In a new essay, New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan discusses tribalism – and how America was designed to overcome this all-too-human trait and tendency.
“From time to time, I’ve wondered what it must be like to live in a truly tribal society,” Sullivan writes. “Watching Iraq or Syria these past few years, you get curious about how the collective mind can come so undone. What’s it like to see the contours of someone’s face, or hear his accent, or learn the town he’s from, and almost reflexively know that he is your foe?”
Sullivan points to examples of tribalism in the modern world - Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Lebanon. These examples seem shocking to us, but they shouldn’t.
“Tribalism, it’s always worth remembering, is not one aspect of human experience,” Sullivan writes. “It’s the default human experience. It comes more naturally to us than any other way of life. For the overwhelming majority of our time on this planet, the tribe was the only form of human society. We lived for tens of thousands of years in compact, largely egalitarian groups of around 50 people or more, connected to each other by genetics and language, usually unwritten.”
The American experiment has been an attempt to overcome this natural tendency.
“The project of American democracy - to live beyond such tribal identities, to construct a society based on the individual, to see ourselves as citizens of a people’s republic, to place religion off-limits, and even in recent years to embrace a multiracial and post-religious society - was always an extremely precarious endeavor,” he writes. “It rested, from the beginning, on an 18th-century hope that deep divides can be bridged by a culture of compromise, and that emotion can be defeated by reason.”
Sullivan says that experiment failed during the Civil War, and is in danger of failing again. He may be overstating the case; as he acknowledges himself, political violence has been far worse at times in our nation’s past.
But he has a point; we are seeing tribalization on the rise, particularly in politics.
“The myths that helped us unite as a nation began to fray,” Sullivan writes. “Even the national anthem now divides those who stand from those who kneel. We dismantled many of our myths, but have not yet formed new ones to replace them.”
Now, Sullivan is a liberal, and spends far too much time blaming conservatives for the increase in tribalism. For every example he gives, such as talk radio and Fox News, there’s a counter-example waiting to be mentioned.
Still, his point is valid. America was designed to overcome our natural tribalism. The Founders didn’t want us to think of ourselves in terms of race or caste.
But we have drifted from that vision. In unsettled times, we have looked again to our tribes for comfort and validation.
There’s a cure for this. It starts, as Sullivan writes, with thinking about how we think about ourselves. We are more than just the sum of our ethnic and physical traits.
We aren’t just members of a tribe. We’re Americans.