Democracy and Tribalism
Tribalism is a term used to denote the perceptual categorization of humans into different groups. Some media outlets present tribalism as a new force threatening democracy, which is misleading. Instead tribalism is deeply embedded in human evolutionary history and in the personal developmental history of each individual human being.
For approximately 6 million years our forebears lived a nomadic hunter/gatherer lifestyle. Before the beginning of settled agriculture and civilization, they roamed the planet in small tribes that competed with other tribes for resources. They formed these groups because they could not survive as individuals on their own, and the need for group bonding has been part of human history ever since.
At a personal level almost every child is raised and nurtured by a small group of adults and perhaps older siblings who love and care for the child. Each child quickly identifies these people as ‘my people’ (the first In-group), and all others as ‘not my people’ (Out-groups). Consequently we grow up replicating our evolutionary history. And group bonding does not end when children leave the nest. As adults we form our own In-group of intimates, formed of family members, romantic partners, close friends, and our own children. The number of people in these circles is small; they are essentially small tribal bands.
We expand our In-group identification beyond our circles of intimates through similarity. We identify those who are similar to us in various ways, and we perceive the similar as extended members of our In-groups. The similarity can be based on age, gender, ethnicity, race, social class, national identity, religious affiliation, sports team identification, and any other characteristic that allows us to separate those similar (Us) from those not similar (Them). We make this categorization more personally comforting by assigning positive characteristics to those similar, and negative characteristics to those dissimilar.
So we are still tribally motivated, living our lives through the lens of Us versus Them. Tribalism is an ancient powerful force, and it is naïve to think that something as historically recent as democracy is going to make it disappear. The globalized ideal that all humans should live in a peacefully cooperative integrated global ‘village’ with no tribal boundaries is not universally accepted. Many of the disruptive events currently occurring around the world are tribal push-back reactions against globalization generally and democracy in particular.
Why is there tribal push-back against democracy? Because democracy is ultimately anti-tribal. Full democracy means extending equal rights and opportunities to everyone, regardless of their tribal identities. Tribal members, that is, all of us, have to overcome Us versus Them perceptions and accept that members of other tribes are equally positive and equally worthy. This acceptance can be especially difficult when generations of people live their lives thinking that members of other tribes are negative and unworthy.
Can democracy and tribalism ever be reconciled? There are two democracy/tribalism reconciliation experiments going on right now- one in the Balkans and the other in Iraq. The former multi-ethnic country of Yugoslavia is now seven separate countries, and each of the seven is primarily populated by a single ethnic tribe. Two of the seven, Croatia and Slovenia, are rated as full democracies by Freedom House. The other five, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia are rated as partially-free, meaning that they are possibly on the way to becoming full democracies if they can overcome recent impediments to the democratic transition. Furthermore, none of these single-tribe countries have attacked any of the others since the 1990s. The second experiment attempted to plant democracy in Iraq, a multi-ethnic country. According to Freedom House democracy is failing in Iraq. The three ethnic tribes, the Kurds, the Shia, and the Sunni Arabs, distrust each other and cannot agree upon a fundamental governance structure.
Perhaps the American model of multi-tribal democracy does not work in certain regions of the ‘Old World’ (Europe, Asia and Africa), where tribal hatreds go back centuries. If global democracy has any hope of rebounding, tribalism cannot be ignored. Instead, when failed-state opportunities arise, redraw their national boundaries to recognize tribal realities, creating single-tribe countries, which might give democracy a better chance of blossoming.