Tribalism Versus Americanism

Permit me a “Sunday morning meditation”…

We Americans are a cantankerous and argumentative lot. We hold vastly different political philosophies and policy preferences, and we increasingly inhabit alternate realities. Partisans routinely attack elected officials—especially Presidents—who don’t share their preferences or otherwise meet their expectations.

Politics as usual. Unpleasant and often unfair, but—hysteria and hyperbole notwithstanding– usually not a threat to the future of the republic. Usually.

We are beginning to understand that Donald Trump does pose such a threat.

In the wake of Trump’s moral equivocations following Charlottesville, critics on both the left and right characterized his refusal to distinguish between the “fine people” among the Nazis and KKK and the “fine people” among the protestors as an assault on core American values. His subsequent, stunning decision to pardon rogue sheriff Joe Arpaio has been described, accurately, as an assault on the rule of law.

It’s worth considering what, exactly, is at stake.

Whatever our beliefs about “American exceptionalism,” the founding of this country was genuinely exceptional—defined as dramatically different from what had gone before—in one incredibly important respect: for the first time, citizenship was made dependent upon behavior rather than identity. In the Old World, countries had been created by conquest, or as expressions of ethnic or religious solidarity. As a result, the rights of individuals were dependent upon their identities, the status of their particular “tribes” in the relevant order. (Jews, for example, rarely enjoyed the same rights as Christians, even in countries that refrained from oppressing them.)

Your rights vis a vis your government depended upon who you were—your religion, your social class, your status as conqueror or conquered.

The new United States took a different approach to citizenship. Whatever the social realities, whatever the disabilities imposed by the laws of the various states, anyone (okay, any white male) born or naturalized here was equally a citizen. We look back now at the exclusion of blacks and women and our treatment of Native Americans as shameful departures from that approach, and they were, but we sometimes fail to appreciate how novel the approach itself was at that time in history.

All of our core American values—individual rights, civic equality, due process of law—flow from the principle that government must not facilitate tribalism, must not treat people differently based upon their ethnicity or religion or other marker of identity. Eventually (and for many people, reluctantly) we extended that principle to gender, skin color and sexual orientation.

Racism is a rejection of that civic equality. Signaling that government officials will not be punished for flagrantly violating that foundational principle so long as the disobedience advances the interests of the President, fatally undermines it.

Admittedly, America’s history is filled with disgraceful episodes in which we have failed to live up to the principles we profess. In many parts of the country, communities still grapple with bitter divisions based upon tribal affiliations—race, religion and increasingly, partisanship.

When our leaders have understood the foundations of American citizenship, when they have reminded us that what makes us Americans is allegiance to core American values—not the color of our skin, not the prayers we say, not who we love—we emerge stronger from these periods of unrest. When they speak to the “better angels of our nature,” most of those “better angels” respond.

When our leaders are morally bankrupt, all bets are off. We’re not all Americans any more, we’re just a collection of warring tribes, some favored by those in power, some not.

As the old saying goes: elections have consequences.


  1. “As the old saying goes: elections have consequences.”

    A line from the movie, “Three Days of the Condor”, which gives a pretty closeup picture of covert government operations, describes the foundation of our current administration: “Not getting caught in a lie is the same as the truth.”

    So they repeat their lies, hoping another old saying will bear them out, “A lie repeated often enough will be believed as the truth.”

    The lack of mental acuity of our sitting president is best expressed in “walking back” his DACA decisions and comments this past week; “There are no mixed signals in ‘contradictory statements”.

    “When our leaders are morally bankrupt, all bets are off. We’re not all Americans any more, we’re just a collection of warring tribes, some favored by those in power, some not.”

    The above copied and pasted words from Sheila today takes me back to a Dan Rather comment in December, 2004; “When government gave networks the airwaves, it was with the stipulation that they do some public good.” The networks attempting to comply with this stipulation are repeatedly called “fake news” by our fake “leader” and his words are believed by the “tribes” favored by “those in power”; leaving the majority of Americans in limbo and in fear of having no chance of a viable future for any of us.

    These are the consequences of the 2016 presidential campaign and it’s frightening outcome.

  2. The more dysfunctional the tribe becomes, the more fear there is about its survival. The more fearful the tribe is about its survival, the harder it works to bring people back under the authority of the tribe. If the threat becomes to great, it may try to destroy them emotionally, spiritually or physically. Recent and historical examples abound.

  3. JoAnn, as usual you have hit the nail on the head.

    I will add that from my vantage point there is another tribal divide to our country, and that is the divide between the wealthy and the poor. That chasm grows deeper and wider with each quarterly report out of Wall Street. Most ominous perhaps is that as the chasm grows so does the disconnect between the people who inhabit each side. That disconnect breeds resentment, distrust, hatred and fear… on both sides. And it is not a good thing.

  4. Theresa; will Trump’s cavalier signing of the bill to lower Disaster Aid the week before Harvey hit the Gulf Coast come back to haunt him. Doubtful, to say the least! It will be blamed somehow on the need to cut President Obama’s provisions for the escalating devastation of weather systems. Another blatant piece of evidence of the widening chasm between the wealthy and the poor. Effects of Harvey still being suffered and that damage continues to grow as we await the full force of Irma and Hurricane Juan is forming to add to the devastation which will have no source of aid from what was once OUR government. The National Guard has been activated; government aid has been promised but the initial and most active aid is coming from Americans and immigrants who are doing all they can to save their neighbors as well as themselves. They headed in caravans of trucks towing boats to go into the floodwaters to rescue those who were stranded. Strangers all; no tribal requirements to be rescued.

    The young man, an undocumented immigrant who gave his life saving others from Harvey’s floodwaters will die without his mother to grieve at his grave. This government has forbidden her entry into this country. She asked for no aid from anyone; only to be allowed to bury her son where he lived and where he died a hero. There must be thousands of others who have undocumented immigrants here who have lost them, six members of murdered singer Selena’s family were drowned in Harvey’s floodwaters trying to flee. They are not a separate tribe; they are suffering humans, the same as American citizens. At this time, more than any other, we are all members of the same tribe, suffering the same losses.

  5. Tribalism and the “other” is biology. Americanism is an intellectual construct. We can neither wish or will this conflict away.

  6. Reporting from Ft. Myers, there are times when all of the tribalism fades into the background. One of those sheltering at my house voted for 45. Pray for all of us. Probably won’t be back for a few days.

  7. Theresa has added a vital divide to Sheila’s excellent array. We have not lived up to our foundational principles and are paying the price because we favor the distinct minority with deep pockets who have over those of the vast majority who have not. Wage inequality (or a failure to fairly share our economy’s bounty) is, in my opinion, our number one domestic issue today. I think laying all of this misadventure in democracy on Trump and Ayn Rand devotees such as Ryan and the Kochs and Mercers misses the point since I think a well paid well cared for workforce based on a Locke/social democratic model would be a relatively happy throng irrespective of those in leadership roles such as Trump, McConnell and Ryan, all of whom, through one ruse or another, seek to widen the divide between the haves and the have nots. As I often note, these Koch- and Mercer-fed libertarians posing as Republicans have little to no regard for the rest of us and treat us as ATMs (though they pretend to have some regard for our fates when politically expedient, especially around election times). Tribalism, religion, sexual preference and other such ploys are means, not ends for political control, and are, of course, designed to be deliberately divisive in order to set up a chaotic scene so that a political messiah can ride in on his/her white horse and save the day. Result? We the distracted many are arguing choice, race, bathrooms, religion etc., and all the while the haves continue to plunder our treasury via tax cuts, redefinitions of ordinary income (see carried interest, stock options etc.), right to work laws, an end to public input into regulatory processes etc. The haves have done a good job in distracting our attention from the real issues of the day with their resurrection of old wounds the Constitution (as subsequently modified and clarified and among other things) was designed to end. What to do? Point out what is really going on, fearlessly and incessantly and, as biblically stated this Sunday morning, “become not weary in well doing” – or in words of the street, “hang tough” in the exercise of our First Amendment rights.

  8. Kudos to John Neal on his comments. We have to consciously and actively work to resolve or at least mitigate this conflict and restore the intellectual construct that he has referred to that is America. We have no real choice in this. Continued and even deeper chaos with even more unpredictable worldwide ramifications is the glaring alternative. We simply cannot risk having that as our future. This is why our allies and friend abroad are screaming at us out of great fear to wake up!

  9. The apocalyptic threat to Jacksonville has lessened. Peggy is not so lucky. I hope she will be OK.

    This morning I heard a tremendous interview on “Open Mind” on our public TV station. The interview was with Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media.

    The gist of his argument was: What it means to be CIVIC has changed. It’s like Sheila now says, “It’s Tribalism (new style) vs. Americanism (old style). Or to be more specific as I’ve been trying to communicate for a long time: Fascism vs. Democracy.

    The OLD tools in defending our democracy are not enough. That’s why Donald Trump is considered legitimate in so many minds. The traditional pro-democracy NGO’s are out dated and ineffective. It appears from my experiences that changing this dynamic might be IMPOSSIBLE.

    It’s like the beginning of WW II when the Germans invaded Poland. The Poles were still relying on their HORSE CALVARY while the German overran the country with their TANKS.

  10. “It’s like the beginning of WW II when the Germans invaded Poland. The Poles were still relying on their HORSE CALVARY while the German overran the country with their TANKS.”

    Thanks, Marv, this is the most powerful and on-target statement I have seen referring to our current dilemma. “horses vs. tanks” may give meaning to those who continue to poo-poo even the possibility we may be in trouble here.

  11. Our only hope is for the TRANSFORMATION of our pro-democracy institutions. If our old institutions are so locked into the past that they can not transform, then we have to institute a CRASH PROGRAM to create new ones. There is no other choice.

  12. For the last 17 years or so we have owned and occupied property in Bonita Springs, FL. Last year informed somewhat by my interest in climate change we decided that the risks out weighed the benefit so sold in a very good real estate market. By tomorrow it’s quite liely that nature will have reclaimed that party.

    I am paying great attention to the news unfolding from Florida as Irma re-asserts nature’s claim and one thing that strikes me like a slap in the face.

    Today there are no tribes in Florida. There is one, people who need and help each other.

    Will we remember that?

  13. I have been saying for decades, as a corollary to Tip O’Neil’s famous axiom, “All politics is local,” that “All politics is tribal.” Thanks for an interesting thought piece.

    In comparison to the income gap, so aptly pointed to as a symptom of a failing government, and sometimes blamed as the cause and/or the objective, the EDUCATION GAP in America is even greater, and is in many ways complicit with the income gap.

    Privatizing public education will make students ever more dependent on and subservient to the ambitions of the ruling class. A trickle-down economy has given us–the once thoughtful American citizen–a TRICKLE-DOWN EDUCATION.

  15. Well said, Gerald!

    Our founders were racists. Nothing much has changed except the government has not allowed certain behaviors toward others. That doesn’t change cultures.

    I read an interesting article about the upcoming Census…it is being intentionally underfunded. For whose gain?

    As much as a abhor violence, Antifa has a symbolic message for those who consider themselves “lefties” – get off the couch and hit the streets. If you don’t think the well funded right isn’t interested in rolling back all the gains made by FDR’s New Deal, you’re not paying attention to reality.

    When Trump says, Make America Great Again, the billionaires like the Koch’s want us back in the 20’s where Robber Barons ruled without little state or federal government interference. That’s been their goal since they gained momentum in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

    We are in the late stages of capitalism…what comes “next” depends on who wants it more.

  16. Gerald E. Stinson re: your 9:32 comment

    As usual, you have pointed to the real source of our problems. It is inequality as a result of low wages.

  17. Election have consequences and character counts. Donald Trump’s ‘character’ is counted in dollars and cents and ratings.

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