This article by David Roberts, “Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology” (2017), is one of the better analyses I've seen about how tribalized minds work and how this is affecting American politics and journalism. In various regards, it’s a biased article — but it’s also an article that provides many insightful valid points about the nature and severity of the tribalism growing in our country.
Roberts opens with a rant by Rush Limbaugh that sets the stage for Roberts to propose his key concept: tribal epistemology:
“He [Limbaugh] and his listeners, he said, live in a world apart:
“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’ concern is primarily with tribalism on the Right, not the Left. And he associates it with views on the Right that America’s institutions have become “irredeemably corrupted”, mostly by the Left, such that the Right’s only recourse now is “zero-sum competition between tribes, the left and right”:
“This is not just run-of-the-mill ranting. It expresses something profound about the worldview of conservative media and its audience, something the mainstream media has ignored, denied, or waved away for many years.
“In Limbaugh’s view, the core institutions and norms of American democracy have been irredeemably corrupted by an alien enemy. Their claims to transpartisan authority — authority that applies equally to all political factions and parties — are fraudulent. There are no transpartisan authorities; there is only zero-sum competition between tribes, the left and right. Two universes.
“One obvious implication of this view is that only one’s own tribe can be trusted. (Who wants to trust a “universe of lies”?)
Roberts then fields his concept of “tribal epistemology” — he also refers later to “epistemic tribalism” resulting in “epistemic closure”. Far as I can tell these scholarly-sounding wordings simply mean the tribal mindset or mentality, the tribalized way of thinking. And Roberts warns that it has now “has found its way to the White House”:
“Over time, this leads to what you might call tribal epistemology: Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one.
“Now tribal epistemology has found its way to the White House.”
I hoped for a fuller definition and elaboration of his concept. But Roberts focuses mostly on criticizing how “The US political media underestimated Trump’s potential”. He locates his explanation in the media’s “longstanding refusal to grapple with the deepening asymmetry in American politics — the rejection, by a large swath of the right, of the core institutions and norms that shape US public life.”
A key factor behind all this is “the big sort” prompted by global as well as national trends: Accordingly, “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.”” Indeed, Roberts accepts the views that “globalization has effectively split the US into two countries”, and that “Sorting has been both a driver and a consequence of the extraordinary polarization of US public life over the past several decades.”
In keeping with his emphasis on the Right, he finds that “From Reagan forward, the US has become much more politically polarized, but the polarization has not been symmetrical — the right has become far more extreme than the left.” This difference in degree has arisen partly because “Over time, the right’s base — unlike the left’s fractious and heterogeneous coalition of interest groups — has become increasingly homogeneous (mostly white, non-urban, and Christian) and like-minded (traditionalist, zero-sum values).” Moreover, anxious believers on the Right have been subjected to “a steady diet of radicalizing media and tribal epistemology,” such that “their traditionalism has hardened into tribalism.”
Returning to his opening theme, Roberts emphasizes that “the source of this information polarization is the American conservative movement’s decades-long battle against institutions that it has deemed irredeemably liberal.” Indeed, the Right has become so untrusting and hostile toward conventional politics that “the right sees the game itself, its institutions and norms, as the enemy.” The Right has worked (the Left too) so that “The information available to lawmakers was tribalized.” It wants lawmakers to have only “tribal information, and it wants “a base that only trusts tribal news from tribal sources.”
In the end, Roberts offers little hope for alleviating these trends toward tribalism that are so damaging to journalism’s health. In his view, “training media consumers to be more discerning” — fixing media’s demand side — won’t work. What’s needed must come from the supply side: assuring “the values and integrity of individual journalists and outlets”, and upholding America’s “norms and institutions”. Otherwise, “The alternative is further epistemic tribalism and attendant illiberalism”, even “epistemic chaos”. Trumps behavior as “America’s aspiring autocrat” compounds Roberts’ worries that “In the end, if tribal epistemology wins, journalism loses.”
To read Roberts’ article for yourself, go here:
[I posted an earlier write-up of this reading on my Facebook page, on March 23.]