Tribal America


NYT  columnist, Frank Bruni, writes that Covid has brought out the worst in his fellow Americans - tribalism.

The pandemic, which could and should have brought us together, has instead driven us further apart, exacerbating our tribalism, which is an enemy of real progress but a friend to all sorts of dysfunction, all manner of meanness. The irrational obstructionism in Congress and lawmakers’ taste for vitriol and vengeance are tribalism run amok. Cancel culture, be it on the left or right, is a tribal impulse, not merely abetted but amplified by the technology of our time.

We humans are inherently tribal creatures. I get that. I’ve read and remember enough history and headlines not to be surprised. But the work of civilization — the advance of it — involves containing that tribalism, controlling it, moderating it with grander and more unifying ideals.

That work in America is currently in a state of crisis. You saw that at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. You see it in public opinion surveys that document how darkly Democrats and Republicans regard each other. You see it almost hourly on Fox News, which casts Joe Biden not as a flawed president but as a doddering autocrat or socialist puppet turning the United States into a crime-besieged hellscape. You see it every minute — no, every second — on social media.

I’m obviously talking in particular about political tribalism, which, fascinatingly, is growing just as Americans’ attachment to organized religion is waning. Political observers have noted that and mulled the consequences. One of this tribalism’s obvious drivers is many Americans’ substitution of investment and involvement in physical communities with investment and involvement in online ones that more efficiently sort them into cliques of the rigidly like-minded. Another is many people’s use of the internet not to check or challenge their thinking but to validate it.

I also sense that many Americans, overwhelmed by the volume of competing information that comes at them and the furious pace of its delivery, outsource their judgment to a tribe and its leaders. Those leaders give them certainty in place of ambiguity, definitive answers in lieu of smarter questions. They’re liberated from genuine inquiry and freed from doubt.

Tribalism springs out of contrivance and ritual, constantly repeated until it achieves a gloss mimicking truth itself. It pits one tribe's beliefs against all others much like religious fundamentalism and other forms of chicanery. It feeds its adherents on a diet rich in fear and suspicion until they feed it to each other instinctively. Some way must be found to push back and force this dark genie back into its bottle.


  1. Good luck with that. A century of professional propaganda developed during WW1 on behalf of "business" and chest-beating about glorious individualism has many Americans hoodwinked against community values and the common good. They couldn't even give themselves a nationwide radio broadcaster in.the 1920s. Then they avoided protecting citizens with their inability to fund universal health care after WW2, suborning it all to private profit and making it non-universal. That produces us and thems, and the "I'm all right Jack, get a job" disinterest in fellow citizens' welfare. Give that some decades to fester, allow the capture of Representatives and Senators by business interests no matter what party, the export of jobs to Asia to make, what else, an extra buck, and the gradual realization that you as a mere citizen means nothing in the grand scheme, and unsurprisingly, societal polarization occurs.

    Orwell described modern "democracy" as the cover word for capitalism.

    Of course, in order to fuck things up here and to exploit personal advantage wih the rich, we have Conservatives pretending they care about the average citizen, consorting with mental defectives to hear them out, all to gain power and shower the contents of the public purse on their business cronies. Look at Ford and kenney, solidly on that path, and federal wackadoodles like Poilievre, Bergen and numerous prairie yahoos supporting the unvaxxed truckers and whiners about "freedom". The flailing wavering O'Toole pleads for special understanding for societal dolts, and wants to defund the CBC, about the only outfit left that doesn't paint rabid Cons as normal people and questions their motives on some issues. Otherwise we might as well be damn Yankees, proud, dumb, grasping, corrupt, uncaring about the environment and each other, and regarding ourselves as exceptional genetic specimens built to rule the world, not by international law, but by some mythic rules-based "international" order dreamed up by financiers to be always to corporate America's advantage. The US is so dysfunctional, the tipping point for change is near. What then happens is anyone's guess. They have never been societal unifiers, and always susceptible to populist crackpot rhetoric of the McCarthy and Trumpian kind.

    1. Bill, I have the impression that you also have a few decades under your belt. Those of us born in the early postwar era were indoctrinated to see capitalism or "free enterprise" as the flip side of democracy while totalitarian communism was the mirror image of state socialism. While our perception of the Soviet Union was at least marginally accurate the story we were spun about capitalism was anything but.

      As for O'Toole and the Tories, they like what they see the Republicans have achieved through the tribal approach. Their game, after all, is clinging to power when the demographic odds against them worsen. So far a disturbing percentage of (white) Americans, deeply afraid of "the others." go along with them.

  2. Is that image from 'Lord of the Flies'?

    I recall this:

    and saw the potential irony:
    the boys from the place that is intuitively closer to tribalism did fine on their own

    While Goldings' boys were Modern British.

    Perhaps 'tribalism' is the wrong moniker for the great American train wreck. ;-)

    1. Yes, it's a still from the movie.

      Perhaps Dutch kids are a bit more civilized than their British counterparts in the novel. Having lived in the UK I sometimes noticed a feral attitude among some young people, especially those born and raised in the docklands that I met at the school where I worked. Recall Mods and Rockers traveling to Brighton to have at each other or the appearance of Skinheads with their short hair, jeans, suspenders, topcoats and "bovver" boots prowling the streets and sometimes beating up old ladies for the fun of it. Clockwork Orange.

    2. The book's author is Dutch. The boys were Tonga.


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