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?
Rural communities and small towns
Christian, including megachurches and televangelists
Reverence for the flag, the Bible, law & order
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
Condemns other tribe as sinners, immoral, or impure
Large urban areas, predominantly on the coasts
Racially and ethnically diverse
Diverse religiously, including new age and atheism
Emphasizes education, secularism, science, technology
Pro gun control
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
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.
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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.