The trials and tribulations of Tribalism

Posted 3/13/18

I was recently asked to give a speech, without any guidelines about the topic. The only caveat was that “anything political has to have the opportunity for an opposing view to be presented.” …

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The trials and tribulations of Tribalism


I was recently asked to give a speech, without any guidelines about the topic. The only caveat was that “anything political has to have the opportunity for an opposing view to be presented.” Which is fine — my first thoughts weren’t anything political. Or so I thought.

Have you tried recently to think of an issue that is *not*political? Mention any topic, and, suddenly, you’re on “Crossfire” with two opposing views being shouted at the wind. We have devolved into what some call the new “tribalism.”

There are a number of reasons for our “tribal” attitudes, but, I would suggest, that it is not that new. There was an episode of “The West Wing” about 15 years ago, in which one of the main characters, Josh Lyman, was working on a budget item to clean up Chesapeake Bay. But, since the idea was espoused by a member of the other political party, the cleanup got killed by legislative maneuver. It was less important, 15 years ago, on a show dedicated to the virtue of government, to get something good and bipartisan done than it was to win, or, perhaps more importantly, make sure the other guy didn’t win.

Some blame social media for the polarization — I tend to think of social media as a complicating factor in an underlying disease. Others blame the “—isms,” be they racism, sexism, or socialism. I actually tend to think of things like that as, well, beyond the pathologies that they are, as reflexive responses to our collapsing social structures.

I think America is unique in all of history in that our identity as a people is not based on a common ancestry, it is not based on race or a religious tradition. It is based on adherence to ideas and principles. From Thomas Jefferson right through to Ronald Reagan, “We, the People,” are an idea more than anything else. And that idea took the form of institutions.

Well, those institutions have failed us. Or, to be more precise, we believe those institutions failed us. I wrote a couple weeks ago about the idea of “institutional trust” — try to picture an American “institution” that is widely revered and trusted. Trust in government has been on the decline for 50 years, starting with the Pentagon Papers. For 300 years, churches played a central role in forming communities, but, I’ve written before about how they’ve lost their institutional place in America.

The media? Forty percent of the country stopped trusting the media because of its perceived bias, so they found their own outlet for the news, which another 40 percent of the public sees as a propaganda wing of one of the political parties; and, in the meantime, a big chunk of the public gets their “news” from Steven Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel. The education system? Please … not since Sputnik.

The military? Still scores pretty highly, but … the Iraq War, Abu Graib. The police? Also, still scores high, but not with everybody, right? Ferguson, Dallas, last month in Florida. Political parties? Right now, both parties are engaged in civil wars, and if you think Donald Trump caused tribalism, I would ask you to consider that he is nothing more than the reductio ad absurdum of our tribal instincts.

These are — or, were — the institutional structure that gave shape to our civic life. And when the institutions that stitch together the fabric of our civic life fail us, our civic life crumbles; when the commonalities that define our civic life no longer are common, then we reach for whatever we can find that will bind us together. It’s easier to bind small than it is to bind big, so we create “tribes.”

Next week, I’ll share my thoughts on rescuing ourselves from this trend, and my thoughts on the fascinating question somebody asked about engaging millennials about this problem.

Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His novels are available at His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.


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