance) that required that one group help another that might be experiencing food shortages or drought, with the understanding that they were be aided in return when they were in similar straits.
How any of this applies to either Cheeseheads or 35% of the American electorate eludes me.
Moreover, these tribal traditions cannot be understood without the basis that none of these analyses consider. They are all about the relationship of these human societies to the natural world.
When Andrew Sullivan mentions Native American tribes, he quotes Junger as noting that in colonial times many whites joined Indian tribes (including captives who refused to return to white society) while the reverse did not voluntarily occur. Sullivan and Junger conclude that this was because of the strength of tribal bonds and relationships.
That they were embedded in the natural world, physically and spiritually, informed all the social and religious traditions of indigenous peoples in America and elsewhere in the world. That relationship is so essential to early humanity that no analysis of their social organization can be separated from it.
These are some of the reasons why American Indians might be sensitive about the appropriation of some distorted notion of tribe, not to mention specific expressions of what in many cases has been a hard won and nearly miraculous cultural revival.
So tribes reflect our primordial roots in small face-to-face groups. Then how can a tribe be comprised of millions of people who don't know each other? And if this is a tribal divide, why just two sides? If we were subdividing on this basis, wouldn't we have many tribes? The word starts to lose its meaning fast.
The application of the tribal model to this debate is questionable on other grounds, often due to the distortions of human societies caused by capitalism, as well as other factors such as urbanization and the dominance of the desert religions.
Capitalism as a social organizer means that a person's behavior and expressed beliefs are often determined by how they make their money. Entire societies depend on that context. A lot of our current division may as well--as income inequality becomes extreme.
The 1950s, as analyzed in the early 1960s, were characterized by what at the time was called conformity, and it was a force across American society. There was one way to think and behave, modified by other factors such as ethnic groups and class. The operative metaphor was the assembly line.
It was a worldwide phenomenon, the generation gap, and though the hippies were drawn to Native traditions and emulated aspects of tribes, the dividing line was between a portion of the Baby Boom generation and the majority of their parents' generation. The lockstep conformity was broken. And now that's apparently considered a bad thing, because it led to "tribalism."
Certainly there are merits to the analysis that sees strong political divergence according to cultural differences rooted in geography and history (the South, as the most vivid example) and socioeconomics. These differences are abetted by a breakdown in common sources and standards of information , fostered by a number of factors, most prominent among them being new information sources made possible and accessible by the Internet and related hardware, but also by partisan political opportunists and what must be a really shitty educational system.
They might have different beliefs about why things happen or what to do about them. (And the reasons thing happened did not, as Sullivan asserts, always depend on gods, especially not in our cut-off-from-nature sense of the term.) But their constant dependence on the realities of the natural world meant that its facts could not be ignored. Close observation and accurate memory over generations were crucial. In this sense, what we need is precisely a lot more tribal thinking.
There have been other objections made to Sullivan's essay. I've previously noted my agreement with Jonathan Chiat's point disputing the equivalence given to the two sides' contentions in the Drutman piece. People from the left are fully capable of asserting and believing stuff that isn't true, but by and large, it is the folks from the right that do not respect facts and the process of ascertaining facts. Some people are capable of being persuaded they are wrong, based on the application of scientific, scholarly and journalistic standards as well as logic and debate, and some people are not.
You have to accept the absurd right wing notion of a complete conspiracy not only of people but of process to make this equivalence. Similarly you have to bend the concepts of tolerance and intolerance a long way to the right to make that equivalence. A sense of security and belonging of course pertain to the tenacious hold on views by both sides, but probably a lot more strongly on the right, which may have to do with the common fear and sense of threat implied by exclusionary beliefs (racism, misogyny etc.) and the particulars of a common and absolutist set of religious tenets.
Everyone makes assumptions and can be blind to them, although some can learn from having them pointed out. The difference finally is between those who are dogmatic (or entirely opportunistic) and those who are not. Dogmatism is not an intrinsic quality of tribes or tribal knowledge. Nor is shameless opportunism. The metaphor fails.