Here’s an unusual article that disparages the ruckus about reversions to tribalism in America. Princeton anthropology professor Lawrence Rosen’s “A Liberal Defense of Tribalism: There’s nothing wrong with political tribes that can’t be fixed by what’s right with them” (Jan 2018) argues that too many commentators — he cites Thomas Friedman, Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, and Barack Obama — “misunderstand the nature of tribes.” Rosen’s point is that “rather than simply being the cause of our political problems, tribalism can also contribute to the solution.”
Good point to make in a major journal. But I am ambivalent about his analysis. On the one hand, I wish I could publish an article like this, for its key point is one I keep trying to make: the tribal form has both bright and dark sides — tribalism can bind as well as splinter, it can be centripetal as well as centrifugal. On the other hand, the more I look at Rosen’s argument, the more I think it is inaccurate and unbalanced. I’ll clarify this in my bulleted closing remarks.
When I started this series of readings, tribalism and other T-words were mostly used as mere synonyms for polarization, divisiveness, etc. By now, the usage of T-words has become much more systematic. Various writers I’ve included in this series — notably David Brooks, Jonathan Haidt, and Andrew Sullivan, not to mention others — clearly realize that, despite the concern about Americans reverting to the tribal form, it is a distinct form of organization that has both bright and dark sides, and that its bright sides (family, community, etc.) are essential for the proper functioning of society. That’s a fundament of TIMN theory — I’ve said so repeatedly, even as I (and they) have worried and warned about malign reversions to the tribal form.
Rosen knows that the tribal form has a mixed nature — it’s the basis of his argument — but he’s intent on registering just his disapproval of the negative analyses of political tribalism in America. He makes that clear up front:
“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. …
“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.”He briefly agrees that American politics has “become more tribal”, as political groups are “increasingly based on single aspects of common identity with unambiguous boundaries.” He also acknowledges “the partisan tribes of our present politics” and their “pugnaciousness.” Yet he objects that too many commentators view tribes “as primitive, violent, and insular”, as atavistic, primordial, and pre-modern (his words, not mine), and thus as regressive — “a reversion to some natural and ancestral mode of thinking”.
According to Rosen, recent “armchair anthropological analysis”, instead of treating the tribal form scientifically, has turned tribalism into a metaphor, a caricature fraught with pejorative fatalistic implications. And this, he says, is making our politics exceedingly “exclusionary” and “more adversarial than necessary”. It is motivating people to create “hardened barriers” and “seal themselves off from one another.” In other words,
“ … Use of the word “tribe” in reference to political groups may seem an innocuous surrogate for truculence and exclusivity. But it is ultimately distorting. When we call our politics “tribal,” we project a sense of confinement and premonitory violence and indulge an image of humankind as instinctively hostile to outsiders.”Scattered throughout his article, Rosen identifies what is often positive about the behavior of “actual tribes”. Drawing on instances from American and Middle East history, he shows that traditional tribes can be adaptable, not so rigid as commentators presume. Many tribes have “porous boundaries” and “frequently adopt outsiders”; some even intermarry. They value “reciprocity” and “mutual obligation”, including toward outsiders. They are not authoritarian; they prefer to disperse power, at times by appointing “multiple chiefs” for different tasks and by convening “tribal councils”. Indeed, many tribes have developed methods we’d be wise to emulate for “easing our ever-increasing social tensions”. These methods include avoiding “claims of moral superiority”, “reaching across boundary lines,” “fashioning crosscutting ties that mollify entrenched positions”, and creating “interlocking associations”. All this, says Rosen, can “serve as a bulwark against the factionalism of family, clan, and other subdivisions.”
As practical implications of his view, Rosen specifies a few “tribal-inspired political and social reforms Americans should consider.” State governments should “consider an increase in the number of seats in their legislatures.” They should “alleviate the incentives to pursue gerrymandering”. They should “consider increasing the proportion of votes needed to pass certain kinds of laws”.
For his closing exhortation, Rosen reiterates that
“Now would be a good time to embrace such a vision and to abandon our image of tribal politics as something we would choose to eradicate if we weren’t condemned to it by fate. Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with tribalism that can’t be fixed by what is right with it.”Again, I say, many good points. Rosen’s article is a stimulating addition to the mix — a partial corrective to unbalanced claims of excessive tribalism. But from my TIMN perspective, Rosen has written up an overreaction that is itself unbalanced, even misleading.
• It’s a fact that American politics has turned more tribal, malignantly so. He acknowledges this, but only fleetingly, presumably so he can focus on his main theme: how commentators have misunderstood tribalism, viewing it only darkly. Well, not so fast.
• As I’ve observed before, Americans don’t cotton to the T-words (tribe, tribal, tribalism). As American politics became more partisan, divisive, and polarized, starting a decade or two ago, the T-words were used mostly as synonyms for those other words. Yet, in the past few years more commentators have begun using the T-words in a systematic way, recognizing the distinctive nature of the tribal form. This constitutes an advance in public policy dialogue.
• Yes, many commentators have dwelled only on the dark sides, and yes the T-words are often deployed pejoratively. Yet our most analytical commentators do not fit Rosen’s harsh portrayal. The few mentioned up front — Brooks, Haidt, Sullivan — have indeed criticized the increasing tribalization of America and its malign effects. Yet they have also noted lots of ways in which the tribal form has beneficial bright sides. They are having difficulty identifying how to diminish the dark sides and reinvigorate the bright sides, but they’re not unaware.
• Rosen decries commentary about American politics reverting to tribalism, making the tribal form look bad. But from an evolutionary perspective, a reversion is in fact occurring — in TIMN terms, it’s from politicians who long believed in the institutional form and behaved in civil pro-institutional ways, to politicians who increasingly forsake institutional ways and prefer to act in tribalized ways. Thus it isn’t just commentators who’ve opted for tribal explanations; it’s our politicians as well, starting years before the commentators. Rosen’s focus on commentators neglects this.
• I’d add that what’s making tribalism so problematic isn’t only the reversion noted above, but also a displacement —a second reversion? — that’s gone largely unnoted. It’s a decades-long displacement of the bright sides of the tribal form by its dark sides. All the remedies Rosen calls for are from the bright sides of the tribal form; he’s right about trying to emulate them. What should be noticed, and he doesn’t, is that all the ones he mentions — e.g., avoiding claims of moral superiority, reaching across boundary lines, fashioning crosscutting ties that mollify entrenched positions, and creating interlocking associations — were traditional normal practices in American politics last century, back when the tribal form was working reasonably well and properly undergirding our institutions. Rosen advocates this replacement without recognizing, much less explaining, this earlier displacement and the slow decay in American society at TIMN’s tribal level that help explain it (see writings by Robert Putnam and Charles Murray). That’s another reason why I think his article is somewhat straw-man and circular.
To read for yourself, go here: