Foreign Policy Magazine

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

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