New York Magazine

AMERICA WASN’T BUILT FOR HUMANS

Tribalism was an urge our Founding Fathers assumed we could overcome. And so it has become our greatest vulnerability.

FROM TIME TO TIME, I’VE wondered what it must be like to live in a truly tribal society. Watching Iraq or Syria these past few years, you get curious about how the collective mind can come so undone. What’s it like to see the contours of someone’s face, or hear his accent, or learn the town he’s from, and almost reflexively know that he is your foe? How do you live peacefully for years among fellow citizens and then find yourself suddenly engaged in the mass murder of humans who look similar to you, live around you, and believe in the same God, but whose small differences in theology mean they must be killed before they kill you? In the Balkans, a long period of relative peace imposed by communism was shattered by brutal sectarian and ethnic warfare, as previously intermingled citizens split into unreconcilable groups. The same has happened in a developed democratic society—Northern Ireland—and in one of the most successful countries in Africa, Kenya.

Tribal loyalties turned Beirut, Lebanon’s beautiful, cosmopolitan capital, into an urban wasteland in the 1970s; they caused close to a million deaths in a few months in Rwanda in the 1990s; they are turning Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, into an enabler of ethnic cleansing right now in Myanmar. British imperialists long knew that the best way to divide and conquer was by creating “countries” riven with tribal differences. Not that they were immune: Even in successful modern democracies like Britain and Spain, the tribes of Scots and Catalans still threaten a viable nation-state. In all these places, the people involved have been full citizens of their respective nations, but their deepest loyalty is to something else.

But then we don’t really have to wonder what it’s like to live in a tribal society anymore, do we? Because we already do. 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.

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.

TRIBALISM, IT’S ALWAYS worth remembering, is not one aspect of human experience. It’s the default human experience. It comes more naturally to us than any other way of life. For the

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