Foreign Policy Blogs

Tribal Drums Along the Potomac

Subcommittee Meeting (On Local Affairs)
[credit: Jason Anderson]

“Tribalism” as many know describes the political system in technologically primitive countries without established central government or democratic tradition. Today it also applies to the US Congress.

What is tribalism? Blind faith in a single leader or ideology. Support for a clan member in any dispute no matter how incriminating. Decision by consensus, while graybeards protect younger members but demand loyalty. Kandahar, especially.  And now Washington DC.

The polarization of Congress is hardly news; its increasing tribal tendencies however are striking. I’ll recount a few trends for clarity and then hit more upon tribalism.

Having a “position on [a given] issue” seems to not exist anymore. Most immediately we see this on TV and internet news, where many media companies are now media clans, MSNBC feuding with FOX News, and the battle of the blogs where authors try to out-excerpt each other. Somehow the great diversifiers — globalization, borderless Web, expression for all — have denigrated politically in the US into Us and Them.

Well, you might say, political parties are not media companies. Or are they? And how could the self-proclaimed beacon of liberty become so divided? Among precursors some point to the FCC’s 1987 decision that repudiated the Fairness Doctrine, in force since the 1940s, that had required news broadcasters to give adequate and fair coverage to opposing views on issues of public importance. Detractors argue that 1st Amendment rights were abridged by a federal mandate to review fairness. Regardless, that decision opened the gate for well-funded media groups to present partisan content, visibly represented by Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, and Microsoft.

Oddly today with thousands of cable channels and websites at our disposal, opinion on the US airwaves has largely consolidated into Red and Blue. News show hosts have become lecturers for one of two camps, and viewers who do not have the common sense to distinguish hype from fact, tabloid from truth, become foot soldiers in a growing tribal society.

Media is just the voicepiece, albeit a substantial one; Congressional voting records evidence this trend. The November 2012 election results, according to Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, “confirm that the trend toward increased party-line voting observed over the past couple of decades continues.”

An analysis by, a nonpartisan website, shows the number of US senators willing to cross party lines declined 63 percent in the past 30 years. Centrist members dropped 84 percent in the House of Representatives in the same period. Greater polarization indicates increasing retreat into tribal camps.

The most worrying aspect of this trend is that debate becomes a zero-sum game between opposing forces. Have stakes gotten so high that members need to protect the tribal leaders? Debate in the “pluralistic” US is increasingly characterized as free marketeers vs. socialists, freedom fighters vs. fascists, good vs. evil. One helps the opposing tribe at one’s peril. It’s great as Hollywood fare, devoid of intellectual and practical value, and impedes government’s job.

It insults most people’s intelligence to see an otherwise well-spoken pundit defend an NRA position, or another argue for the Affordable Care Act, simply because he or she belongs to a supporting political party. When scholars become lobbyists, we need to re-evaluate the approach.

I am certainly not the first to refer to this trend as tribalism. Paul Pillar’s October 2012 article “Ideology and Tribalism” in The National Interest argues that voters exhibit “group affinity” and “tak[e] cues from groups with which they identify”:

The groups might be organized interest groups or identifiable segments of society or the economy…. Most of all, the cues come from political parties. Most voters tend to adopt the views that go with their preferred party…. Anthropologists could help in understanding this phenomenon. It is essentially a form of tribalism. People identify with either the Republican tribe or the Democratic tribe and shape their views on matters of public policy accordingly.

Pillar echoes mainstream helplessness by concluding “this has made the American electorate more mentally lazy than ever. Its part in the political game is simply to pick a tribe and fall in line.”

Such an accusation should be offensive to any American who trumpets the US political system as an international model. No nation that prides itself on liberal institutions would take kindly to being labeled tribal. Tribalism chooses group over individual. Tribalism squelches debate in the tribe (or party) itself since only leaders’ opinions are brooked and pushed to the national stage. As David Ronfeldt of RAND related in 2006, “when societies crumble, people revert to tribal and clan behaviors that repudiate liberal ideals.”

I (and others quoted here) use “tribalism” cynically though of course in other civilizations it has been a source of strength and perpetuity. The problem arises when tribalism is mixed with representative government. Afghan tribal divisions characterize that country’s centuries-old politics and define regional loyalties. Yet during Afghan elections foreigners have preached the democracy of one-person, one-vote, which is anathema to tribal elders who traditionally decide views for their respective tribes. If mature democracies — of which one is the US, with its quagmire of party politics — tend toward tribalism, should the foreigners instead take their cue from Afghans? I ask that tongue-in-cheek, but the irony is enough to make one re-think the push for liberal institutions in soil of different salinity.

Individual actors in a tribal society, say, millenia old, have little room to effect change unless they accede to high ranks of leadership or council. Democrats and Republicans similarly have been living in and reacting to the environment to which they were elected, yet this factionalism is a recent trend that needs to be, and can be, averted. Their “tribe” should be the country, the nation that protects them and gives their families and relatives the freedom to pursue personal and economic growth.

Reconciling functioning government and tribalist behavior seems to lie in the age-old schism of ideal and reality. The Constitution and successive legal documents govern the country and states, but people enforce, debate, and decide on applicability. To analogize a popular factionalist saying, “documents don’t govern, people do.”  Lawmakers and politicians can digest laundry lists of precedents and follow procedure to the letter, but when humans debate, self-interest comes along.

Gloomily there appears no imminent thaw in the ice. The “Hope and Change” of Obama’s 2008 campaign sadly many now see, at least in Congress, as apathy and gridlock.

One effort however is underway to work from the inside out, with the participation of some 75 junior members of congress who could have the ears of more senior legislators. No Labels, a movement chaired by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), met with 1,300 supporters in New York City last weekend to discuss some of their current initiatives, including plans to work on issues out of the spotlight to establish some confidence.  As Sen. Manchin remarked, “This is what everybody should be doing more of: talking to each other and finding common ground.”

President Barack Obama, in his Second Inaugural Address just yesterday, recounted that “the oath I have sworn before you today — like the one recited by others who serve in this cabinet — is an oath to God and country, not to party or faction; and we must faithfully execute that pledge during the duration of our service.” This is great theatre, and it is inspiring; but again it is an ideal, and lawmakers need to act on it for there to be any consequence.



Jason Anderson
Jason Anderson

Jason spent April and May 2014 in Central Asia researching religious extremist groups. He has project experience in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Jason previously served as a trainer for US military and civilians working alongside counterparts in Afghanistan, and as a coordinator with Afghan ministerial advisors on National Priority Program (NPP) funding proposals. Jason speaks Russian and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.