America’s tribal mayhem

America’s polarization eased at the onset of  World War I and through the economic calamity of the Great Depression, and World War II, but today, its society is as polarized as any time since the end of the American Civil War, says our US Correspondent Tomas Mega, from Nevada

“What tribe are you?”  While a common question in Africa and other parts of the world, it is not a common one in America.  Historically, our use of the word and its associations have been reserved for Native American Indians and not much else.   It hasn’t yet made its way into the American political lexicon.  It would be difficult for us to comprehend Barack Obama as the tribal chief of Liberals, Senator Ted Cruz the tribal elder of the tea party, or Speaker of the House John Boehner the tribal spokesman of establishment Republicans. 

It’s semantics.  Americans are tribal and have always been.  We just like to use different words to describe it: partisan, adherent, devotee, supporter, follower, values. Our tribalism is inherent and deeply entrenched.  Political tribalism is often bestowed upon us by our parents, as is our religious, social, cultural, and economic tribalism.  We choose our tribal news outlets; the conservative FOX News, the liberal MSNBC, or the less biased PBS. We like to live in tribal areas that ‘fit’ our beliefs.  We can easily become uncomfortable in the presence of others whose tribe differs markedly from ours.  We eat our food with the thought to our ethnic tribe. We often fall in love with those who possess similar tribal backgrounds and beliefs.  We choose our close friends in a comparable way.  We’re not so different from the rest of the world; we just don’t seem to like the word ‘tribe.’

Through it all, we have remained uniquely American; no easy accomplishment given our multicultural origins, our Republic form of government, our diverse religious, political and social viewpoints and our heritage of distinctively American freedoms.

But there is evidence that our tribal loyalties are now encroaching on our unique “American first” identity. In his 2011 book “The Origins of Political Order”, Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University suggests that it is unnatural for humans to place abstract concepts, like the good of the country, beyond the good of themselves, their families, even their political party.  Yet, democracies function through consensus, often compelling people to subjugate their personal interest for the interests of the greater good.   No one ever said democracy was easy.

Today, American society is as polarized as any time since the end of the American Civil War.  That polarization eased at the onset of World War I and through the economic calamity of the Great Depression, and World War II.   Americans have always put their differences aside during time of international threat.   The 1960s saw a rise in polarization with the onset of the Civil Rights movement.  Staunch Democrats embraced civil rights, staunch Republicans did not.  The 1970s and 1980s saw Republicans move closer to the religious and social right, while democrats championed bigger government.  Ronald Reagan’s brand of conservatism not only emboldened Republicans, but gave rise to “Reagan Democrats,” those white, working class Democrats who understood Republicans to be more fiscally responsible and socially conservative then traditional Democrats.

That polarization continues.  Our government remains deadlocked in partisan (tribal) conflict.  Our viewpoints as to where our country is headed could not be more far apart.  There is little consensus and far more argument, based on our tribal loyalties, as to what is “the greater good” of the country.  We cannot agree on reforming a healthcare system that excludes many Americans because it screams of ‘socialism’ and an expansion of the welfare state.   Curiously, the government program that has given America’s farmers – rich and poor -government handouts for generations – and let’s label it for what it is:  “FarmerCare,” has never generated a fraction of the objection that Obamacare has.  Why?

Our tribal beliefs regarding sensible gun laws prevent us from reaching a consensus on reasonable actions such as punitive sentences against those who possess guns illegally or comprehensive background checks to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.  The current options, those championed by opposing tribes, seem to be to do nothing at all, or confiscate all guns.

Our political ideology and our party loyalties are part of our tribal identity. Blame the politicians?  No.  Blame the voters.  Blame the tribes.  It’s my tribe against yours.   Both Democrats and Republicans want to convince us there is something ‘un-patriotic’ about the others’ tribe.  We are not true Americans if we don’t support the beliefs of a particular tribe.  When Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House of Representatives, her stated priority was to “elect more Democrats.”  After the Republican congressional sweep of 2010, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stated his objective was to prevent Obama’s re-election.  No one was talking about what our leaders are suppose to do: work for the greater good of the country.  While we wretchover a gridlocked government, we maintain the same tribal balance among our elected leaders.  In democracy you get what you vote for.  We get the leaders we deserve.

America is a long way from putting their personal interests aside for the greater good of the country.  Our tribalism is rising, not abating, and fuelled by each side of the political spectrum and every corner of our country.  Where all of this tribal mayhem will lead America is a question left unanswered.   I got a personal look at it when I attended an October information briefing on Obamacare.  During a break in the session, I was having coffee with a few of the attendees.  One introduced himself as a “retired conservative.”  In response, another  introduced himself as a “retired American.”

Apparently, there is a difference.


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