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The Troubling Obsession With Political “Tribalism”

Lazy pundits are employing a racially loaded concept that does nothing to explain the deep divisions in America.

Stephanie Keith/Getty

Since Donald Trump’s election, political commentators have bemoaned how polarized American politics has become—how angry, how uncivil, how tribal. A few years ago, NYU business professor Jonathan Haidt began seeing a sort of hardwired clannishness in college students. “A funny thing happens when you take young human beings … and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions,” he said. “You turn on their ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle.” Yale law professor Amy Chua has gone even further, seeing tribalism as not just a generational affliction, but the cause of all our current political problems, from Donald Trump to Brexit.

The racial undercurrent in these views should by now be exhaustingly obvious. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall gave the word “tribe” its legal definition in 1831: A native tribe is a “domestic dependent nation” under the power of the United States. As the Native American scholar Joanne Barker has written, Marshall’s definition is inextricable from “backwardness”: Tribes are the unruly, violent social groups that preceded American civilization, and were rightfully subdued by it. In an African context, the notion of the “tribe” also reeks of conquest and xenophobia. As the Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has written: Thirty million Yoruba are a tribe, disorganized and crude, but four million Danes are a nation.

This matters because critiques of “tribalism” in American politics are rife with talk of degeneration. Chua sees it as common trait in “non-Western” countries. “Tribal” loyalties are redolent of “developing” societies and prehistoric brain chemistry. In his commentary on Haidt’s work, the New York Times pundit David Brooks argued that “we’ve regressed from a sophisticated moral ethos to a primitive one.”

This isn’t new, but it is misleading. In a political moment like ours, when old assumptions are challenged, critics often cast about for pseudoscientific explanations or easily digestible morality tales. What they really want is a return to the past—a golden age of political comity before party rivalries intensified. In the 1990s, voters not only began to identify more exclusively with one party, but also became more hostile to the other, an instinct often compared to sports fandom: If you love the Orioles, you hate the Yankees, regardless of who wears the pinstripes. But while there may not be substantive reasons to hate Aaron Judge, there are decent reasons to loathe, say, whoever is running the EPA right now. “When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism,” Chua wrote. But what if you really are threatened? It’s easier to dismiss intense political loyalties as irrational “feelings” than to probe what actually motivates a person to vote for Donald Trump, or to defend Bernie Sanders.

For political writers like Chua, tribalism is a way of talking about political differences without inquiring too deeply into either their content or their causes. It’s difficult to distinguish the legitimate grievances of those who voted for Brexit from lazy xenophobia, but to understand what motivates those people, we have to try. Attributing conflicts to “tribalism” allows writers to appear objective, but it also makes it easy to sidestep questions of facts and history and treat everything as an unsolvable matter of interpretation.

Except in my case, of course. Anyone who questions anything in this column is guilty of the worst sort of tribalism.