American professor of history Adam Rothman, in a November 14, 2018 article for the Washington Post, writes that ‘tribalism’ has become a ‘hot topic’ to explain the deep divisions within the American polity. Tribalism, in this context, means that societies are rejecting conventional notions of ideological nationalism and pluralism, and the economics of globalisation and the multiculturalism that it inspired, and adopting the primacy of tribalism.
Rothman cites examples in which various American analysts have posited tribalism as the thing that is making American politics so polarised and toxic. These analysts believe that the same is happening in many European countries as well.
Interestingly, this debate has erupted with the rise of right-wing nationalist parties and individuals in various countries. Yet, a controversial book by the Chinese-American academic Amy Chua, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, claims that political tribalism can be found among liberal and/or progressive groups as much as it can in conservative or reactionary ones.
Chua writes that thousands of years ago, when humans began to organise as tribes, tribalism offered safety and identity for which one had to fully identify, with whatever the tribe stood for. The tribal mindset was overcome by ideas such as constitutionalism, nationalism, science and modern economics. Nationalism, in fact, was a more sophisticated form of tribalism, but one which attempted to eschew ethnic and religious divisions within a nation, even if through force.
Are we more concerned about who is saying something than what’s being said?
Chua argues that, once the nation states based on nationalist impulses and ideas consolidated themselves, economic factors such as rising income inequalities and the formation of ruling elites created severe divisions within these nations’ polities. This is when, according to Chua, the tribal mindset, which is still ‘hard-wired’ in the human psyche, reappeared.
Chua sees the polities of many nation states now as extremely polarised by modern-day tribes competing against each other. These tribes all see themselves as victims of an economic and political elite. These tribes include working-class whites, working-class blacks, gays and lesbians, feminists, white supremacists, anti-immigration activists, anti-racist groups, Islamophobes, anti-Islamophobes, etc. Chua writes that the US and Europe became too haughty about their scientific, political and ideological triumphs and completely undermined the fact that tribal mindsets not only existed in developing nation states, but also within developed ones.
Chua’s thesis has faced severe criticism by many of her peers in the Western intelligentsia (her own tribe?). Professor Rothman writes that, indeed, the tribal mindset has been a reality for centuries, but it has been constantly checked through progressive political, economic and social legislation. The US has had a history of producing violent groups which undermined American democracy long before the emergence of Chua’s modern-day political tribes, he writes. But eventually they have all been relegated to the fringes.
Chua herself is not a fan of modern tribalism. But her ideas have also been criticised for facilitating the narratives of those groups who claim that the more progressive and egalitarian notions of democracy are the vocations of political and economic elites who want to undermine the voices of the ‘disaffected majority.’ For example, recently the famous Indian journalist Barkha Dutt wondered whether the rise of Hindu nationalism in India was mainly due to the way her country’s secular and left-liberal elite ridiculed the religiosity and beliefs of conservative Hindus.
One can also argue that Chua’s explanation of tribalism is a renegade branch of nationalism. Populist nationalist parties and figures such as Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, UK’s pro-Brexit activists, and — at least before he became prime minister — Imran Khan, all claimed to be the voice of an ignored moral, political and economic majority being exploited and undermined by a corrupt ruling elite who pose as enlightened democrats. The irony is, that most of these leaders are either billionaires and/or have had close links with rich men and women.
But as Professor Rothman is likely to suggest, this form of nationalism has existed long before Trump or Brexit. It failed to neutralise the reaction and retaliation of conventional and wider nationalism and democratic institutions and norms. In fact, it either faded away or became part of the mainstream political apparatus that it had set out to demonise and challenge.
Chua is clear that even though modern-day tribalism is more prominent among right-wing groups, many left or liberal groups are not immune to it. The American professor of psychology, Daniel R Stalder agrees. In his essay for Psychology Today (June 18, 2018), Stalder writes that conservatives as well as liberals have a tendency to exhibit ‘group-centric bias.’ He cites a 2003 study that showed that liberal college students changed their tune about a generous welfare policy when they were told it was supported by congressional Republicans.
However, Stalder maintains that tribal thinking is more ingrained in modern conservative groups. He cites a report published in the June 3 edition of USA Today. In a speech, a high school student in the pro-Republican state of Kentucky, used a quote which he attributed to Donald Trump. The audience cheered. But once the clapping stopped, the student apologised and said that the quote was actually by Barack Obama. This was received by pin-drop silence.
Stalder explains this as ‘reactive devaluation.’ Once we discover it was the other side who said or supports something, we withdraw or withhold our support. It doesn’t seem to matter what was said.
Recently, at the height of the Pak-India tensions, a Pakistani woman on Facebook posted a quote about why war was not the answer to the two countries’ problems. Being an Imran Khan fan, she intentionally or mistakenly, attributed the quote to Khan. It received dozens of ‘likes’ and positive responses. However, an hour or so later, when someone pointed out that it was a 2016 quote by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, not only did the ‘likes’ decline but the informer was told that Sharif said this because ‘he had illegal business interests in India.’
On Twitter, as most Indians seemed to have been sucked in by the rather convoluted narrative being shaped by the hyperbolic Indian news channels, one Pakistani gentleman suggested that the Indian pilot captured by Pakistani forces should be released. The gentleman is a self-described ‘leftist’ and ‘proudly anti-establishment.’ But when PM Khan ordered the release of the pilot, the same gentleman tweeted it was the wrong move undertaken under pressure!
Stalder writes that those who become part of a tribe (on the left or the right) invest a lot of ego into the group they have become a part of. That’s why they cannot admit the other side has a good idea because they would feel like they are giving in to the ‘enemy.’ In tribalism, reason is willingly replaced by myopia.
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 10th, 2019