Our political landscape has collapsed into tribalism and we will pay a heavy price if history is any indication. The violence that is typically a feature of a tribalist society is generally preceded by a coursening of public discourse- hostilities between defined groups reach the open air and if unchecked will result in open combat. It has been a while, but we have seen it on these shores before and it would be naive to believe that we can never see it again.
When the European settlers battled the native tribes to seize control over the land that is now America they made a practice of referring to those natives as “savages.” There was psychological currency in doing so. By adopting and propagating a vision of other people as less than human- or at least less human than you are- you can rationalize and justify all types of atrocities that you employ to defeat and subdue those people.
Murder, rape and maiming become easier when you discount the humanity of the victims. This troubling blind-spot in the human psyche ran amok on the plantations of the antebellum south, in the concentration camps operated by Hitler’s 3rd Riech, and even in modern war zones where soldiers are left unchecked in their engagements with enemy civilians. Ultimately, the effort is designed to convert your conduct into a referendum on the character of your enemy rather than a reflection on your own character. When the war paint goes on, we mask our identity as members of the larger human family- and that is where the real danger lies. Our highest self is hidden under the paint.
That dynamic is alive in today’s politics as well. Rather than refer to someone as a savage, you openly question and challenge their citizenship. You paint a gross charicature of them and tell flagrant lies about them. You commit acts of overt disrespect- prepared to pounce on any retaliation as proof of the false witness you have borne. As informed and enagaged citizens we need to understand that this soceo-political dynamic is born of tribalism and has been a part of human behavior for hundreds of years. And far too often, this brand of tribalism leads to mass atrocities- up to and including genocide. And in 2017 that dynamic has moved from behind the scenes and beneath the surface to the forefront of American politics. We ignore it at our peril.
At this stage, the tribalism is being played out most prominently by the cartoonish behavior that is on daily display in our political discourse. Spend a day listening to conservative talk radio or watching Fox News programming and this truth will be self-evident. People who once seemed rational are now fervently supporting positions or statements based exclusively on WHO said them rather than on WHAT is being said. And more often than we ever had reason to anticipate, people are supporting positions they once railed against and vice versa. Substance no longer matters- not even a little bit. And this is most obvious from the Republican party’s slavish service to Donald Trump. Trump has succeeded in converting a political party into a tribe that must always, always, always kneel down and obey the Chief.
Both the politicians and the voters alike have abandoned even the pretense of upholding principles on matters of policy or accountability for governing constructively. They are wearing war paint now, all day every day. Need proof? Take note of the bizarre group hypnosis that has caused conservatives to forget that Russia is an enemy of our nation. Since their tribal Chief Trump says the ruthless, murderous and corrupt Russian despot Vladimir Putin is ok with him, Putin’s approval rating amongst Republicans in opinion polls is higher than many of our own politicians. And that is not all. A week after Trump took office, the percentage of Republicans who rated the economy as doing “well” or “very well” skyrocketed from 26% to 86%. Just two weeks earlier, these people said the economy was doing “poorly.” That swing is embarrassing proof that these people are not thinking about anything, they are just promoting the survival of their tribe.
To be clear, when human beings are driven by tribalism we are at our most animalistic.
We are not reaching for our highest capacity for understanding, we are leaning on our base physical senses and reflexes. Like the four-legged mammals we share the earth with, our organizing principle becomes our physical identity. The elevated understanding that mankind has been blessed with is suspended in favor of the “birds of a feather” reflexes of the beasts we have divine dominion over.
We may love our tribal identity and celebrate the contrast of our beauty aesthetic against others, and that beauty can make us feel very proud.
But make no mistake about it, we are at our absolute worst when we are tribal. When we are tribal we lack discernment. When we are tribal our vision and values are severely compromised. When we are tribal we may choose to fall backwards wearing our war paint over moving ahead in union with those that are not like us.
And move backwards is exactly what we are doing right now in American politics. We actually had a candidate for the 6th Congressional District of Georgia (Dan Moody) running under the slogan “He’s One Of Us.” Perhaps we can take some solace in the fact that Moody got his ass kicked in the race- finishing at the back of the pack in a crowded Republican field. But when you consider that less than a month later, a crowd of angry white men in Charlottesville, Virginia gathered in the dead of night carrying torches and stalking around a public park in protest over the state’s removal of Confederate memorial statues, that solace turns cold. The threat of tribalism is real and if we do not deal with it, it will most assuredly deal with us.