Culture & Society

The Problem Today Is Not Tribalism But Its Absence

The fellow-feeling that tribalism cultivates can fix what factionalism has broken

SHAH MARAI/AFP via Getty Images

The dirtiest word in US politics these days is tribalism. For pundits and policymakers, tribalism is blind group loyalty that is tearing our country apart. Mindless tribal affiliations, they say, drive our polarizations and prevent us from finding common ground. The greatest danger of tribalism, we are told, is that it morphs political leanings into social identities, creating political morass, gridlock, and decay.

But these pundits and policymakers have the story backwards. Indeed, we have enormous political challenges because we no longer value or know how to live like tribes: to make rules together, to develop consensus, to work out difficult problems without calling for outside help. In fact, tribes—real tribes—provide a great deal of meaning, community, and connection. Let me take this a step further: if American society were to adopt some “tribal” characteristics, we would all be a lot better off.

During the medieval period, Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (b. 1332) developed a sophisticated theory of tribal politics that has enormous resonance today. In his treatise Muqaddimah he wrote that tribal societies are defined by their social cohesion and a sense of group interconnectedness. This solidarity brings groups together in ways that are crucial for the creation of public goods. The secret to success was what he termed asabiyya—or group feeling. Tribes that had strong asabiyya could build strong empires, forge strong armies, and develop effective governance structures. Leaders who could not cultivate this group feeling among members struggled to find legitimacy, and ultimately collapsed.

Asabiyya is a kind of social capital. It is the glue that holds a society together. It is central to the success and failure of tribal governance structures. Yet, we would never know that if we looked at how tribes are described in modern parlance. Contemporary political “tribalism” is just the opposite of all of this. It is an ephemeral factionalism manifested in 280-character tweets or by an endless cycle of cable news pundits.

The problem is compounded by the abuse of the term “tribes.” Today, “tribalism” has become a basket category for our nasty state of affairs; that is, the things we believe cause our increased polarization. In her popular recent book Political Tribes, Amy Chua decries political tribalism as a source of political decay but never defines what tribes are. Similarly, psychologists argue that so-called tribalism is “a natural and nearly ineradicable form of human cognition and that no group—not even one’s own—is immune.” For writers like George Packer, tribes are badges of identity, not of ideology or thought.

Tribes Protect and Provide

Anthropologists view tribes differently, seeing them as foundational social units that do a wide range of things. At minimum they are an identity marker. At maximum they provide public goods, such as dispute resolution, self-defense, and even small-scale infrastructure. Anthropologist Emanuel Marx described tribes as “units of subsistence.” There is huge variation in the way tribes work all over the world, and it is dangerous to generalize, but it in broad strokes tribes are lineage structures that can protect and provide. They even nurture.

No doubt, there are ugly sides to tribes in blood feuds and seemingly internecine conflicts. Yet, as political scientists James Fearon and David Laitin pointed out almost two decades ago, groups with differences exist side by side all around the world but very few of them engage in violent conflict. In other words, conflict among groups with strong affinities is an aberration rather than the norm.

By contrast, for pundits and policymakers the idea of tribe has provided a conceptual hook that helps them explain the loss of community we see around the world. This idea has become an empty vessel for something larger. Indeed, I would argue that what they describe as tribalism is actually its absence. They describe a derisive politics that is a yearning for group feeling. It is a yearning for asabiyya.

In my wanderings around dozens of Afghan villages, I found something unexpected: the death of tribal and other forms of customary authority was greatly exaggerated. Instead, communities worked quickly to resurrect customary structures out of the ashes of conflict. Why? Because they provided the kinds of public goods and services that were of value to people when they could not rely on a state that was unwilling or unable to help.

Not only did communities resurrect tribal and other forms of customary governance structures, they created new institutions that would encompass diversity. This means they updated technologies of custom to help them solve the most challenging of modern conflicts.

For years, American strategists in Afghanistan ignored the positive role tribes and customary authorities could play in politics as they fixated on strengthening top-down government institutions. Several years into the war, young soldiers posted to remote locations started demanding change. Unlike the designers of the intervention who sat in Washington, Brussels, or Kabul, these boots on the ground faced life or death every day. What many of them found was that maintaining good relations with community leaders was key to their survival. On message boards and blogs, they argued the United States was losing in Afghanistan because it was not working with customary structures.

One of these voices, Maj. James Gant wrote a famous white paper, “One Tribe at a Time,” where he argued that tribal systems in Afghanistan were the key to victory because they protected residents from abuses by the Taliban and the state. Gant was no anthropologist and there is much he got wrong about the social order he thought he was describing, but he was onto something: the power of community and local self-governance in rural Afghanistan.

Gant’s perspective was important because it contrasted with the standard script, which stated that Afghanistan required a strong state because the tribes had withered away due to decades of conflict. According to conventional wisdom, the collapse of the tribal system led directly to the fragmentation of the state; it also created a vacuum that religious extremists, like the Taliban, could fill.

A Sense of Community and Belonging

In my book Informal Order and the State in AfghanistanI found that customary leaders were able to build legitimacy because they cultivated a sense of group belonging. They did this by treating most people with dignity, fairness, and respect—even those with whom they disagreed. A far cry from the tribalism frequently weaponized in the US.

The real danger facing the United States now is not tribalism but factionalism. America’s Founders warned us against this even before the Constitution was signed. In Federalist 10, James Madison famously wrote of these dangers. They have always been here; they are not new. The key is to have leaders who can help us overcome divisiveness and rely on one another, just as leaders within tribes must build consensus.

In Afghanistan and beyond, tribal structures are not the primary driver of division. It is the politicians, warlords, and insurgents feeding off donor largesse whose thirst for state power have undermined a sense of common meaning—asabiyya.

In the US, it is not tribalism driving our profane politics, but its absence. Without a strong sense of asabiyya—of group feeling that we are all in this together—we are going nowhere fast. Khaldun’s theory of tribal politics, while written centuries ago, is a powerful parable. It shows how the breakdown of meaningful social relationships leads to political decay.

What society has lost is asabiyya—the glue that holds us together. Tribes can provide us this glue, a sense of community and belonging. Certainly, tribes can exclude, but this is not their raison d’être, which is to provide, to give meaning, and to protect.

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