Taming Tribalism

By Astrid Popovici

Tribalism is an ancient instinct. Infants as young as six months old show a preference towards members of their own race, according to two University of Toronto studies.  Humans have evolved to hold in-group loyalty, and we don’t grow out of it as adults either—just look at our love for team sports and party politics.

But as the scale of groups gets larger, tribalism must become weaker in order for the group to function.  In the smallest unit, the family, members tend to be very loyal to each other.  Tribalism decreases as you expand the size of the group, from extended families to local communities to nations. This phenomenon has been described as concentric circles of loyalty. 

Without this inverse relationship, when family-style tribalism is applied at the level of the nation state, you end up with Big Man-ism—a government controlled by a dictator who is more concerned with giving out goodies to his friends than maintaining a functioning country.

An impartial system based on the rule of law allows different tribes to live together under one authority: a government that applies the law to everyone equally.  Before we had police and a legal system, natural rights were protected at the tribal level.  If someone shot or swindled someone else, the perpetrator could expect revenge from the victim’s tribe.  Now, we outsource this task to a tribally neutral government, in the form of calling the cops and taking people to court.  

That neutrality is crucial in order for a government or institution to be considered legitimate. Without the perception that the game is fair and the rules apply to everyone, we revert back to who-whom. This is because holding back your tribalism has the dynamic of the prisoners’ dilemma: everyone has to cooperate for things to work out.  

On both sides of the political spectrum, people are coming to view institutions as increasingly illegitimate.

People on the left contrast the cases of Brock Turner and George Floyd as evidence of the inherent white supremacy of the justice system.  Many leftists believe that racial bias runs rampant in our government and legal system. They argue the system is so corrupt that only implementing radical changes like “abolishing the police” can restore it to neutrality.  

In turn, people on the right argue that our system promotes anarcho-tyranny, under which law-abiding citizens are kept on a tight leash by the government (the tyranny part) while criminals are allowed to run free, causing anarchy.  An oft-cited example of anarcho-tyranny is the fact that churches and small-businesses have been forced to close while rampant looting, rioting, and arson in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death went unpunished.  Conservatives use these examples as evidence of how the same social-distancing laws have not been enforced equally.  Right-wing figures point to racial discrimination in the form of affirmative action as another example of institutional bias and injustice. 

The two sides hold these opposing beliefs with equal fervor. This phenomenon–living in two different worlds–has been called “epistemic divorce.”  If the diverse American people want to avoid tribal conflict and live together under one government, we must restore our faith in shared institutions and universal rules.