Tribalism is one of history’s great destroyers. Once racial, religious, ethnic, or clan ties trump all considerations of merit and loyalty to the larger commonwealth, then factionalism leads to violence, violence to chaos, and chaos to the end of the state itself.
The over 1,000 city-states of ancient Greece never developed a notion like that of the Roman natio, or nationhood. By contrast, many different peoples were bound by a common allegiance to Rome.
Pan-Hellenism—the idea that the city-states were united by a common language, locale, and religion—never quite trumped Greek tribalism. That factionalism is why foreign-imposed dynasties and empires eventually conquered the city-states
Most of the Middle East and Africa remain plagued by tribalism. In Iraq, a civil servant sees himself first as Shiite or Sunni rather than Iraqi, and acts accordingly. A Kenyan’s first allegiance is to his tribal first cousin rather than to an anonymous fellow Kenyan.
The result is inevitably the violence seen in places like the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Syria, or Iraq. The extreme historic remedy for tribalism is often the brutality of empire. The Ottoman, Austria-Hungary, and Soviet empires were all multiethnic, but they were also ruthless in squashing factional rebellion by seeking to suppress (or even destroy) all minority religions, languages, and identities.
Fear of tribalism and diversity is why much of Asia limits immigration. Certainly, an American, Mexican, or Ugandan who moves to Japan, China, or South Korea cannot easily proclaim himself a full-fledged citizen of his adopted country. In such countries, an immigrant’s appearance or religion would supersede his new national affinity.
Yet most Asians are unapologetic about what Westerners might label chauvinism, if not racism. They have no desire for the melting pot and certainly not the salad bowl. Apparently they believe that the benefits of enriching the culture via different modes of food, entertainment, fashion, and art are more than offset by the costs of factionalism and disunity caused by diversity.
Mexico, to take another example, has enshrined in its constitution stipulations that immigration shall not impair “the equilibrium of the national demographics”—bureaucratese for not wanting too many people entering Mexico who do not look like Mexican citizens. No wonder that the Mexican government treats illegal immigration as a felony offense. Few African Americans or American whites could emigrate to Mexico and realistically expect to ever become full-fledged citizens of Mexico in social, cultural, and political terms.
The United States is by and large the exception to the global rule that governments seek to maintain homogeneity, not cultivate diversity, whenever possible.
Although founded originally by English-speakers largely from the British Isles, America’s unique Constitution was an effort to subordinate the tribe to the state. It was certainly a long process as African Americans, Hispanics, southern Europeans, eastern Europeans, and non-Westerners were slowly incorporated fully into the state. Along the way, they often met religious and ethnic discrimination and worse.
But, again, the inherent logic of America was to transcend tribalism and focus on merit and citizenship. The result was twofold: the emergence of greater talent unimpeded by racial and religious barriers, and a constant awareness that individual identity should not trump political unity. If it did, such tribalism would lead to violence, insecurity, and general impoverishment.
There are historical reasons why identity politics has never sustained a state and eventually leads only to its oblivion.
1. It is hard to maintain strict racial and religious purity in a nation of competing tribal interests—without resorting to apartheid, violence, or ethnic and racial ideologies subverting civility.
Given the power of intermarriage and assimilation, eventually racialists must resort to fictions and absurdities to maintain their fides (think of the Third Reich's pseudoscientific idea of a Volk or Franco’s Raza). In the United States, many recalcitrant Americans are, often for careerist advantage, adding accent marks to their names or making claims that they are 1/32nd Native American in the manner of the ‘one-drop’ rule of the old South.
In our multiracial society, mere appearance no longer guarantees easy tribal identification. Without open border immigration to re-infuse the tribe, some affiliations become self-contradictory—and absurdly require imposed accents, ostentatious dress, or some sort of insignia to broadcast tribal purity. And barring that, through dress or assertion, a Ward Churchill or Shaun King can simply construct a minority identity on the premise that it is otherwise unnoticed by appearance.
George Zimmerman, the half Afro-Peruvian defendant acquitted in the Trayvon Martin murder case, was reduced to a “white Hispanic” in the coverage of the race-obsessed New York Times. Soon Zimmerman found himself on the wrong side of a politically charged issue, in part because he didn’t play up his Hispanic roots and, by extension, his own claim to victim status.
If being a member of a minority group is all-important, why is such membership not self-evident? Why would California State Senator and San Diego native Kevin Alexander Leon have to change his name to Kevin de León if his Latino fides was not immediately recognizable?
2. Identity politics is anti-meritocratic and often illogical: The tribe resents anti-tribal bias, even as bias is what fuels the claims of the tribe itself. Either screaming “Viva La Raza!” is as racist as shouting “Long live the race!” or it’s not.
One can easily observe, but is not supposed to speak of, the contradictions of affirmative action. For example, universities do not always admit students or hire faculty on the basis of merit because they value racial diversity more than talent alone, and feel that they can afford to be magnanimous in relegating merit in some areas while not in others. The diversity mandate is not shared by, for example, the NBA, NFL, or Postal Service. None of such entities “look like America” in terms of superficial appearance. Why are too many Asians a worry at UC Berkeley if many professional sports teams do not worry about the dominance of African-American athletes? Is university education less important than football?
The hypocrisies mount in a rather insidious fashion when we look across the professions. We usually do not select neurosurgeons or nuclear plant designers by factoring in their religion, race, or tribe, but we do consider tribal affiliation in selecting our teachers and bureaucrats. But why do we lower our standards for these latter roles rather than relying on merit? Is it because we think those jobs are less important and will not damage society all that much when merit does not govern hiring?
3. The logic of identity politics is totalitarian and destroys individualism, past and present. When history is interpreted not as a tragic story of individuals caught up in bad and good causes, but simply as a deterministic melodrama of race or gender, then the record of an individual becomes meaningless. People are reduced to anonymous numbers in a Soviet-like gulag.
There were thousands of courageous, cowardly, compassionate, and mean-spirited pioneers who braved the nineteenth-century Oregon Trail. Likewise, there were such diverse characters among the Native Americans who sometimes collided with them. But if their narratives are reduced to exploiters and victims, what does it matter that there were individual saints and sinners on both sides? Could a wagon master be more heroic than an indigenous chief, or the latter kinder than the former?
Does it matter that the postwar career of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet differed from that of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, given that each sinned by fighting for the South?
How does one balance one tribal faction against the other or use tribal affiliations to offset disinterested inquiry? Was African-American Rep. James Conyers a manipulative sexual predator—or did he suffer an occasional unimportant moment of sexual weakness in his larger quest for racial justice? Was Margaret Sanger a crusading feminist and proto-champion of “pro-choice”—or was she an abject racist and eugenicist who saw abortion as a pseudo-scientific means of reducing the non-white population?
Do tribal affiliations fight it out for moral supremacy? Do we absolve one sin for every politically correct act? Which act of cultural appropriation is greater: a white teenager rapping in the streets or a black inner-city actor aspiring to play Hamlet? Is it racist gentrification for a gay white couple to remodel an East LA cottage or was it racist white flight for an elderly couple to sell that cottage in East LA to move to Idaho? Tribalism is complicated.
4. Ultimately, tribalism destroys the common law and legal system by selective nullification. If particular tribes feel themselves exempt from federal law, chaos ensues. The most egregious case, of course, was the nullification of federal law by southern white supremacist states that led to the Civil War. A later example was the refusal of southern states in the 1950s and 1960s to follow federal integration laws.
Though those were extreme cases, in our generation, too, we often see federal law unwinding. On campus, feminist activists are trying to deny constitutional due process protections to men accused of sexual assault. Sanctuary cities selectively choose to ignore or break federal immigration law to protect illegal aliens from deportation or federal indictment. And some black athletes violate NFL employment requirements by not standing for the National Anthem. They expect not just exemption from the rules, but support from their employers and fans.
We sometimes underappreciate the careerist sin of an Elizabeth Warren. In fabricating a Native America pedigree to land a perceived better job, she may have denied that slot to another law professor who might have been better qualified in meritocratic terms—as well as cynically discrediting the idea of affirmative action itself.
Segregation and apartheid should have warned us where tribalism leads. Political systems strain under the pressures of nepotism and favoritism. But they fail entirely under the far greater strain of tribalism—especially one that replaces toxic individual or familial prejudices with much more insidious, sweeping, and dangerous collective biases. There was a reason why liberal historians such as Samuel P. Huntington (Who Are We?) and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (The Disuniting of America) warned about the dangers of American tribalism in their final years.
Tribal infighting is usually what erodes otherwise common cultures—from the city-states of ancient Greece to the constantly warring republics of Renaissance Italy to an increasing divided America today.
Victor Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson senior fellow in classics and military history at the Hoover Institution and the author most recently of The Second World Wars.