I used to read Andrew Sullivan’ blog regularly: he was smart, gutsy,a good writer, and willing to buck conventional wisdom> then the gay marriage controversy heated up—Sullivan is gay– and Andrew lost it. His focus and once-reliable rationality became distorted by anger, bias and emotion. He eventually gave up blogging because he determined that it was emotionally unhealthy; maybe he finally recognized that he needed a break. By that time, I had stopped reading him.
His brilliant essay in New York Magazine suggest that Andrew has his groove back, which means that his observation are thoughtful and worth pondering. The topic is tribalism, and he writes in part,
Over the past couple of decades in America, the enduring, complicated divides of ideology, geography, party, class, religion, and race have mutated into something deeper, simpler to map, and therefore much more ominous. I don’t just mean the rise of political polarization (although that’s how it often expresses itself), nor the rise of political violence (the domestic terrorism of the late 1960s and ’70s was far worse), nor even this country’s ancient black-white racial conflict (though its potency endures).
I mean a new and compounding combination of all these differences into two coherent tribes, eerily balanced in political power, fighting not just to advance their own side but to provoke, condemn, and defeat the other.
I mean two tribes whose mutual incomprehension and loathing can drown out their love of country, each of whom scans current events almost entirely to see if they advance not so much their country’s interests but their own. I mean two tribes where one contains most racial minorities and the other is disproportionately white; where one tribe lives on the coasts and in the cities and the other is scattered across a rural and exurban expanse; where one tribe holds on to traditional faith and the other is increasingly contemptuous of religion altogether; where one is viscerally nationalist and the other’s outlook is increasingly global; where each dominates a major political party; and, most dangerously, where both are growing in intensity as they move further apart.
Sullivan goes on to explain that this development is antithetical to the model the Founders intended for their new nation:
The project of American democracy — to live beyond such tribal identities, to construct a society based on the individual, to see ourselves as citizens of a people’s republic, to place religion off-limits, and even in recent years to embrace a multiracial and post-religious society — was always an extremely precarious endeavor. It rested, from the beginning, on an 18th-century hope that deep divides can be bridged by a culture of compromise, and that emotion can be defeated by reason. It failed once, spectacularly, in the most brutal civil war any Western democracy has experienced in modern times. And here we are, in an equally tribal era, with a deeply divisive president who is suddenly scrambling Washington’s political alignments, about to find out if we can prevent it from failing again.
Sullivan explains the evolutionary basis of tribalism and why it is so deeply rooted in the human psyche. Then he writes,
Successful modern democracies do not abolish this feeling; they co-opt it. Healthy tribalism endures in civil society in benign and overlapping ways. We find a sense of belonging, of unconditional pride, in our neighborhood and community; in our ethnic and social identities and their rituals; among our fellow enthusiasts. There are hip-hop and country-music tribes; bros; nerds; Wasps; Dead Heads and Packers fans; Facebook groups. (Yes, technology upends some tribes and enables new ones.) And then, most critically, there is the Über-tribe that constitutes the nation-state, a megatribe that unites a country around shared national rituals, symbols, music, history, mythology, and events, that forms the core unit of belonging that makes a national democracy possible.
None of this is a problem. 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. And the most significant fact about American tribalism today is that all three of these characteristics now apply to our political parties, corrupting and even threatening our system of government.
What follows is a fascinating historical and political analysis of the forces that have led to the current tribal divide. Read it: the int here is to salute Sullivan’s work, not co-opt it. After that long, spot-on discourse, Sullivan writes,
One of the great attractions of tribalism is that you don’t actually have to think very much. All you need to know on any given subject is which side you’re on. You pick up signals from everyone around you, you slowly winnow your acquaintances to those who will reinforce your worldview, a tribal leader calls the shots, and everything slips into place. After a while, your immersion in tribal loyalty makes the activities of another tribe not just alien but close to incomprehensible.
This all sounds familiar.
Sullivan claims to be a conservative, and this tough (but accurate) assessment of the Left in 2017 is certainly the kind of bluntness that few liberals could muster:
In America, the intellectual elites, far from being a key rational bloc resisting this, have succumbed. The intellectual right and the academic left have long since dispensed with the idea of a mutual exchange of ideas. In a new study of the voting habits of professors, Democrats outnumber Republicans 12 to 1, and the imbalance is growing. Among professors under 36, the ratio is almost 23 to 1. It’s not a surprise, then, that once-esoteric neo-Marxist ideologies — such as critical race and gender theory and postmodernism, the bastard children of Herbert Marcuse and Michel Foucault — have become the premises of higher education, the orthodoxy of a new and mandatory religion. Their practical implications — such as “safe spaces,” speech regarded as violence, racially segregated graduation ceremonies, the policing of “micro-aggressions,” the checking of “white privilege” — are now embedded in the institutions themselves.
Andrew gives us much, much more, including an equally tough diagnosis of how the Right has exacerbated the problem from its end. Finally he provides some guidance, some hope, writing in part,
As utopian as it sounds, I truly believe all of us have to at least try to change the culture from the ground up. There are two ideas that might be of help, it seems to me. The first is individuality. I don’t mean individualism. Nothing is more conducive to tribalism than a sea of disconnected, atomized individuals searching for some broader tribe to belong to. I mean valuing the unique human being — distinct from any group identity, quirky, full of character and contradictions, skeptical, rebellious, immune to being labeled or bludgeoned into a broader tribal grouping. This cultural antidote to tribalism, left and right, is still here in America and ready to be rediscovered. That we expanded the space for this to flourish is one of the greatest achievements of the West.
Perhaps I’m biased because I’m an individual by default. I’m gay but Catholic, conservative but independent, a Brit but American, religious but secular. What tribe would ever have me? I may be an extreme case, but we all are nonconformist to some degree. Nurturing your difference or dissent from your own group is difficult; appreciating the individuality of those in other tribes is even harder. It takes effort and imagination, openness to dissent, even an occasional embrace of blasphemy.
And, at some point, we also need mutual forgiveness. It doesn’t matter if you believe, as I do, that the right bears the bulk of the historical blame. No tribal conflict has ever been unwound without magnanimity…If societies scarred by recent domestic terrorism can aim at this, why should it be so impossible for us?
But this requires, of course, first recognizing our own tribal thinking. So much of our debates are now an easy either/or rather than a complicated both/and. In our tribal certainties, we often distort what we actually believe in the quiet of our hearts, and fail to see what aspects of truth the other tribe may grasp…The actual solutions to our problems are to be found in the current no-man’s-land that lies between the two tribes. Reentering it with empiricism and moderation to find different compromises for different issues is the only way out of our increasingly dangerous impasse.
All of this runs deeply against the grain. It’s counterintuitive. It’s emotionally unpleasant. It fights against our very DNA. Compared with bathing in the affirming balm of a tribe, it’s deeply unsatisfying. But no one ever claimed that living in a republic was going to be easy — if we really want to keep it.
Do read the whole thing. Then post it on Facebook, and e-mail it to anyone you think has the capacity to comprehend it. It is a brave, important essay, and the more Americans who read it, the better.
I guess I have to start paying attention to Andrew Sullivan again…
Pointer: Amy Alkon