Tribalism in America: Dateline December 11

It seems that America has two main tribes: the Heartland tribe and the Coastal-Urban tribe.  (Tribe is a hot new buzzword to explain all things political.)  There are other tribes, of course, with a lot of overlap, but the two main ones have the most power and influence, and present the greatest danger of tearing the country apart.  Unlike the tribal conflicts in many of the countries today – Catalonia in Spain, Scotland in the UK, and Quebec in Canada – and unlike our Civil War which was South vs North, our two 21st Century tribes are spread across the nation.  They are determined by race, religion, and life style, not region.  What distinguishes the two tribes?

Heartland

Rural communities and small towns

Sparsely populated

Mostly white

Christian, including megachurches and televangelists

Traditional

Nationalistic

Reverence for the flag, the Bible, law & order

Republican

Pro-gun

Anti-abortion

Suspicious of or hostile to feminism

Suspicious of or hostile to non-traditional groups

Believes there is reverse discrimination against whites

Believes there is discrimination against men

Believes there is intolerance of Christians

Suspicious of or rejects Darwin

Rejects human cause of global warming

Fears big government and hates taxes

Anti-government regulation

Anti-union

Anti-immigrant

Anti-gay

Pro-Trump

Conservative, Libertarian

Condemns other tribe as sinners, immoral, or impure

Coastal-Urban

Large urban areas, predominantly on the coasts

Densely populated

Racially and ethnically diverse

Diverse religiously, including new age and atheism

Multi-cultural

Global orientation

Emphasizes education, secularism, science, technology

Democrat

Pro gun control

Pro-abortion

Pro women’s rights

Pro LGBT rights and Black Lives Matter

Believes racial discrimination is mostly in the South

Opposes sexual harassment and sexism

Demands separation of church and state

Mostly accepts evolution

Sees global climate change as an existential threat

Embraces public transportation and public works

Accepts government regulation

Accepts labor unions

Pro-immigrant

Progay

Anti-Trump

Liberal, Progressive

Dismisses other tribe as “fly over people”

Certainly few people fit totally in one column or the other.  Membership in the tribes is not dependent on income, education, or region.  It has more to do with the size of the community and its history.  A state like Pennsylvania, for example, has two large cities, several smaller cities, is on the East Coast, but has a large rural and suburban population.  Both tribes co-inhabit a large and divided area and split power in an uneasy coexistence.

Andrew Sullivan, writing for New York magazine, points out that the tribes are evenly matched in terms pf political power.  He calls tribalism “the enduring, complicated divides of ideology, geography, party, class, religion, and race.”  We form our opinions, issues, and political loyalties based on which tribe we belong to.  According to Sullivan, “One of the great attractions of tribalism is that you don’t actually have to think very much. All you need to know on any given subject is which side you’re on.”   Issues such as abortion, gay marriage, civil rights, and gun control are seemingly beyond discussion and rely on “dog whistle” signals to mark tribal loyalties.

What is the danger?  We are in danger of becoming two Americas, unable to separate, and unable to unite.  We are in danger of electing more and more partisan politicians until each side is deaf to the other.  Political gridlock and confrontation have replaced the loyal opposition of our parents’ generation.  Defeating the political enemy now justifies rigging elections, controlling debates, gerrymandering districts, and suppressing votes.

Racism and discrimination are now the catchall for different positions.  According to a major study conducted by NPR and others, majorities of Americans in many ethnic, identity and racial groups believe that discrimination exists against their own group, across many areas of people’s daily lives. 55 percent of white Americans feel their group is discriminated against.  92 percent of African Americans believe that discrimination against black Americans exists.  African Americans who lived in urban areas were more likely to see racial discrimination as driven by institutional factors.  Those in rural areas viewed individual bias as the source of discrimination.

Although a slightly declining majority, about 75 percent of Americans still identify themselves as Christian, and, in a 2015 study, 63 percent of Americans believe that Christians are increasingly discriminated against in America.  At the same time atheists maintain that they are routinely discriminated against.  As of this writing there are no admitted atheists in Congress, and only one in all of the state legislatures.  While there are 28 Jewish Democrats, 2 Jewish Republicans, and 2 Muslims in Congress, admitting to atheism is political suicide.  At the same time surveys show that scientists are roughly half as likely as the general public to believe in God or a higher power.

The allegations against men who are accused of sexual harassment and molestation are viewed on Fox and Friends as “cutting down men.”  Numerous male discrimination websites such as “The Real Sexism” complain of legal and lethal sexual discrimination against men, while women continue to fight for what they maintain are equal rights and an end to harassment.

The supporters of Roy Moore, who is nominated for US Senator in Alabama, are in essence saying, “I would rather vote for a sexual predator than a Democrat.”  This is tribalism in the extreme.

Tribalism is most dangerous when it turns rival groups into enemies and distorts our moral compass.

What is at the heart of tribalism?  The mind works by constructing mental models, and either fitting ideas and experiences into them or rejecting ideas and experiences that do not fit.  Your culture is the source of your identity, your worldview, your understanding of how the world works.  It is your opportunity for heroism, the source of your self-esteem and whatever immortality you seek, whether metaphysical or symbolic.  Most of us receive our tribe’s position on an issue, collect data that supports that position, and decide that we have formed our opinion based on the facts.  Tribalism replaces rational thinking with reassuring feeling.  At the same time, the human race is the descendent of tribal creatures that supported and protected their members.  Xenophobia, fear of the Other, is a survival instinct that protected our ancient ancestors from their most lethal danger, people from another tribe.

Psychologically we carry this instinct today, not in fear of actual physical harm from the other tribe, but fear of their counter worldview that challenges ours.  Our forms of heroism, self-esteem, and symbolic or metaphysical immortality are threatened by the very existence of a counter worldview.  Allowing the worldview to gain increasing power, to dominate, to push their values into the fore is a threat to our psychological equilibrium.

How do we bridge this divide?

First be aware of your own tribal rationalizations and rhetoric. Tribalism is thinking that has been prescribed by a group.  The Urban-Coastal tribe needs to understand that “political correctness” is an insulting phrase.  How can a reasonable counter opinion be declared incorrect?  The term resistance is equally divisive.  It implies that the 2016 election was a defeat by a foreign army, rather than fellow Americans.  The urban clan needs to acknowledge the prospect that the pace of social change might have generated a recoil and counterattack among traditionalists.  Understand that what is being described by you as hate may in fact be fear.

The heartland tribe needs to embrace the fact of change.  As the world gets smaller, clinging to one’s tribe may have become more and more important psychologically, but less and less possible in reality.  Change can be frightening, but next to death and taxes, it is one of the surest certainties.

Start by going out of the way to listen to the other group:  if you are in the Coastal-Urban tribe, watch Fox News, listen to talk radio, and read Britebart, or if you are in the Heartland group, watch CNN, MSNBC, listen to NPR, and read the New York Times.

My buddy Ken suggests trying the time-honored debate exercise of arguing the other side.  If you can effectively argue the opposite tribe’s position, you have gone a long way toward finding common ground.

Ways to diffuse the political impasse:  Support the efforts of groups like No Labels.  Senators Susan Collins and Joe Manchin serve as honorary co-chairs of this bipartisan Congressional group trying to bring lawmakers together to build consensus on critical issues.  Similarly, Ralph Nader continues to speak and write, in books like Unstoppable, about bringing activists of the left and right together to oppose corruption, and finding common ground between the two major political parties.

Speaking of Nader, push for more political parties that represent smaller tribes.  Demand that political debates include Libertarians, Greens, and other political groups.  This sounds counter intuitive, but maybe multiple parties will force political compromise, rather than winner-take-all political power conflicts.  It may bring a return to democracy and a new kind of patriotism.

It is extremely hard to step outside of your culture, to step outside of your tribe and give credence to the other.  Question where your ideas come from.  It is not an easy process.  It requires actually listening instead of filtering, considering ideas that are deemed blasphemous by your peers and family, and dialoging with the others whenever possible.  It is not about converting the others or defeating them.  It is about uniting with them as best we can.

* *  *

Stephen James is a member of The Writers Collective.  He is the award winning author of American Stew: Hope in a Toxic Culture, is the president of Contemporary Heroism Initiative, Executive Director of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York, and is a member of the Ernest Becker Foundation and the New York Society for Ethical Culture.  He is a producer of communications media in the New York area.

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11 thoughts on “Tribalism in America: Dateline December 11”

  1. Having lived in many parts of the U.S. I would respectfully suggest that you have fallen into the trap of defining groups by where they live … either in the heartland or on the coasts. My own experience is that there is a mix in all parts of the U.S. The tribes I would suggest we be wary of are the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Given the extraordinary and unacknowledged flaws in our forms and structures of governance and decision making, these two tribes attempt to gain as many members as possible, members who will follow the party no matter what the consequences, winning is the goal. Winning power. For the few, winning wealth. Getting to create the rules by which we will live, do business, engage internationally. This, in my view, is the cancer and it is alive and thriving across the country – on both shores and in the heartland.

    1. Deborah,
      Thank you for your comment. It is very much appreciated. I do admit that it’s hard to say anything definitive about a nation of 325 million people. In my humble opinion, the trap is also to define all of our problems and all of the solutions in political terms. You are right, the tribes cannot be defined in terms of where they live. They are also defined by how they live, what they believe, what they value, and how their communities mold them. The divisions in or culture in how we remember our common history, how we cope with our nation’s social challenges, how we manage our economies, as well as how we jockey for power and control, have all led us to a dangerous moment. I, too, would like to blame all of our concerns on the two main political parties, but that would let the rest of us off the hook. It is up to each of us to understand all of the forces at work, including the social psychological forces, and to use that understanding to unite the country somehow, with or without the politicians.

  2. Hi Steve, I read you piece and totally agree with you but it’s awfully hard to do. We invited SURJ(Stand Up for Racial Justice) to the Society for a three hour workshop basically to train members how to communicate with people who think differently than you. Many people who attended are going home for the holidays and will be confronted with family who are from a different tribe. Our leader shared with us that there are people who you can’t have a discourse with because they are stuck or too frightened to go there. But there are others and by bringing up issues you can agree with may lead to a conversation were there is common ground. At least that’s my hope.
    I’m inviting the people who attended the workshop to come back in January and share their experiences going home. Hopefully a few will take me up on my invitation.

    1. Hi Carol, Thank you for your input. Yes, it’s hard. But when has that ever stopped you? You’ve been working for justice and equality for decades. The question is, what else can any of us do, but to try?

  3. Your comments make a lot of sense but Progressives are very different than Liberals. When it comes to most issues liberals and conservatives are identical. Progressives are pro-working class. The Liberal is aligned with the Democratic Party of Hillary Clinton. They will give lip service to progressives on economic policy but everything they propose on their own is in agreement Republicans and they vote that way too. Liberals are the most warlike of any group and support war crimes but say they are against torture. Liberals overly hate working people and call them names and seek to drive them into poverty. As for Republicans they claim they are deathly afraid of them and justify there extreme right-wing stance on them. They do support fringe groups and makeup controversies to distract the people from important issues. Like the Republicans, Democrats hate unions. They spread hate against whites just as the Republican spreads hate against blacks. Like the Republicans mainline Democrats support the oligarchs and the oligarchy. Progressives are the supporters of Bernie Sanders and support New Deal Keynesian economics and are pro-union. Progressives generally believe in being color blind when it comes to race and seeks compromise on civil rights. Liberals are pro-war while progressives oppose war. Progressives do not hate anyone except corrupt Democrats. Progressives oppose the oligarchy.

    1. Libertarians are also different from Democrats and Republicans. I’ve seen figures suggesting one third of the country is small “L” libertarian in their beliefs and positions on issues. They oppose the wars, are in favor of gay marriage, and favor legalizing drug use. On government size, taxes, and economics they are radically conservative. This notion of tribes is a broad brush approach to what our country is going through. And don’t forget, Progressive ideology is still an ideology, with similar “us against them” beliefs. Progressives need to find common ground with the other groups if the country is going to avoid gridlock.

      1. WOW….!!!! FRIENDS, RELATIVES & NEIGHBORS ……. Please allow yourself 10 minutes to read this “tribalism in America” writing.

        I think this is really excellent…..Try to set your political persuasion aside and just absorb what is being said here.
        Some of us will totally agree….some of us will totally disagree….and many of us will be able to see both sides of this story…
        AND THE FACT THAT WE CAN COMFORTABLY DO SO, IS WHAT MAKES AMERICA GREAT…!!!

        If nothing else, this is telling ME that until “Bi-Partisan Politics” becomes the norm, this wonderful country of ours is in big trouble.

  4. WOW….!!!! FRIENDS, RELATIVES & NEIGHBORS ……. Please allow yourself 10 minutes to read this “tribalism in America” writing.

    I think this is really excellent…..Try to set your political persuasion aside and just absorb what is being said here.
    Some of us will totally agree….some of us will totally disagree….and many of us will be able to see both sides of this story…
    AND THE FACT THAT WE CAN COMFORTABLY DO SO, IS WHAT MAKES AMERICA GREAT…!!!

    If nothing else, this is telling ME that until “Bi-Partisan Politics” becomes the norm, this wonderful country of ours is in big trouble.

  5. As possibly the oldest member of the NYSEC, I was happy to hear about the dialogue that went on and may continue there in Jan. and to learn about James book together with his connection to the NYSEC. I have to dialogue with Trump supporters in my psychology practice and the Green Party people in my cohousing community. There is merit in my view in both the coastal/inland view and the 2 party view. One of my main concerns is how technology is destroying not only our precious planet but also our ability to dialogue with real people and our health. Alice K Ladas, Ed.D. member of NYSEC since 1940 and coauthor the NY Times best seller ‘The G Spot and Other Discoveries About Human Sexuality.’

  6. As possibly the oldest member of the NYSEC, I was happy to hear about the dialogue that went on and may continue there in Jan. and to learn about James book together with his connection to the NYSEC. I have to dialogue with Trump supporters in my psychology practice and the Green Party people in my cohousing community. There is merit in my view in both the coastal/inland view and the 2 party view. One of my main concerns is how technology is destroying not only our precious planet but also our ability to dialogue with real people and our health. Alice K Ladas, Ed.D. member of NYSEC since 1940 and coauthor the NY Times best seller ‘The G Spot and Other Discoveries About Human Sexuality.’

  7. An attention-grabbing discussion is worth comment. I think that you must write extra on this subject, it won’t be a taboo topic but typically individuals are not sufficient to talk on such topics. To the next. Cheers

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