The Politics of Tribal Identity
Of late, practically anywhere that one looks, the phrase “identity politics” is all the rage, whether on television, radio, the internet or in newsprint. “Identity politics” is identified as the key to understanding the current state of American political relationships. It has been defined as the adoption of positions based on the interests and perspectives of the specific social groups with which people identify. In Federalist No.10, Madison refers to these groups as “factions,” which he describes as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed [sic] to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” He further states that “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” In other words, Madison believed that we could just as easily eliminate the need for breathing as the need for mankind to form “factions.” So “identity politics” are nothing new, because each and every one of us has an innate NEED to be part of a larger group.
Another sociological term for “factionalism” is “tribalism.” Whether we like it or not, we all, every one of us, are hardwired to need an affinity group to which we feel we can belong. When I was a kid in the schoolyards of Queens, New York, for example, we played a game called ringolevio (don’t ask me, I haven’t got a clue). I won’t go into all the rules, but suffice it to say that there were two teams and the object was to try to tag a member of the other team. Any member of a team who would make it to “home base” and yell “home free all” couldn’t thereafter be tagged. The first team which got all of its members “home” was declared the winner. We would choose sides when we all got to the schoolyard and for the duration of the game, each team considered the other side an “enemy.” It was similar to “Color War” that we played as kids in summer camp. At Camp Floradan in Putnam Valley, N.Y., we campers spent the last week in intense and joyful rivalry as the black team pitted itself against the orange team (I can’t even imagine what motivated the owners of the camp to choose black and orange from among all the available colors of the spectrum, but I am sure they had a good reason, now probably lost to the ages).
For the duration of one week, kids who had known each other for most of their young lives were mortal enemies. If I was on the black team and my oldest and best friend Richie was on the orange team, we spent the week HATING each other! If the orange team was passing by, the black team would shout our songs as loudly as we possibly could in order to drown out the orange team — which was shouting their songs as loudly as possible in order to drown out our songs. Obviously, the colors didn’t matter (some years I was on the black team and other years I was on the orange team). The point is that every camper was required to identify with a faction — part of a tribe — and the tribe (whichever it was, black or orange) became a vital part of our existence for one week every summer. What was happening was that those who ran the camp were instilling a sense of enthusiasm, a feeling of belonging, in order to instill some excitement into the waning days of summer.
This can have a salutary effect (it kept us campers interested and involved during the last part of the month of August), or it can have a terribly negative effect. Kids require a sense of belonging and acceptance; if they don’t feel that, they will go to extremes in order to obtain it. I remember (ashamedly) a girl in my fourth grade class named Clarissa. She was blond and curly-haired and she would come to school every morning with a ribbon in her hair, wearing a dress with a crinoline (look it up — remember, this was the 1950s).
She looked different from the other girls and this was all it took to give the boys an excuse to torment her daily at recess. The boys would dance around her calling her “Claw-REEEEE-sah” in a singsong cadence, taunting her and clearly making her miserable. This may not sound like a big deal … but it is an undoubtedly big deal to a young girl who is alone out there in the schoolyard, uncomfortable and unhappy. I saw this happening every day and though I wanted to protect her, I was conflicted by my own desperate need to “fit in.” You see, I was a lousy athlete (which is the single MOST important thing to members of the “nine year old boys” tribe) and therefore not very popular myself (I was the one who always got picked last). So I stood by every day and did NOTHING to stop it.
What’s worse, I have to confess that even though she was a sweet girl who had never done anything but smile at me, I so wanted to be accepted as a full-fledged member of the “nine year old boys” tribe, that on a couple of occasions I actually joined in the teasing chant. So even with my misgivings, I let this young girl who had never hurt me or anyone else be bullied. Eventually, Clarissa left school and I hope that she was accepted and treated better wherever she ended up.
I can tell you with absolute honesty and no pride whatsoever that this is one of the few thing in my life about which I am deeply and truly ashamed. It has been 65 years since these events, but I have never overcome my shame and remorse in participating in hurting Clarissa for no other reason than that I wanted to be a member of that tribe, of the faction, of popular boys in my class. It so haunted me that about ten years ago, I finally tracked Clarissa down and phoned her to apologize for not stepping up in her defense. It didn’t end like in the movies. Her husband would not call her to the phone. So, I asked him to convey my apologies to her. He agreed, but I have no idea whether or not he did.
If you take but a moment to think about it, you will recognize the importance that the feeling of belonging, of being part of a “tribe,” of being a member of a “faction,” plays in your daily life. We all belong to a myriad number of tribes, some larger than others. For example, I am a Jew, an American, a Republican, an erstwhile New Yorker, now a proud South Carolinian, a Harley rider, a member of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus, an active member of my synagogue and the writer of an opinion column for this venerable monthly newspaper. Those are just a few of my “tribes,” and undoubtedly, not a whole bunch of people belong to all of those tribes.
We all can attach ourselves to a series of small, narrowly defined tribes (during the Vietnam War, I remember a good friend of my esteemed wife proudly telling us that she was a member of “Market Researchers Against the War in Vietnam!”), but we find commonality with larger and larger affinity groups in the intersection of our varying groups. There are between 14-15 million members of my Jewish tribe on the face of the earth today and about 55 million members of my Republican tribe in the US, but there are only about 2.1 million people who belong to both my Jewish and Republican tribes. Tribal intersections vary depending on the tribes. For instance, I don’t know how many Republican tribal members are in my Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus tribe, but I can say with some certainty that there are NOT a lot of members of my Republican tribe who are members of my former Great Neck, N.Y. residents tribe. Tribal connections vary with each individual and they change as our lives, our experiences and our interests change.
We must acknowledge that we are all members of tribes; we each belong to multiple, varied interest groups. That is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It just is. It is a human trait. We all want to belong to a group with other people of like interests. However, we must be ever vigilant against those who will prey upon that human need for their own purposes and twist the need for affinity into a weapon. Those are the modus operandi of people like Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, CAIR and Black Lives Matter, of Bernie Sanders and the Left in general.
How does it work? Today, for example, if you are a member of one of the Leftist tribes, you are required to automatically adopt an affiliation with all other Leftist tribes with which your tribe has a prescribed intersection. Thus, e.g., women, African Americans, “Palestinians,” persons who are LGBTQ (or LGBTTQQIAAP, if you are particularly “gender-aware”) and believers in man-made climate change are coalesced (congealed?) into one monolithic interest group where each member tribe is required to support the other, even though individually, one participating tribe would probably be treated as an anathema by another (e.g., in reality, Muslims have no tolerance for gay rights). While a number of tribes on the Right have similarly amalgamated, the association is somewhat looser — one can be an LGBTQ Republican who is pro-choice but who still supports the Second Amendment and wants the border wall to be built.
Nevertheless, the Left treats anyone in a tribe whose beliefs or identities are on the Right as part of a monolithic group all of whose ideas and members are totally without any redeeming value and who are not only wrong in their views, but immoral, evil and completely “deplorable.” Black or Hispanic Trump supporters are automatically excommunicated, so they are currently forming their own tribes (like Jews who formed their own country clubs).
My friend, Carolyn Glick, the brilliant columnist for the Jerusalem Post, observed that Leftists believe that “people should be judged, pushed ahead or kept back, supported or opposed based on their membership in various ethnic, racial, gender and sexual identity groups. Identity politics imposes a pecking order of victimhood that is impervious to reason and closed to argument.” (See http://carolineglick.com/heeding-democratic-warnings/).
Victimhood is the primary tribal interest with which the Left identifies; they will do whatever they can to paint tribal members as victims. And since you can’t have victims without villains, they define anyone in a Rightist tribe as a villain. So while both sides agree that slavery was wrong, the Left generally wants to whitewash (you should pardon the expression) history to remove all references to slavery in textbooks and literature and knock down all monuments concerning the War Between the States or of early leaders of our country who also happened to be slaveholders, because “it makes black people feel bad.” Because the Right generally wants to preserve history so that the future can learn from the past, anyone opposing the destruction of a statue of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or John C. Calhoun is automatically labeled a “racist.” If the Left is successful in that effort, the lessons that history teaches based on those events will evaporate into the ether.
The bottom line is that it is up to each of us to determine whether by unthinkingly following our tribal affinities we are sacrificing our sense of morality to our need to belong.
Stuart Kaufman is a retired lawyer, investment banker and businessman. He relocated from New York to Mount Pleasant in 2012. A friend recently told him that he has been a South Carolinian all of his life … but he just didn’t know it.