Tribalism is not the problem
As a diagnosis for what's ailing American politics, it is badly misleading and more than a little offensive
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 Chua, Sen. 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.)
Of course, modern societies are more complicated and much, much larger than tribal ones, with much more sophisticated technology. But that does not mean modern humans are more intelligent, rational, or capable. Indeed, a general comparison of ability between the two groups is not likely to come out favorably for modern humans. Without our technology, we modern humans are basically helpless: slow, out of shape, physically weaker and more delicate, and most importantly, comprehensively ignorant about basic survival skills. A few enthusiasts aside, how many people today could splint a broken bone, build a bow and arrow from scratch, start a fire without matches, track a deer without being smelled, find fresh water under sand, know on sight which local plants are good and which are poisonous, or draw a map from memory?
And even our technology is the result of a division of labor so fine-grained that even people who play key roles in it are usually incapable of doing the job of the person working right next to them, let alone understanding the gigantic whole. Not even a smartphone engineer can actually build a smartphone by herself, let alone your average schlub, for whom such a device is basically magical.
Now, one should not romanticize the past. It is true that tribal societies can be quite violent, and get in tit-for-tat blood feuds that go on for years. But that isn't about tribes as such, it's just how the inescapable political problem of managing conflict sometimes manifests itself in a tribal context. Without some method of adjudicating disputes, it's possible for retributive cycles to go on indefinitely.
Modern societies have struggled with the exact same problem. In recent history the way conflict was "resolved" was through increasingly deadly and organized warfare, until the murder technology got so effective that great power wars became all but unthinkable. That development has cut back on that kind of conflict, but at the risk that if there ever is another one of them, most human life might be snuffed out in a matter of hours.
One sometimes sees a recognizably tribal-style conflict problem in modern states which for some reason have no way to provide neutral adjudication of conflict (such as neighborhoods where the police don't bother to investigate murders) and thus cannot establish a monopoly of violence. But while American society is increasingly bifurcated between right and left, and is struggling to handle the conflict between the two, this is manifestly not a tribal sort of problem — it is thoroughly modern.
Whereas a tribal feud is the product of a perfectly rational (in game theory terms, at least) desire to inflict revenge for a family member being injured or killed, roughly four-fifths of American political conflict is about crack-brained conspiracy theories and postmodern cultural grievances. Conservative Republicans are unquestionably the major culprits when it comes to stoking partisan conflict, and the engine of that process is a sophisticated cultural war propaganda apparatus, enabled by cutting-edge communication technology, designed to alternately fleece elderly conservatives and to obscure the fact that the Republican elite only writes legislation for the top 1 percent. If Republican base voters can't be given universal health care or wage increases (or anything else concrete), they at least can be whipped into a frenzy over Colin Kaepernick and "safe spaces" on college campuses.
This kind of politics — laying facedown in a dumpster to own the libs, for instance — would be perfectly incomprehensible and probably not a little alarming to your average tribal shaman. "There is something deeply wrong with these people," he might think, and he would be right. Nevertheless, that is our world.
Pretending we're suffering some kind of social regress to a bestial pre-modern state is not only offensive, but misdiagnoses the problem. Our problems must be confronted on their own terms.