Tribalism’s effect on democracy

Last week, I began to explore tribalism as what essayist Andrew Sullivan calls, “our default human experience.” We’re born into tribes, choose tribes, feel stronger attachment to some, and rationalize our association with others. No wonder we’re basket cases. It’s is not a simple thing.

Mono-cultural nations have had it easy: one people, one language, one religion. Pluralistic, multi-cultural nations, however, face the challenge of making the myriad of overlapping, oftentimes conflicting aspects of tribalism work harmoniously. The more complex a nation’s society and culture, the more it’s clear that governance of such a mass can happen only within a democratic structure. But, democracy, like interwoven tribalism, is not a simple thing.

Understanding how democracy works is akin to comprehending the dynamics of quantum physics and the market economy: One understands interactions at the micro level but at the macro can only marvel at their harmonious functioning. In “Wealth of Nations,” Adam Smith calls it the “invisible hand.”  In quantum physics, it’s the whacky world.

Unlike the quantum world that’s subject to the immutable laws of physics, the market can be easily sabotaged since it is subject only to human interaction. Fraud, price-fixing, hostile-takeovers, and monopolization all work to disrupt and blow it out of the water.

Such is true for democracy because it is, as is the market, a human undertaking. Gerrymandering, inside-baseball backroom deals, obscene infusion of money used to buy or influence candidates help undermine democratic ideals.

Nevertheless, as Winston Churchill famously opined, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms.” And, as noted above, democracy, because it’s inclusionary, is the only option for a society populated by a hodgepodge of races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures: tribes. When it becomes exclusionary, it begins to dissolve and devolve into fascism.

From its inception in the Greek polities, democracy functioned in mono-cultural societies. Until the founding of the United States. In 1776, America was mildly pluralistic. Citizenship was reserved for those of European descent and Protestant Christianity was the common religion, but within those constructs differences existed. It was debated whether English or German would be the lingua franca of the U.S.

Over time, as wave after wave of immigrants arrived transplanting their tribal cultures, languages, and religions here, the U.S. became more diverse, more tribal, thus testing the mettle of our democratic process. As history demonstrates, that mettle has held firm. The question before us is whether we have that same mettle, the wherewithal to defend American ideals and pass on a democratic America to our posterity.

In his essay “America wasn’t built for humans, Sullivan writes, “Tribalism only destabilizes a democracy when it calcifies into something bigger and more intense than our smaller, multiple loyalties; when it rivals our attachment to the nation as a whole; and when it turns rival tribes into enemies.”

So, that’s our challenge: Stopping powerful forces working to create a mono-cultural Fortress America and subverting our inexorable historical march to equal opportunity and justice under the law. An exclusionary America where white is right and others are the enemy.

In a speech last week, former president George W. Bush declared, “It means bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.”

A more profound statement could not be uttered today. But while Bush’s statement was in context of race, it had a religious undertone with his use of blasphemy and creed. Though never a Christian nation, as the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli declared, the dominant religion in America has been Christianity. Over the past decades, its grip has slipped.

Every nation needs a unifying mythos. What’s ours?

To be continued.

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