The Gut: Tribalism’s Home and Not Always a Bad Thing

Thanks, Shannon for your blogging, which has provided a smorgasbord. 


In the comments to his “Identity-Politics Insanity” post, Helen’s observation reminds us of a truth about American politics but more importantly about human nature.  For instance, a balanced ticket is attractive, because we assume more ideas are in play and more people feel an identity with their leaders.  On the other hand, Shannon is right:   identity politics encourages a tribalism whose restraint has been the great triumph of western civilization and a prerequisite for a diverse nation ruled by predictable, equitable laws.  We rightly fear identities that trump law & duty, but we also fear ideologies which encourage children to betray their parents and wives their husbands.  We ignore such passions – natural to our species – at our own peril: unacknowledged they threaten chaos; diminished, we lack a glue that holds communities and even identities together.


The rich insights of Albion’s Seed chronicle cultural kinships.  Juan Williams and John McWhorter describe their responses to Obama’s triumph.  Neither is provincial, both acknowledge understandable & resonant feelings.  I walked out of a class in which I’d complained about the idiotic he/she usage and ridiculed identity grammar to open this blog and see Palin had been nominated.  My immediate moment of pleasure was not just for her policies, which I barely knew, but because I felt a certain kinship. 


Shannon dismisses region and religion, but I suspect to some of us, those are quite strong examples of identity politics.  For instance, a sense of place is an intense part of my identity – it makes me sympathetic to Bob Kerrey, though it can’t survive the stupidity of Chuck Hagel.  To some of us (my husband’s roots in Burleson County are important to him), place is less something we choose than that was chosen for us by the complex variables that washed us up in that particular spot.  And for many tightly knit groups, religion is more communal and rooted than theological and chosen.  Often, we choose to treasure certain things about place and to accept deeply – in a way that defines us – theological precepts that become integral to our identity before we could consciously choose.


Barone’s (“Obama Needs to Explain His Ties to William Ayers”) insightful and disturbing column that describes the Chicago politics of “who sent you” shows power unconstrained, the responsibilities of office undervalued and tribe overvalued.  In some parts of the world, the tribal is the government.  Shannon is right – these are not cultures to emulate.  The greedy want to “get theirs” – and that is all that concerns them, their loyalty is narrowly defined. 


Diversity works if we insulate some institutions from this powerful pull; that requires acknowledging its power.  Many ideas that govern and inform us come from those who strove to understand human nature (universal human nature, not one tribe’s).   Kinship (ideological or biological) is like sex – not bad in itself and inevitable.   When, however, should it be restrained and when celebrated?


In Obama’s and Ayer’s educational theories, much is made of “social justice.”  We have often see such arguments encourage group identity.  They also diminish important equalities:  before the law and before God.  A judicial system riddled with appointments and decisions on tribal grounds is not impartial.  When one vote is weighted more heavily than another, injustice on a more profound level is likely to follow.  While I am not myself religious, I have come to believe that the sense all souls are equal was the most important concept that led to a politics we value.  Believing all (of our tribe or not) are endowed with rights by the very nature of being human led to conclusions, even after the religious assumption was less vital to many, that value each and all.


When we forget these tenets, we are more likely to make everyday decisions based on those inchoate but powerful tribal feelings.  Some blogs note that nepotism at the New York Times led to a decline in integrity and profits.   In business, nepotism may mean the loss of a great institution to one generation’s incompetence; the penalty is the result of choice – whether to hire the descendent or to buy the stock.  A family business which first son and then granddaughter manage is restrained: either they valiantly increase both family income and “name” or the inheritance is squandered.  The public encourages or discourages such successions indirectly in the marketplace. But temptation is greater without a bottom line.


My gut feeling (admittedly I’m obsessive) is that public positions, policies and perks should be buffered from the pull of kinship.  We pay government employees: the breadth of an employee’s vision determines whether this reduces or increases the responsibility he feels.  Too often, it reduces.  The old nepotism rules were still in effect when I got my degrees, but were being challenged by feminists.  Thoses rules acknowledged the pull of kinship and tried to restrain its power.  While I believe such restraints have the good of the institution in mind, individuals suffered diminished choices – especially of those closest to the increasingly empowered boomers.  And boomers found both institutional integrity and duty suspect.    


When my husband was first hired, one of my closest friends was restless because the department was not likely to hire her.  She repeatedly referred to her Ph.D. as an “admission” card to scholarly work. Her second refrain was that we should be considered as if we weren’t married to a member of the faculty.  She rather optimistically thought we would be hired, then.  (One complication was that at least half a dozen of the close socially knit new hires had spouses with English doctorates.  Hiring “some” would ensure a deep, if narrower, factionalism.)  I was quite suspicious of these assumptions at the time.  I’ve grown more so. 


We can train ourselves however we want, but that doesn’t mean an appropriate job should be created.   My limited sympathy disappeared when one of my employees complained that in a less provincial town he would have a professional position.  His (advanced) Ivy League specialty was pre-Semitic languages.  When I asked if that background made it possible for him to communicate with the many Middle Eastern students, he told me that he had no interest in “live” languages.  He was a pleasant and interesting employee; I value esoteric education and hobbies.  Precisely because I want that freedom, I do not expect support.  The attraction of the left for those like my employee and friend is their belief that the government is responsible for providing a workplace that fits them – one the left encourages in theory.  In practice, I doubt statist economies are more likely to have such positions.  


Her second argument was equally troublesome and more germane. An institution (especially one paid for by taxes) has a larger responsibility for its efficiency and integrity than to provide positions for an employee’s parents, siblings, mates, or children.  My husband’s salary goes into the same bank account as mine; we married from love.  We loved because of a shared set of priorities both in literature and child raising.  I want the best for him – and he wants the best for me. Both want the best for our children.  A couple without those priorities is not more likely to function well within an institution, but one with them is not going to be objective.  To pretend such priorities don’t influence our choices is to be willfully blind.  The pendulum has swayed very far the other way and it has made for a more productive department.


A country is doomed to immaturity if its politics are purely tribal.  Everyone has seen nests of influence (and resulting incompetence) in government jobs.  But it is also doomed if it ignores the powerful pull of ways we define ourselves.  Many women I know dislike Hillary Clinton intensely.  If all were reversed, they’d never move from Palin to Hillary.  But some dislike arises from that kinship:  their experience was sufficiently similar and their choices less self-serving.


My husband and I listened to Obama’s speech one night and Palin’s the next.  We were critical of Obama’s assumptions and cheered by hers.  Our backgrounds (ethnicities, youths in rural/small town America, literature we’d chosen to study) shaped our responses; so did our preferences for certain policies.  After thirty-five years, we share a value set; it overlaps with much of Bush’s, of McCain’s, and Palin’s.  Certainly we share much, but much less, with Obama and Biden, Kerry and Edwards.  We are what we are – both in our guts and in our heads.   Shaped by our experience, we resonate to certain abstractions which we see as true and powerful – we are moved even as we reason our ways to our positions.


We need to know when we are being “played” – when a politician, adept at the rhetoric of greeting cards, moves us while offering false solutions, when one performs integrity rather than embodies it.  Equally important, we should understand our distaste.  What prompts it?  Understanding our gut reactions helps us better understand the philosophy from which the policies grew.  The policies are likely to mutate before they reach their final form, it is for the philosophy that determines the ways it will mutate that are important. 


American citizenship requires of self-consciousness – an awareness of what resonates with us and why, what policies work and why.  In the end, our decisions should not be what is best for us and ours, but what is best for the whole; not what is best for the next few years but for the centuries that lie ahead for our children’s children. 


Our passions are impetus to analysis.  Understanding our reactions – both to people and ideas – should not nullify but restrain.  Capturing and defining our instincts leads us to understand why.  Hearts often connect dots before the head can.  (As we often fall in love because of truths our heart knows.)

3 thoughts on “The Gut: Tribalism’s Home and Not Always a Bad Thing”

  1. Shannon dismisses region and religion, but I suspect to some of us, those are quite strong examples of identity politics.

    Just to be clear, I do not dismiss them as factors, it just that region and religion do not qualify as “identities” in the technical sense of “identity” politics. The phrase “identity politics” does not actually means what one would assume it means. It does not mean politics based around anything an individual might use to identify themselves. Rather it means politics built around immutable attributes of individuals. We need a new word for it.

    Like votes for like is a permanent rule of politics. However, individual attributes such as religion, culture, region etc evolve rapidly over the generations and the course of individuals life. Unless I mention it, few people would ever guess that I grew up in rural community in a family of evangelical fundamentalist. People do not know that because I changed all those attributes as a grew as a person. I can even turn my accent on and off. My race and sex. however, remain fixed.

    The problem with politics based on immutable attributes is that they cannot evolve. Once you get the idea into your head that you deserve a representative that share biological form with you, you will not shift you political loyalties over time. You will ignore policies and ideology leaving politician with an incentive to divide the electorate.

    Throughout American history, political blocks formed around religion, ethnic heritage, region etc but the mutable and blendable nature of these attribute meant that overtime these attribute merged and new one emerge. That will never happen with modern “identity” politics.

  2. Thanks Shannon – this is a powerful point well put.

    A new Fullbrighter appeared a couple of weeks ago. Because of my husband’s intense loyalty to his ethnicity we put him up for a week until he moved into his own place. I’m really glad – he’s fascinating. He’s here to study immigrant reaction to the Civil War. At 26 and Moravian, he has been immersed in Civil War documents; he asked me how it was that African-Americans tended to vote Democratic. That question is an interesting probe into history that only a naive outsider might ask – but not because, say, my students had thought about it all that much. Regarding women: my impression has been that married women tend to vote Republican and unmarried ones Democrat. In other words, I’m not sure that identity politics when the groups are large, mutating, taking different roles in our society, etc. are going to be stuck very firmly in those particular identities.

  3. “The attraction of the left for those like my employee and friend is their belief that the government is responsible for providing a workplace that fits them – one the left encourages in theory. In practice, I doubt statist economies are more likely to have such positions”…they will tend to have a few such positions available for people who have excellent skills as courtiers. Most academics, in particular most *unsuccessful* academics, do not possess such skills, even when they are willing to sell their souls and follow the twists and turns of the party line.

Comments are closed.