A growing present danger, a time of dark intent, is creeping steadily toward us in world politics.
A long era of mostly right-vs.-left ideological conflict is giving way to a new era — a new age of tribalism on a global scale.
Stepping back, looking at history, it’s clear that it was the industrial revolution that manufactured the familiar ideological politics of right and left. For 250 years, the great divisive controversy has been over the role of the state vis-à-vis capitalist economic production. A compromise was reached after the late-20th-century collapse of communism — it consisted of a free-market welfare state featuring expansive public services and some redistribution of wealth, while imposing regulation on the excesses brought about by the competitive pursuit of self-interested profit.
But now we have moved beyond the industrial age into the postindustrial age under conditions of globalization. It is not surprising that our politics are changing in fundamental ways.
People everywhere are moving up Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs.” Around the world, people increasingly take basic material sufficiency for granted. They therefore seek more of the self-actualizing goals of life. This leads to the “politics of identity” and so to a new tribalism in the affairs of nations.
For most of history, humanity has structured itself into tribes, whose members mistrust “others,” are parochial in their values and place little value on cosmopolitan sophistication in thinking.
Where tribalism prevails, goodwill and innovative ideas are scarce.
Of course, ideology, no less than tribalism, can lead to intolerance, violence and extreme, wrongheaded thinking. In fact, the trouble when ideologies become fundamentalist is that they take on the vindictive character of tribalisms.
But ideology and tribalism have different ways of contributing to our communal difficulties. Ideology works on our heads, tribalism on our emotions. Individually, we can choose an ideology; we are mostly born into tribes and absorb their values and identities as immutable.
Ideologies demand more from our intellect. They stand or fall on the persuasiveness of their ideas; they function as pseudo-sciences. They work at the level of the individual conscience, over which each of us has at least some intentional control. Ideologies are open to analysis and argument. Points of agreement or compromise can be found between them and among them.
Tribalism is more invidious as a source of division and unrelenting conflict. It encourages us to divide the entire world into “them” and “us.” It does not encourage us to broaden our understanding or bring the thinking of others into our own minds. It makes us conventional and defensive. It promotes security over creativity. It fosters arrogance and jealousy about the privileges to be enjoyed by our “own kind.”
But is tribalism truly on the march around the world? Behold:
In the May election in the United Kingdom, Scottish tribalism wiped out traditional Labor Party support in Scotland and drove English voters to their own offsetting tribal response, with which they swept in a majority government of the Conservative party that embodies traditional English values and national pride.
Tribal pressure to protect Britain from foreign influence has forced Tory leader David Cameron to pledge a referendum on U.K. membership in the European Union.
Thus, a political struggle is now on over the core identity of Britain, once the most cosmopolitan of nations. How far into tribalism will it retreat?
In France, the National Front is a tribal party and is doing well. In Spain, Catalans want their own state. Belgium is effectively a weak union of two tribes — Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons — living north or south of a cosmopolitan metropolis, Brussels.
The Greek antagonism to German demands for prudence in government borrowing and spending, which has been threatening financial stability for all of Europe, is rooted in Greek identity resentments and politics.
Vladimir Putin’s governance of Russia is forcefully conjuring up the passionate tribalism of the Rus people, with aspirations of populating the “Third Rome” that will save humanity for what is right and true.
In China, Xi Jinping’s “Great China Dream” is reviving Han chauvinism, under which China is, once again, to be “the Middle Kingdom” directly under heaven, privileged to be morally and culturally superior to all other peoples and nations.
China’s assertion of tribal claims to hegemony over Asia — including Tibet and the East and South China seas — is driving the Japanese to more militant assertion of their national identity and prerogatives.
North Korea is a tribal fiefdom under one family’s rule. Its goal is acquisition of advanced military power in order to impose its will and so preserve its autonomy.
The conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in the Middle East has deep tribal dynamics. Each branch of Islam functions as a tribe, with its own customs, resentments and heroes, and demands for moral autonomy.
The ever-present Israel/Palestinian antipathy is tribal in origin.
The continuing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan reflects ancient Pashtun tribalism more than any other psychosocial force.
The many conflicts in Africa, along with the continent’s political machinations, revolve mostly around tribal loyalties.
Why should we care if the tectonic plates of our era are shifting away from universal principles and a vision of a global common good? Mostly because the renewal of tribalism will make humanity’s divisions even more intractable.
There is danger in the United States as well, visible in the gridlock and dysfunction caused by increased tribalism in our major parties.
Arising out of modern identity politics, neo-tribalism, more than our era’s policy differences, is what makes today’s politics so personally degrading of others, so shortsighted, mean-spirited and mistrustful, and so disparaging of those who oppose us.
Republicans are becoming the party of the white Christian tribe. They locate the roots of such core American values as opportunity, individualism and the rule of law in a European, Christian and largely Protestant cultural heritage.
Republican leaders have difficulty convincingly reaching out to Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims, Asians and Native Americans as valued members of their constituency. These groups are outsiders to the white Christian tribe.
For its part, the Democratic Party has largely become an alliance among three tribes — African-Americans, the LGBT community, and middle- and upper-class white progressives (prominently including academics and cultural creatives).
The tribal aspects of the African-American community are evident. They have a different history from all other Americans; they have unique mores, their own language tropes and humor, distinct musical traditions, unique foods, religious styles and rituals, and family patterns.
Similarly, the LGBT community has distinctions in culture and values that give its members a separate shared identity.
The largest and leading tribe among Democrats is the middle- and upper-class white progressives. Their core tribal customs are exemplified by the careers of Bill and Hillary Clinton. White progressives are initiated into their tribe though the acquisition of higher-education credentials.
The white progressives include feminists, who also could be considered as a separate tribe within the Democratic coalition.
White progressives learn their tribal customs and beliefs in schools from their teachers and professors, who function as tribal elders passing down to the young the rituals and truths of a distinct in-group.
White progressives gain their social power from white-collar bureaucratic jobs in government and business, where they live most comfortably off salaries. They are the lesser aristocracy of the postindustrial order.
The politics of the white progressives serve to solidify tribal identities within their coalition. Christianity, the principal value core of the rival white tribe, is attacked as discriminatory against gays and lesbians. Economic policies of redistribution are advanced by progressives to link their rival, the white Christian tribe, with the plutocracy and so with inevitable and uncaring oppression of the poor.
And for decades now, a number of leading white-progressive advocates, with allies from nonwhite communities, have engaged in a cultural project to construct a social entity for nonwhites — a “minority” collective to join the Democratic Party coalition of tribes.
The current politics of immigration can be understood in these tribal terms. The aim is to facilitate the cultural movement of Hispanic voters into a united tribal constituency, separated from the mass of Americans and with a grievance motivating them to vote as a bloc for Democrats.
The persistence of right-vs.-left rhetoric, still used by both Democrats and Republicans, is now better understood as simply the deployment of emotionally charged code words that trigger tribal allegiances and resentments.
Meanwhile, as both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street insurgents intuit, both establishment Republican and establishment Democrat tribal leaders are quite comfortable enjoying profitable crony relationships with their respective power centers — in Washington, Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.