I started this series of readings largely because I’d found, in reactions to my TIMN writings, that people generally do not cotton to language about tribes, tribalism, or tribalization. It doesn’t fit well in American political discourse; nor among social theorists.
Yet, “tribes” remains the best term available for characterizing the oldest form of organization in the TIMN framework about past, present, and future social evolution. Indeed, the tribal form is still what people revert to, when the more advanced TIMN forms fail them. With this series of readings, I have tried to show I am not alone in my thinking about the significance of the T/tribal form.
So it’s most interesting to learn that Atlantic magazine writer James Fallows encountered a similar difficulty using the word “tribal” to describe recent Republican behavior. What ensued resembles what I’ve experienced.
Here’s what happened: Fallows posted “that today’s GOP leaders, notably Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Paul Ryan in the House, had essentially abdicated their constitutional responsibilities and were behaving in a “tribal” sense” — and readers promptly criticized him for using the word “tribal”. Then, instead of letting it pass, Fallows went on to post a series of Notes about his readers’ emailed reactions — about the pros and cons, and rights and wrongs, of using “tribal”, “tribes”, and “tribalism” in today’s American political context, and about what might be more advisable terms.
In the initial offending post, Fallows had criticized Congress’s retreat from established norms, notably the traditional reliance on checks and balances, as follows:
“The boring name for these unwritten rules is “norms.” Boring or not, they’re at the center of the potential crisis over Donald Trump’s performance in office. By the letter of the Constitution, and by the unwritten norms of American separation-of-powers governance, the main restraint on an overreaching, dishonest, or incompetent executive is a resolute legislative branch. But today’s legislative leaders—Mitch McConnell and his slim Republican majority in the Senate, Paul Ryan and his large Republican majority in the House—are ostentatiously refusing to play that check-and-balance function. They are operating as members of a tribe, the Republican tribe, rather than as components of a branch, the checks-and-balances legislative branch. …
“Because the legislative majority is choosing a tribal rather than a governing role, the checks and balances necessary for democracy have fallen to an ad-hoc group of others [generals, judges, the press, the prosecutor].”Fallows’ subsequent posts presented feedback from a wide variety of readers. Most were quite critical and suggested other terms: e.g., clan, club, faction, sect, clique, cabal, gang, partisan, pack, team, kin-group, affinity group, my kind, even Japanese counter-part terms, and most unusual and unexpected of all, Paretoism. They also brought up in-group vs. out-group and we vs. they dynamics, as well as herd mentality, group think, identitarianism, and even the Parsonian distinction between ascribed and achieved identities.
Quite a pile of suggestions. I’ve run into most of them too. Yet, as his series has progressed, more readers (myself included) recommended he stay with “tribe” words.
Along the way, Fallows extolled two books that bear on his take: Harold Isaacs’ Idols of the Tribe, and Andrew Bard Schmookler’s The Parable of the Tribes. First I’ve heard of Isaacs’ book. Schmookler’s I already have.
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Meanwhile, I sent the following email to Fallows, summing up my view (but he didn’t use it):
Yes, “tribes” is the best term for what you are analyzing. Its usage has problems, including that anthropologists have long disparaged the concept and Americans generally don’t cotton to the term. I know this from experience as a RAND researcher, now retired, who continues to have an interest in reading and writing about theories of social evolution.- - - - - - -
What I’ve found is that, over the ages, people have come up with four cardinal forms of organization for constructing their societies: tribes (i.e. kinships), hierarchical institutions, markets, and information-age networks. Each form has different purposes and uses, along with different philosophical and strategic implications. Each form also has both bright and dark sides, and can be used for good or ill; societies can get them wrong as well as right, in ways that affect their usage of the other forms.
For various reasons, these forms have arisen and matured at different rates — tribes took shape first, hierarchical institutions were next, then markets, and now networks are on the rise. Societies progress according to their abilities to add and combine these forms (and their resulting sectors of activity). How people manage to use and combine the forms, their bright and dark sides, pretty much determines what kind of society they end up with. Advanced societies depend on their people’s abilities to use all four forms in a coherent, well-balanced, well-functioning whole.
Thus, when matters go well, societies advance by adopting and using these forms progressively and properly. But when matters do not go well — for example, if leaders make a mess of the institutional (i.e., government) and market forms, or if people cannot find places for themselves in the institutional, market, or emerging network sectors — then people revert to organizing and behaving in terms of the tribal form, often in dark ways. That’s what’s happening now here in America.
No society can do well without the tribal form evolving well. Its main dynamic is kinship, which gives people a distinct sense of identity and belonging. It is initially expressed best in families, clans, and classic tribes; later in community spirit, civic clubs, and patriotic nationalism; as well as in positive group identities about religion, ideology, ethnicity, and even regarding sports teams and commercial brands. Thus, tribes and tribalism per se are not a bad thing; some is good and necessary.
But dark sides — malignant tribalism — may show up too, as in urban youth gangs, criminal gangs, sectarian militias, partisan cliques, millenarian movements, charismatic cults, etc. Most worrisome now is the tribalization of our partisan politics, especially on the Republican/conservative side.
For when people turn darkly tribal, they exhibit similar patterns of thought and action, no matter their religious, political, or other identity: They boldly tout their unique identity. They exalt “us” and demonize “them. They express sensitive narratives about respect, honor, pride, and dignity for themselves — but call for revenge and retribution for transgressors. All very ugly, and often violent.
Even though the term “tribes” is problematic, I’ve found no better term. Terms such as kinships or kindreds might be alternatives, but aren’t quite adequate either. Clans is too narrow. Bands, gangs, and the like are too small to qualify. Affinity groups is too academic.
So I’d stick with “tribes” — it’s the first and forever form that no society can do without, for better or worse.
Here’s the first in Fallows’ series, the post that triggered reaction to his using the word “tribal”: “Congress: The Broken Check and Balance”
https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/10/republicans-in-congress-youve-got-another-chance/544466/Here’s the second post, where reader feedback kicks in: “On the Many Connotations of ‘Tribalism’”
https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2017/10/on-the-many-connotations-of-tribalism/544535/Here’s the third: “‘The Parable of the Tribes’”
https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2017/11/the-parable-of-the-tribes/544610/Here’s the fourth in his series: “‘Scorn for Tribalism Is an American Tradition’”
https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2017/11/scorn-for-tribalism-is-an-american-tradition/544616/And the fifth: “The Uses of 'Tribalism' in American Politics” or “A Nation of Tribes, and Members of the Tribe”
https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2017/11/a-nation-of-tribes-and-members-of-the-tribe/544907/Finally, the sixth, which appears to be the last in Fallows’ series: “Tribalism, Before and After the Virginia Vote”
[I posted an earlier write-up of this post on my Facebook page, during Nov 3-9]