Tribalism: Part 1
From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 9.2
In his 1651 ground-breaking book of political philosophy, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes asserted that without civil society – in what he termed a hypothetical “state of nature” – there would be “nothing but a war of all against all.” But humans are naturally social – living in groups with at least a rudimentary civil society – so that his concept of “without civil society” is not, in fact, a “state of nature.” A lot of disagreements between political philosophies, including our country’s current political divisions, find their roots in different views of human nature. It is almost cliché to say that conservatives see people as naturally “selfish,” while liberals see them as naturally “good.” The framers of the Constitution took the “conservative” view. If humans were like angels, there would be no need for government Madison wrote in the Federalist No. 51. This is a false dichotomy, as clearly humans can naturally be either one, or both at the same time. It depends on the specific situation and the broader environment, including institutional structures and culture.
Current research supports the notion that human nature within the family and tribe evolved along a cooperative and altruistic vein. Evolution has left humans with a ready ability, depending on circumstances, to cooperate and act altruistically towards members of their own “tribe,” even while being horrifyingly brutal towards outsiders. While specific ethnic and other group animosities are learned, the potential for a sort of tribalism that can lead to war and the dehumanization of non-members is evolutionarily rooted (both biological and cultural). But external animosity is not inevitable nor universal. It is common to view cooperative altruism and violent competition as contradictory human natures. While it is easy to think of these behaviors as opposites, it is more appropriate to think of them as two sides of the same coin. It would be difficult to imagine getting people to go to war, for example, if not for the ability of individuals to give selflessly, putting the needs of others ahead of their individual drive for self-preservation. The camaraderie of comrades on the battlefield is well known, as are the atrocities of war. The challenge is to foster such community spirit without the bloodshed, or animosity.
James Madison didn’t derive his analysis of human nature from a notion of evolutionary tribalism, yet hoped he had designed his form of government to deal with the related tendency of humans to form what he called “factions.” Madison extrapolated from the themes of Enlightenment political theorists such as Baron de Montesquieu of France, David Hume of Scotland, and John Locke of England. He hoped that checks and balances through a separation of powers within the governmental structure (the famous three branches of government, and the further division of the legislative branch into two independent chambers, House and Senate) would help restrain partisan self interest, and promote the “public good.”
Madison was born into a wealthy Virginia family with over 100 slaves. He studied at New Jersey College (now Princeton University), under the guidance of college president John Witherspoon. Witherspoon was a Scottish immigrant who was deeply influenced by the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Madison studied Latin and Hebrew, and read the works of John Locke, as well as The Roman classics. These shaped Madison’s philosophy of government. Madison was just 25 years old at the start of the American Revolution. In 1787 and 1788 Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, wrote a series of 85 essays under the pseudonym Publius (in honor of a Roman aristocrat who helped overthrow the monarchy in ancient Rome), advocating for the ratification of the Constitution. These are known today as the Federalist Papers, and give crucial insights into the thinking of the framers. It must be remembered, however, that the essays were written with the express purpose of persuasion, so we can’t say with certainty which points were genuinely held beliefs, and which were “propaganda” tailored to win over their audience. Madison warned in Federalist No. 10 about the dangers of factions, or parties, which
“inflamed [men] with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”
With differences in economic interests, opinions, and loyalties, he believed a tendency towards “factions” or “parties'' was “sown in the nature of man.” The task of government was to control the negative effects of parties. Madison hoped a geographically diverse elected elite would prevent the formation of nation-wide factions, and thus allow dispassionate deliberation to find the “public good.” Madison argued in Federalist No. 10 that
“The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.”
He was wrong about that.
“alternative despotism of one faction over another.”
The quote of John Adams I used in the introduction of this book [post #2 “Fears of the Framers”] bears repeating here:
“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”
Competitive elections utilize, and more troublingly, exacerbate the negative side of tribalism. This has a deeply detrimental impact on how tribal instincts play out throughout society. Since the development of national political parties, we know Madison’s hope to be wishful thinking. The driving force of elections gives politicians a powerful incentive to fan division and hatred, using tribalism to further their electoral ends of gaining power. Party-based government has a broadly corrosive effect on both civil society and governance.
Rather than limiting the harm of parties, as Madison had hoped, electoral politics has formalized and aggravated the negative impact, with Congress members ascribing evil motives to the actions of partisan opponents, while trading votes in order to service favored special interests and lobbyists. In America today, just two political parties maintain control of all three branches, overcoming the nominal separation of powers Madison sought. When a party controls both Congress and the Presidency, for example, that party facilitates coordination and generally seeks unity rather than check and balance between the branches. This party-sponsored coordination among the branches maximizes the collective power of the party members. Meaningful checks and balances generally only exist within the current system when different parties control the different branches. But a common consequence of such “divided government” is partisan gridlock, with one extreme example being the 2011-2013 debt-ceiling and budget sequestration standoffs between the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic Senate and President. The steady erosion of Congressional authority and the development of what is often called “the imperial presidency,” especially with regards to military and surveillance matters, also obviously weakens the principle of checks and balances.