A lady popularly known as the “Tiger Mom” recently wrote a book about tribalism. From the interviews in which I have seen her participate, you could gather that she fully understands many of the dynamics which contributed to the rise of Trump in 2016. In promoting her work, she notes that we humans – as social animals – have an unyielding need to associate ourselves with others. This need to socialize for the general public often produces the sense of community that one feels and enjoys by partaking in various clubs and organizations – such as book clubs, churches, charities, political organizations, etc. -, but it also creates the groundswell for the most extreme satisfaction of this basic need: through affiliating with cults.
There are an estimated 7 billion of us on this planet and we will likely reach 8 billion very soon. Given our intellectual capacity in conjunction with a primal sense of territorialism it is almost inevitable that conflict will arise as diverse groups of this massive population collide. At the most primitive level our divisions are simplistic and based initially on the physical differences that we perceive. This first alignment of humanity – much like other members of the animal kingdom – is determined based on gender, size, and skin color.
Devoid of education and integration, humans are naturally suspicious of the unknown and are usually hesitant to embrace something different. Males typically associate with males and the same is the case with females until each reaches sexual maturity and seeks to compete for the purpose of mating. The weak/small and the strong/big likewise are prone to align with their peers in size. Finally, the obvious dividing line is that of skin color. If we are not raised around a diverse group of people with the full or near-full spectrum of our possible skin colors, then our uneducated inclination is to brace ourselves out of fear when we first meet another who appears different.
This basic instinct to welcome the similar and reject the dissimilar is the core explanation for the ancient emergence of societal constructs wherein slavery, patriarchy, and domination of the “weak” thrived and persisted for much of our existence thus far. Many of our ancestors did not concern themselves with our intellectual diversity nor did they ponder the common characteristics which should have united us. Rather, their blind obedience to the natural pursuit of securing territory impelled them to conquer others instead of working together. Through the contemporary lens this part of human history is reviled today, but it occurred in lieu of an intentional structure facilitated by more educated minds to bring us together. The remnants of our primitive tribalism persist in the modern era through obvious cultural and political standards, but it is instructive to remember its origins.
At the next tier of our tribalism is with respect to sexual orientation. Here, our basic understanding of the natural role played by gender diversity is instructed by the patriarchic construct in primitive society. When the reality that heterosexuals are not alone interferes with the pseudo-intellectual concept that sex exists only to procreate; another form of tribalism emerges producing heterosexual purists. It is tempting to associate this with the rise of religion, but this tribalism extends beyond religious sects today and may have predated such.
Early humanity was undoubtedly rife with examples of certain societies not concerning themselves with the sexual conduct of their members. Still, at some point a slew of patriarchic societies developed a mindset that “unnatural sex” – that is, intercourse where procreation is impossible or very risky such as in the case of incest – was abominable. While most – if not all – of our animalistic brethren continued to satisfy themselves in every way they could attain satisfaction, humanity began to condemn the same conduct in our own ranks. This is about domination and conformity under extreme patriarchy, and religion only provided a means to mainstream such.
Our early intellectual development before science expanded our understanding of the natural order led to the birth of religion. The human imagination is – as far as we know – unmatched in Earth’s animal kingdom and the intellect’s need to find answers to a stream of questions was met with the untamed imagination’s capacity to fantasize innumerable possible explanations. Storytelling merged with oral historical traditions and eventually inspired the creation of religion when it increasingly became too difficult to separate fact from fiction. Over the course of thousands of years, these competing traditions – which eventually evolved to include written traditions as well – forged the most complex, and the most divisive form of tribalism.
Religious conviction became the new foundation for the existence of a society. It infected the culture, reinforced the primitive tribes as well as the accompanying standards, and inspired all political decisions of early civilized – and I use that word lightly – humanity. Simply put, if you were not a loyal follower of the dominant religious order then you were not worthy of all the rights and privileges thereby endowed. This also meant that any society not sharing the same beliefs must be conquered if and when there was a territorial dispute.
Nationalism also comes to mind, and it has roots in ancient humanity. To a large degree, the national identity of a society was built upon their common religious belief system. However, geography had as much to do with the process of organizing an ancient or even classical “nation” as did religion. The combined forces of geographical positioning and religious doctrine gave rise to myths about superiority over the other “nations”, further united the people with a devotion to their commonality, and instilled in them a fear of humans whom were “outsiders”. The most radical form of nationalism – of course – took the reins in Germany during the 1920s-40s; ethnic nationalism. This exclusionary variation of nationalism dismisses the notion that anyone not sharing an ethnic bond with the original members of a “nation” could join such. This is where tribalism took its next leap.
When intellectual thought started to become more complex and contemplate the normative and descriptive reflections on life, political factions became inevitable. Humans enjoy being around others who think like them, because it helps to avoid the feeling of social isolation. Political parties sprung from the organization of political beliefs, but the unyielding fealty to ideological points of view infused the advent of partisanship with the familiar foe of tribal thinking. The concept of compromise and consensus – crucial components for a functioning democracy of any form – goes out the window once one or both sides of the debate regard the opposing group as the “enemy”.
In our conditioning as citizens of the most powerful and most influential nation on Earth, we Americans have long been trained to think of these evils of humanity as something which can either never or barely permeate our society. Sure, we hint that our rise as a superpower came with some missteps along the way – a little slavery here, some genocide there, and maybe some trouble being inclusive up through the Cold War -, but then the popular narrative is instilled in us which purports that this is all in the past and we’re mature now. We delude ourselves into believing this myth that the shortfalls of humanity elsewhere have ceased to threaten our own unity because confronting such requires the one thing that our society has yet to master: humility.
Humility is the last barrier which firmly inhibits our ability to avert the self-destructive path taken by hegemonic powers of the past. Only through our humble collective reflection on the wounds which continue to haunt each segment of our population can we ever hope to heal and unite. It is through acknowledgement of the wrongdoings of the past and present that we can bring everyone together, become stronger, more prosperous, and guarantee our liberty. Unfortunately, the forces of division and greed hold the reins and the cult mentality is alive and well amongst the protectors of those forces.
Before Trump came into the national picture and capitalized on an era of populism which demanded systemic upheaval, our divisions were exploited by the Republican Party and ignored by the Democratic Party when it came time to promote beneficial policies; an issue which we’ve discussed at length in the past. It should come as no surprise that the natural tendency of humans – in our weakness of blind loyalty irrespective of circumstance – to slip into cultism has infected our capacity to depose the very aforementioned forces crippling our collective forward movement. On the one hand, it has never been easier for the political foot soldiers of either political organization to critique the opposing side. On the other hand, our willingness to critique ourselves – meaning both our individual selves and the organization to which we belong – has never been more difficult.
Are there some exceptions? No doubt, but a bipolar political construct effectively outcasts everyone who dares to stand up to their respective camp. The defector class is terribly disorganized – agreeing only that the system is broken – and lacks the political will and/or know-how of confronting the corrupt major party dichotomy with a viable alternative. The moment you speak up against the conduct of your camp the devoted within seize the opportunity to prove their own fealty to the cause by lashing out at you and ensuring that no one in the proverbial loop will take you seriously. You are left with one of perhaps three legitimate choices: remain in the group and quiet your complaints, defect to the other side, or leave the fray entirely.
For Republicans, the end game is the pursuit and preservation of power. It shouldn’t shock anyone that the overwhelming majority of the party’s elected officials refuse to criticize Trump for anything that he does. It is only when one of them has determined or realized that their career is at an end that they defy the flock, but not a moment sooner. After all, each of them risks facing a rabid primary contest should they take on a leader whom enjoys the support of most fellow partisans. It is pure political calculation and recent developments are the culmination of decades of the party’s intentional appeal to the worst of our basic impulses.
In the Democratic Party, the emergence of cultism is a reaction to its perpetual struggle to remain relevant in the post-Reagan era. First, the party’s leadership decided to start selling out the working class to try and financially compete with the better-funded Republicans. Then, when the party started to lose ground in its former strongholds it desperately clung to any signs of success as a shrine which should not be defiled. That’s where the apparent worship of the flawed legacies of Clinton and Obama surfaced.
To be fair, Democrats are far more willing to ridicule their own publicly, but that’s because the devotion isn’t to the figureheads as much as it is to the means of these fluke electoral success stories. Each party desires victory at the ballot box, but the Republicans have managed to do so while maintaining the faith and devotion of their so-called base (mostly by way of manipulation, but that’s another story for another time). With the Democrats, the model for national victory in the post-Reagan era has been diluted with poorly-remembered circumstances (something with in which we will delve further in a future post), yet the myths surrounding this model as created by the desperate cult of the Democrats have taught its rank and file to believe that ultimate victory is inevitable.
You may ask yourself at this point as to what model I am speaking of. Since the Democratic Party effectively stripped its “base” of power in the wake of the barrage of stinging national defeats at the hands of Reagan and Bush 41 it has convinced itself that doing so was justified by “demographics”. In other words, the Party believes that it will never again have to take on the oligarchs because they will come crawling to the Democrats once the magic switch of cultural change makes it virtually impossible for the Republicans to ever win again. This is not a line of thinking which any Democratic leader will openly admit, but it is the underlying reason why they refuse to sit idly by while the working class attempts to reclaim the steering wheel.
Why permit the party to boldly “welcome [the] hatred” of the oligarchs as it had under Franklin Roosevelt when it is a foregone conclusion that doing so is no longer necessary to attain power? Regardless of the plethora of betrayals presided over by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the ends justified the means. Both men were elected, and twice so. This is despite the fact – the easily proven fact – that both were heavily tied to the very oligarch class which is presently unleashing a torrent of hellfire on the rights of the working class. Confront this reality at your own peril; that is, if you care about having a voice within the only known viable alternative to the Republicans.
As for idolizing Democratic Party heroes; this, too, is a growing phenomenon within the party and related support groups. Especially in the era of Trump, the cultural cancer of cultism is throwing both sides into convulsions as they increasingly reject any effort at introspection. In social media it is all laid bare for any reasonable person to see. Call out Trump and the Republicans come out of the woodwork to attack you. Criticize Obama and the most loyal Democrats will do the same. Oh yes, the cult of personality is alive and well across the spectrum.
Unfortunately, tribalism is engrained in our species; as the earlier-referenced author has noted. Feeling the need to be involved is natural and even good for us, so long as we do not permit ourselves to become so deeply immersed in its spell that we forget to use the one trait which seemingly sets us above our animal peers: reason. Likewise tragic is that reason itself is under a full-fledged assault by the cultists all around us. It is like we are witnessing the unraveling of civilization itself.
What is the solution? How do we save ourselves? The truth is that there is no easy answer, because even the simplest explanation of what we must do comes at a price. That price is the risk of being a target of the cult mentality which has spread throughout our society, and which is showing signs of infecting the world beyond. Our unity is essential for our survival, and the sacrifice which ought to be made is to willingly stand alone – if need be – as a bold voice of reason amongst the warring cults. Silence is the only thing worse than the intentional use of fear to achieve power and we must avoid the temptation to become silent no matter how easy it seems compared to the difficulty of staying in the fight.
In closing, let me say this: I strongly believe that we can overcome the challenges posed by rampant cultism. Tribal thinking may be natural to us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make it work for us. The key is not to fight this need for community, but to expand its tent to the point where it is all-inclusive. None of us exists in an island of one on a separate planet made just for us. It’s time that we fight for global recognition that our solidarity is both essential and preferable. Otherwise, we – let alone our precious institutions and freedoms – won’t be around for much longer.