At the Tampa Convention Right & Left display our great illness: Tribalism

Summary: Today we have another weekend discussion post. It’s a summary of primary theme driving my posts, the new tribalism of the American people. It probably makes impossible reform of our society and salvage of the Second Republic. I have no idea how to do more than describe it.  Please post your thoughts about this in the comments, especially about its origins and possible cures.


The self-righteous debunking by the Left of the Right’s lies at Tampa display no love of truth. Instead they are another futile volley of words in the vain battles that characterize our post-fact society. These factual rebuttals, however accurate or well-delivered, change no minds on the Right, whose members are indoctrinated to ignore input from impure sources.

We see the exact same dynamic at work in the climate change propaganda campaigns.   Here the Left displays the same contempt for fact — ripping research findings out of context, exaggerating their magnitude and certainty, and tribalism (good climate scientists sound the alarms,  evil scientist are skeptical or have alternative theories).  Here the Right gains a feeling of superiority citing facts and authorities to which the Left remains blind.

Like all religious wars, both sides bask in their moral superiority — and rejoice in the ignorance and evil of their opponents.


Another expression of Tribalism

There is a simple reason for this phenomenon: the people on both sides are Americans, with the same easily exploitable weakness.  Tribalism.  Our truth is sovereign, your truths come from false idols.

Some flaw in our society makes us susceptible to this tribalism, some need for community and certainty that this fulfills.  We see it at work in the comments on the FM website.  Intelligent and well-educated people display an awesome willingness to believe quite bizarre things, and an immunity to both facts and expert opinion.  Each sides mocks the other, quite correctly — never seeing the parallelism.

Our ruling elites have skillfully exploited this, herd us like sheep into two pens — from which we furiously bleat at one another. This tribalism makes it impossible for us to accurately see the world (in many ways it acts like beer goggles) and — perhaps worse — makes it difficult to find common cause with our fellow Americans.

Many themes have played themselves out on the FM website, most futile.  This is the latest. Perhaps the most important.

Tribalism in women, too?


How do we find the will to cure ourselves?  As always, the solution is easy.  It starts with the Man in the Mirror.  Get involved politically and attempt to see beyond tribal truths.  Read the enemy’s mainstream news media, and share your discoveries with your peers.

Reform must come from within each community or tribe.  The willingness of the Right to reform can come only from within the Right.  I doubt that criticism from the Left will have effect, no matter how well-founded, well-conducted, long, or intensive.

And vice versa.

Perhaps we can find a common vision only under pressure during tough times. Let’s hope we can avoid this path to a solution, as it might prove painful.

Important notes

This posits an operational equivalence between Left and right.  That does not imply moral equivalence, or that effects on our society are equal from both sides.  IMO the Right is ascendant, fallen prey to endemic dark traits of the American character.

The discussion in the comments have been terrific during the past month.  Why has traffic been so low? That’s an odd divergence; these two usually rise and fall together.

For more information

Many posts on the FM website document this phenomenon.  Of course they’re but snapshots, hardly proof in any sense.  Proof would require a multi-disciplinary project on a large scale.

Posts about tribalism:

  1. At the Tampa Convention Right & Left display our great illness: Tribalism, 2 September 2012
  2. Swear allegiance to the truth as a step to reforming America, 24 November 2013
  3. Facts are the enemy of both Left and Right in our America, 12 May 2014



27 thoughts on “At the Tampa Convention Right & Left display our great illness: Tribalism”

  1. From “Unpopular Mandate – Why do politicians reverse their positions?” (Ezra Klein, The New Yorker, 25 June 2012) comes this depressing information:

    In a 2006 paper, “It Feels Like We’re Thinking,” the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels looked at a National Election Study, a poll supported by the National Science Foundation, from 1996. One of the questions asked whether “the size of the yearly budget deficit increased, decreased, or stayed about the same during Clinton’s time as President.” The correct answer is that it decreased, dramatically.

    Achen and Bartels categorize the respondents according to how politically informed they were. Among the least-informed respondents, Democrats and Republicans picked the wrong answer in roughly equal numbers. But among better-informed voters the story was different. Republicans who were in the 50th percentile gave the right answer more often than those in the 95th percentile.

    Bartels found a similar effect in a previous survey, in which well-informed Democrats were asked whether inflation had gone down during Ronald Reagan’s Presidency. It had, but many of those Democrats said that it hadn’t. The more information people had, it seemed, the better they were at arranging it to fit what they wanted to believe. As Bartels told me, “If I’m a Republican and an enthusiastic supporter of lower tax rates, it is uncomfortable to recognize that President Obama has reduced most Americans’ taxes — and I can find plenty of conservative information sources that deny or ignore the fact that he has.”

    The paper is here: “It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy“, and is somewhat more nuanced (and a lot more complex) than the above.

    It seems possible that our devotion to democracy may itself be a form of tribalism, unsupported by the facts.

    1. The paper is interesting; thanks for posting about it!

      “It seems possible that our devotion to democracy may itself be a form of tribalism, unsupported by the facts.”

      I don’t see how this follows from the conclusions of the paper. Democracy is justified on moral grounds, which some find compelling. It’s also justified on operational grounds, that history to date shows that it works better than any other system we’ve tried.

      “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
      — Winston Churchill, speech in the House of Commons on 11 November 1947

      Joe {Professor, of an advanced alien race} knew about democracies, voting, representation, and courts of law. He could fish up examples from many planets. He said that “democracy was a very good system, for beginners.”
      — From chapter 9 of Robert Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, will Travel (1958)

    2. re: “It seems possible that our devotion to democracy may itself be a form of tribalism, unsupported by the facts.”
      [FM responded] I don’t see how this follows from the conclusions of the paper.

      While it may not follow from the paper (which I didn’t have time to read), it follows from (dual-inheritance) evolutionary theory, which is clear that all culture is based on tribalism (Richerson/Boyd, etc.), and TRIBALISM IS IN HUMAN DNA. Democracy is part of modernist memes, which by definition were the product of a specific form of cultural development, including Greek rationalism and other elements of “western” Axial culture.

      And, all that stuff is by definition, Imperialistic. Imperialistic cultures are supertribes. Supertribes are highly unstable, and should be expected to collapse or degenerate, in historical terms.The modernist supertribe meme called “democracy” is in what Integral theorist Jean Gebser referred to as a “deficient mental” (rationalist/linear) state. It is hostile to Spirit and Transcendence.

      Since “Liberalism” (and rationalism) was the dominant paradigm that democracy rested on, democracy is hostile to Spirit. This means that the Left/liberalism is incapable of addressing the spiritual “coherence needs” (emotional intelligence) of humanity, leaving “religion” as a tool of the Right, not to be used for purposes of compassion, altruism and self-realization, but rather for predatory-corporatist exploitation.

      So, the failure of rationalism, democracy and modernism was inherent in its origins (Apollo, Prometheus), and a new, Holistic paradigm is necessary (Hermes). The leading edge of cultural evolution can not arise from the depleted rationalist/modernist paradigm that “democracy” comes from. It is necessary, but not sufficient. To “get beyond” the dysfunctional blame game of “liberals vs. conservatives”, the underlying paradigms on both “sides” must be transcended.

      Do anything else is to further subject the people to the deepening, traumatizing sense of hopelessness and cynicism that characterizes “deficient” (non-Holistic) liberalism and conservatism. Here is Michael Lerner’s analysis of the problem of “post-traumatic” politics: (also see “Surplus powerlessness: the psychodynamics of everyday life and the psychology of individual and social transformation“, Rabbi Michael Lerner, 1986 — excerpt:

      So I turned to psychological analysis to understand what was happening. I was deeply impressed by the questions and analyses of the early writings of Wilhelm Reich. Though I think that the details of his analysis were inadequate for understanding contemporary U.S. reality, he understood that the fundamental question of contemporary psychology must be, “What are the psychological forces that keep people from rebelling against a social order that is oppressive and prevents them from being all that they could be?” In abandoning my career as a philosophy professor at an elite college and my vocation as a political leader, I decided to dedicate my efforts to developing an approach to psychology that would assist people in coming to believe that they did have the right to win, and that their powerlessness was overcomeable.

      … Most working people never tried. They were fundamentally suspicious of all approaches to therapy—and wary of the class bias that therapists radiate. Yet, if any larger transformation of the society is possible, it must be based on a movement that attracts the majority of Americans. So if most Americans feel powerless and beaten down, pessimistic and suspicious of any social change movements, then a therapy practice must be developed to speak to their needs.”
      … It is critical to understand that this is not just some individual pathology, but a collective social process lived through by each individual as personal life. To each of us it appears that the world just is a certain way—because everyone acts in that way. We develop a Social Unconscious: a way of perceiving the world that shapes each individual perception according to our shared understanding of isolation and powerlessness.

      … Every aspect of our lives is governed by distrust and its resultant isolation. We can’t stand up to the boss because we know that we will be alone in doing so. We don’t speak up at union meetings because we don’t want to call attention to ourselves. We are certainly not going to call for militant action through our unions when we know that workers throughout the society will view us as selfish, and will go about their own selfish interests without giving us the support we need to win our struggles.

      So, following Lerner, recent discussions about political dysfunction here, which admittedly conclude with a lack of “real answers”, are just stuck in the dominant paradigm which simply further traumatizes people and makes them even more resistant to civic participation.

      1. Andy,

        “It’s not “some flaw in our society” that makes us susceptible to tribalism, but something more akin to original sin.”

        I agree that we’re inherently susceptible to many social ills. But when we give in to them — exhibit them on a substantial scale — there is something else at work. Some flaw in our society. That is not “original sin” — since we were not always like this, nor are all western societies like this.

  2. Tribalism is the equivalent of – say – supporting Ohio State over Michigan. Like:

    I don’t give a damn for the whole state of Michigan!
    The whole state of Michigan!
    The whole state of Michigan!
    I don’t give a damn for the whole state of Michigan!
    I’m from Ohio!!!


    What we are now seeing, instead, is almost like condoning child sex abuse because one’s from Pennsylvania. While accusing Woody Hayes of having done it. This is some sort of weird cult. Tribalism is simply a mode of non-state organization.

    Which, among other things, is a symptom of broken OODA loops. Which should be exploitable on that basis.

    1. “Which has been exploited by our ruling elites.”

      Which should be exploited by those seeking to end this madness.

    2. You are describing what Integral theorists call “paradigm regression”, not tribalism. Tribalism is in human DNA. All human culture is tribal. Imperialistic cultures, such as western Axial culture (and its subset, modernist “democracy”), are supertribes. (Richerson/Boyd)

      What you see as political ideology degenerating to “tribalism” is actually western culture degenerating from modernism to a medieval, pre-rational state (mythic conformism) on the “conservative” side, and a “deficient rationalist” state on the “modernist” (liberal) side.

      The “way out” is not to try to come up with some yet new way of defining a superior form of culture and mode of domination-imperialism (which is the implied message in “reforming america” on the FM blog), but rather for culture to evolve more spiritual depth, reflecting global interdependence and holism. “transcend and include

      “Evolution goes beyond what went before, but because it must embrace what went before, then its very nature is to transcend and include, and thus it has an inherent directionality, a secret impuls, toward increasing depth, increasing intrinsic value, increasing consciousness.”
      Ken Wilber

      1. It’s odd that this need explanation, but … by “tribalism” I don’t mean that human beings organize in groups (as you appear to believe). Rather, that we have a diminished ability it work together, which has in our past been one of our great strengths. The Founders called this “factionalism” and considered it one of the chief threats to the Republic. So it was in 1860, and so it is today.

  3. norman broomhall Australia

    whilst tribalism may be the bane of people in America , Americans generally are the bane of people in the rest of the world … for there they are united … in the acquisition and domination of it …

    1. There you go to what might be the very heart of 21st century geopolitics: will America retain global leadership, which depends on both moral and material superiority.

      We might lose either or both. For example, how would many of the world’s nations react to a US attack on Iran? If we continue to evolve to become like Prussia, might we wind up suffering the same fate as Prussia?

    2. Poor Prussia, forever slandered by Görings shrewd use of his own and Hitler’s fascination with Friedrich the Great. It’s an unfortunate historical revisionism.

      During Friedrich’s rule, Prussia were engaged in fewer wars than any other major European nation. Friedrich merged Absolute Monarchy with enlightenment thinking which manifested itself in a code of law that bound both monarch and subjects and eliminated regional differences in interpretation of statutes. He was also a religiously tolerant ruler and after his victory in Silesia, he had a Catholic cathedral build, to show his Catholic subjects not to fear that foreign policy should eventually lead to an internal pogrom, as we in Europe have an unfortunate history of doing.

      The Iron chancellor later, instituted mandatory old-age pensions, and health and accident insurance for workers. Yes, he did this as he was also fought the growing social democracy movement in the 1880s by outlawing several organizations and the two are two sides of the same coin.

      It was in Prussia the NSDAP arose. But can we truly say that this is because of something uniquely Prussian? Prussia had also fostered social democratic Otto Braun, Prussian Prime Minister and defacto leader of the social-democratic block in the Landstag. Otto Braun was an ardent opponent of the Nazis and was deposed by Hitlers puppet chancellor Franz von Papen.

      In the end, Prussia was not erased on Allied fiat in 1947 because of actions of Prussia, but because of how Prussia was used in German propaganda.

  4. “Perhaps we can find a common vision only under pressure during tough times. Let’s hope we can avoid this path to a solution, as it might prove painful.”

    These current manifestations of a tribalism rising may perhaps reflect the general nihilism prevalent deep in the American communal psyche. I suspect tribalism arises quickly as a panacea and in response to a lack of meaning and hope. And as a direct result to a perception of reality shaken by events, people seek commonality outside the normative values that are seen to be false or abandoned by the powerful.

    Note above, the use of “Hope”…..hope we can. Pretty thin ice, I see us walking. Perhaps


  5. The two major tribes in our contemporary political structure each tend to focus their criticisms on a particular structure of power. For the Right, their critiques focus on the concentrations of power that emerged with the creation of Big Government. For the Left, their critiques focus on the concentrations of power that emerged with the creation of Big Capital.

    But if our contemporary structure of power now consists of the complete inter penetration of these two spheres of power, then the critiques of each tribe are only half right.

    The necessary political realignment might only occur when the critiques of both tribes are incorporated into a new political paradigm.

    1. Jim,

      While that’s the conventional view, and hence must be taken seriously, it’s never made sense to me. The Democratic Party is perfectly comfortable with “Big Capital”. Banks are among their core supporters, and large corporate donors are well-treated by Dem policy. Obama’s first step in reforming health care was to do so in a fashion that expanded profits for the drug and insurance industries. Democratic administrations have nicely fed a wide range of industries.

      As for the GOP, they love big government. Agribusiness is revered and lavished with public funds. Expansion of the military, security, and intel sectors (now both private and public) is among their top priorities. Civil liberties only count when they concern property rights.

      I don’t see much evidence for the duality you describe. Rather the partisan differences are one of degree, of shading, or priority — who they support the most. For both the middle and lower classes are at the bottom of the list. The fate of the Republic not even a concern, except in rhetoric.

    2. The differences in criticisms are part of a difference in branding (Coke vs Pepsi). Party platforms are just a marketing tool, but the danger is that some of this nonsense will be put into practice to obscure that fact.

      Branding differences are nearly irrelevant to the powerful — Does anyone imagine that a billionaire is worried about whether he will be able to obtain a safe abortion for his inconveniently pregnant daughter? Laws are for the little people. — but some of them are capable of doing a tremendous amount of damage to our citizens when put into practice. Republicans worry me more than Democrats because the former have a stronger and more consistent brand; whereas I see little substance in the Democratic “brand” at all, so there is less damage there to be wrought. Both parties are equally beholden to the 0.1% in matters that matter to them, and could not care less about the rest of us aside from what it takes to manipulate a majority into voting for them.

      The “critiques” of both tribes are eye-catching designs and memorable slogans on the cereal box.

  6. Fabius and Cosies:

    Of course, both of you are correct. What I was trying to point out in my comment (apparently not very succesfully) was that the purely rhetorical critiques presently articulated by each tribe (Right and Left) could actually be turned into real critiques in an alternative political paradigm (i.e. an alternative moral vision calling for specific structural changes some of which may have already been embodied in some of the criticisms of Big Government by the Right and some of the criticisms of Big Capital by the Left)

    I realize that for much of the progressive Left the State is still seen as an agent of possible positive transformation rather than a questionable concentration of modern power while for much the Right Big Capital is still seen as an agent of possible positive transformation rather than a questionable concentration of modern power.

    But a rethinking of this latter paradigm might be the foundation for a future mobilization of the middle and lower classes. It could draw on our cultural history of entrepreneurial capitalism as largely practiced in the U.S. between 1750 and 1850 which seemed in harmony with our cultural values at that time (for example tinkering and making money for ourselves). Such a new paradigm might simultaneously begin to also critique the emergence of our modern nation state which really began to evolve with the Civil War.

    What our country may have developed since the 1860s is a type of positive feedback loop where changes in the the complexity of hierarchical structures of both private and public power (with the creation and evolution of Big Capital and Big State) led to changes in our cultural value system which in turn resulted in behavior leading to still further concentrations of power which is now leading to a system breakdown.

    I realize that these are complex issues which I have not filled out clearly but hopefully these suggestions may be getting at some of the roots of the problem.

    1. Jim wrote, “What our country may have developed since the 1860s is a type of positive feedback loop where changes in the the complexity of hierarchical structures of both private and public power (with the creation and evolution of Big Capital and Big State) led to changes in our cultural value system which in turn resulted in behavior leading to still further concentrations of power which is now leading to a system breakdown.”

      I mostly agree, but I’d put it a little differently: the most powerful elements of our society have learned to game the system faster than the system has evolved to compensate. It is no longer homeostatic: like a failing liver, it is too compromised to repair its own damage.

      Now the only question is whether a critical mass of the most privileged among us will realize that there is a real danger of system collapse, consequently recognizing — geese and golden eggs and such — that some additional bread and circuses would be a wise investment; or whether they will continue on what appears to be their present course of believing there is no limit to what they can get away with, so long as they do it somewhat gradually and keep the population frightened and nervous.

      Come to think of it, among those with real power, perhaps that is the difference between Democrats and Republicans… which would make the Democrats the true conservatives and the Republicans the reckless “Go for it, dude!” crowd.

      1. “the most powerful elements of our society have learned to game the system faster than the system has evolved to compensate.”

        The great commonality among different explanations for our problems is that they don’t involve us. We’re pure, we’re passive. We’re Snow White, asleep in our chrystal box! We chant the American mantra: It’s Not My Fault! It’s Not My Fault! It’s Not My Fault!

        No doubt the Roman people saw things similarly as the Republic died. Historians see things differently.

  7. “The discussion in the comments have been terrific during the past month. Why has traffic been so low? That’s an odd divergence; these two usually rise and fall together.”

    I know this is far from the main point of the post, but I have nothing useful to offer otherwise. A guess (based on no actual evidence): The average consumers of the site are reaching their fill of politics as we approach the election. As soon as they decide their vote, they check out completely to recover from the trauma. The commenters are more dedicated, some made even more enthusiastic by election season.

    1. That is IMO an incisive observation, highlighting the disengaged nature of America’s citizenry.

      Another large part are even more disengaged, not even bothering to vote.

      How much of America’s political machinery is run by paid political warriors? Politicians, marketeers, campaign consultants, lobbyists, and the legions of people paid by the parties and interest groups — corporate, unions, and the NGO etc funded by those with money?

      What is the role of citizen volunteers? For an answer we can look to the streets of California, home of the citizen initiatives — now totally hijacked by rich interest groups, driven by businesses who collect the signatures like shepherds gather wool.

  8. 15% of very conservative people say that Romney is more responsible for Bin Laden's death than Obama.

    From Public Policy Polling, 9 September 2012 — Their first first post-conventions poll in Ohio shows that 15% of “very conservative” people polled say that Romney is “more responsible for Bin Laden’s death” than President Obama.

    At Esquire, Charles Pierce draws the obvious conclusion:

    If we needed any more evidence that the atrocities perpetrated by Osama bin Laden 11 years ago have been transformed into simply another mudball in our national political mudfight, that poll pretty much seals the deal for you. It’s more than ignorance. It’s more than being misinformed. (I don’t know of a single commentator, not even the wingiest of wingnut public-access trolls, who’s credited Romney with being involved in the raid into Pakistan.)

    This is simple reflexive tribalism — Democrat bad, Republican, good.

  9. Pingback: Why comments have been turned off on the FM website. It’s the same reasons … |

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