Tribalism: Good, Bad, Ugly?

By Robert Bernstein   |   June 18, 2024

I recently had lunch with a former coworker friend. He doesn’t like talking politics, but I had to know if he was still a Republican after Trump. He agreed with most of my positions on most issues. And he agreed that Trump was not a good president. But he could not ever imagine voting for Biden.

Soon after, I had lunch with another friend who had also worked with us. She had a simple explanation that we hear often now: Pure tribalism.

In many countries the politics have always been tribal. In my wife’s homeland, people vote for the president who supports their part of the country for development. They don’t have the equivalent of the issues like taxes and abortion that traditionally divide Americans.

But in 2020 the Republican Party platform was to have no platform at all. Instead of being the party of a strong military and reduced government spending (yes, a contradiction), they were just the party of whatever Trump says. Which meant that no amount of arguing over substantive issues could sway a devoted Republican from their tribe.

The same political tribalism occurred with Reagan. Polls showed overwhelming opposition to his policies of torture and murder in Central America. His anti-Choice policy. His nuclear brinkmanship with the USSR. His dismantling of sustainable energy programs. But they voted for him anyway.

But is tribalism always bad? How do you decide how to vote? Most elections have many seats to be filled and many propositions to vote on. Most of us seek out the opinions of trusted friends. Or the endorsements of trusted organizations. Or we vote with our political party tribe. Have you ever considered voting outside your tribe?

Our family moved to Maryland when I was in elementary school. If you were liberal, you had to vote for (later disgraced) Republican Spiro Agnew for governor. Because the Democratic candidate George Mahoney was a segregationist. There are essentially no liberal Republicans left now, but at least I know what it was like to vote outside your tribe.

Americans often claim they are “independent” thinkers and voters. But what does that mean? You have to have some principles. Where do those come from?

As I noted in my recent “Protest What?” article, there is a vast universe of issues to care about. How do we decide which ones are important?

Even the smartest person thinking alone may not be as smart as a group of moderately intelligent people pooling their thoughts. That’s why science has peer review. Even the smartest person can miss a flaw in reasoning or may miss a vital fact that others may catch or know about.

The problem is not necessarily being in a tribe. It is more about picking a tribe with smart people who are open to new information. A tribe that shares your best values. And you should be willing to check out what other tribes are thinking and doing. You might learn something from them. If you are not willing to do that, how can you expect others to be open to your tribe?

Here’s another way tribalism can be good: Native American tribes do not seek to convert people to their tribe. The same holds for certain religions. Jews do not try to convert people to their religion any more than Navajos try to convert Cherokees to join their tribe.

Some religions have it as their core mission never to rest until every person is converted to their religion. I would claim that is more dangerous than people happily living in their own tribe.

One more point about religions as tribes: Do we believe the theology of our tribe? Do American Muslims think thieves should have their hands cut off? Or is it more about familiar rituals, foods and celebrations? Writer Eliot Schrefer said, “Traditions are just peer pressure from dead people.”

I still feel connected to my ancestral Jewish tribe, but reject almost all its theology. I found a new tribe, the Humanist Society, which actually shares my values and beliefs. Perhaps you want to find a better tribe that fits your actual values and beliefs?  


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