Whither Tribalism


Since the beginning of human time, we have experienced tribalism. And, we have been living with something of an assumption that we never go back and repeat former ways of managing our selves.

That does make common sense – shouldn’t a global community aim for a broader sense of both the self and the collective?

Now, though, we seem to be receding, reverting to social strife built around differences. Why is that happening?

Humans are naturally social creatures. Our “home base,” of course, is still families, immediate and extended. Next comes geography, with loyalties to villages and towns.

From there we evolved into states and nation states.

Not surprisingly, as the pieces grew larger, the connective tissues among them weakened.

Perhaps that is why we seem to have inadvertently moved back into an earlier state of tribalism?

Moving from families to villages to tribes to states was a loose process of organizing people into manageable groups for the purpose of allocating resources and responsibilities alike fairly and properly.

This has not, of course, always been a fair or proper process, with women, children, immigrants and people of color long forced into “tribes” not of their own making or benefit.

We have spent much of the last 150 years seeking (or not) the right balance. Some of the misallocations could be addressed on a one-off basis – the women’s’ suffrage and civil rights movements have at least shorn the roughest edges off the American version of tribalism.

Some, though, are more systemic. Efforts to tackle them often spur a resurgent tribalism among the groups who see resource allocation and rights as a zero-sum game in which gains by one group require losses by another.

One challenge is that tribal imperatives can be significantly different from State imperatives, creating a situation in which a tribe is fighting its own members.

And that is largely where we stand today. Riven by politics, economics, crime and, yes, systemic racism, the American tribe is at risk of reverting to a more primitive condition.

Perhaps the only just solution is to treat tribes as personal entities, rather than economic or political ones, within which everyone has the same basic guarantees of a livable income, health care, education, and safety – regardless of what tribe you claim as your own. Yes, the fifty States have the last word on how to tax and spend, but the federal government can withhold its own support if it does not like what and how the States do what they do.

If we could find a way to deal with that, we might get back on track?


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