Like I was sayin’ … just when I was wondering whether to continue this series urging thinking about tribes and tribalism systematically, not just as a synonym, or move on to something else, along comes this incisive sweeping article by Andrew Sullivan, “Can Our Democracy Survive Tribalism” (2017), that illuminates both the bright and dark sides of the tribal form while recognizing its essential nature. One of the best readings yet in this series — at least that’s my view today. Also worthy are review articles it has stirred up, especially Michael Gershon’s (as I’ve posted in the comments section).
I’m too slow right now to provide a substantial write-up, but here’s an excerpt that will, I hope, spur you to read the full article:
“I mean a new and compounding combination of all these differences into two coherent tribes, eerily balanced in political power, fighting not just to advance their own side but to provoke, condemn, and defeat the other.
“I mean two tribes whose mutual incomprehension and loathing can drown out their love of country, each of whom scans current events almost entirely to see if they advance not so much their country’s interests but their own. I mean two tribes where one contains most racial minorities and the other is disproportionately white; where one tribe lives on the coasts and in the cities and the other is scattered across a rural and exurban expanse; where one tribe holds on to traditional faith and the other is increasingly contemptuous of religion altogether; where one is viscerally nationalist and the other’s outlook is increasingly global; where each dominates a major political party; and, most dangerously, where both are growing in intensity as they move further apart.
“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. 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. It failed once, spectacularly, in the most brutal civil war any Western democracy has experienced in modern times. And here we are, in an equally tribal era, with a deeply divisive president who is suddenly scrambling Washington’s political alignments, about to find out if we can prevent it from failing again. …
“Tribalism, it’s always worth remembering, is not one aspect of human experience. It’s the default human experience. It comes more naturally to us than any other way of life.”
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Sullivan's article stirred up lots of commentary.
Here’s Michael Gerson’s up-beat review, “Tribalism triumphs in America”(2017:
Here’s a down-beat review by Isaac Chotiner, “Andrew Sullivan’s simplistic diagnosis— and unrealistic cure—for what ails us” (2017):
[I posted an earlier write-up of this post on my Facebook page, on Sept 20.]