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October 05, 2011
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Home » American Tribalism?

Will “tribal” loyalties tear American society apart?

An empire at its peak brought low by mounting debt, a government beset by in-fighting, business and bureaucratic elites conspiring to line their own pockets, and emerging countries that eventually surpass and overwhelm it.

 A prediction about America?  Possibly.  But this little vignette actually comes from Frances Fukuyama’s description of the fall of the Ottoman Empire.  The Janissaries, the bureaucratic class that controlled many of the levers of imperial power, organized themselves into the equivalent of political parties, fighting each other over the spoils of empire, even as it became increasingly clear that the imperial economy was collapsing under its own weight and that the rising powers on its borders had out-innovated it and would soon overtake it.  The parallels to our modern crisis leap off the page.

In his latest book, Origins of Political Order: Volume 1, the great Frances Fukuyama posits that a well functioning modern society runs counter to human biology.  It’s natural for humans — in fact most animals from chimps to squirrels — to favor those that share genes.  It’s very unnatural for humans to place abstract things, like the good of the country, above the good of themselves, their families, or their party.  The functioning of modern societies, though, relies on impersonal institutions that encourage or compel people to do exactly that: subjugate their interests to the greater good.

Moreover, Mr. Fukuyama tells us, modernization isn’t a one-way street.  Even societies that have achieved a sort of breakthrough velocity with institutions like a well-functioning state, the rule of law, and a robust economy can slip backward.  In fact, every society exists in tension between the advantages afforded by modernization and the human biology that causes people to favor those like them.  Even in cases where the biological bond is broken — like Imperial China’s bureaucratic entrance exams or the Ottoman Janissaries who were literally ripped from their families and placed in public service — the desire to create new family-like bonds reasserts itself.  People coalesce into new factions or parties based on shared interests or values.

In the July/August issue of The Atlantic, former Oklahoma Congressman Mickey Edwards tells us that tribes now dominate American politics.  “Ours is a system not focused on collective problem-solving but on a struggle for power between two private organizations.  Party activists control access to the ballot through closed party primaries and conventions; partisan leaders design congressional districts.  Once elected to Congress, our representatives are divided into warring camps.”[1]

Now Mr. Edwards is not your typical decrier of partisanship and gridlock.  Having held elected office he has a more nuanced view.  It’s not that parties or fierce debate are inherently bad, quite the contrary.  Mr. Edwards wants more debate, not less.  Rather, he sees that, “[s]tate and local governments have abdicated their responsibility to oversee America’s election process…Because activists who demand loyalty and see compromise as selling out dominate party primaries and conventions, candidates who seek their permission to be on the November ballot find themselves under great pressure to take hard-line positions.  This tendency toward rigidity — and the party system that enables it — is at the root of today’s political dysfunction.”

Or recast in Mr. Fukuyama’s model, the reassertion of tribalism at the scale and level of national politics has reasserted itself, undermining the smooth functioning of our modern society.  Mr. Edwards puts it bleakly:  “When Democrat Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House…she said her priority was to…elect more Democrats.  After Republican victories in 2010, the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said his goal was to…prevent the Democratic president’s reelection.  With the country at war and the economy in recession, our government leaders’ first thoughts have been of party advantage.”

Just watch the latest news.  With the government on the verge of a self-imposed debt default, both sides continued to play petty games.  When the S&P downgraded the country’s debt-rating, this did not spark self-reflection on the role politicians played in this self-imposed crisis, instead it kicked off a game of “shoot the messenger” with Democrats ridiculing S&P and Republicans blaming everyone but themselves.

Regardless of which boogieman you want to blame – Wall Street, the Tea Party, Obama, the Chinese – the fact remains: our civil society is fraying.  The experience of the past few years has undermined our collective confidence in the institutions that support a well-functioning modern society including our faith in businesses, governments, NGOs, organized religion, and the academy.  We no longer feel we can rely on them to do the right thing.

How do we restore confidence?  How do we ensure that our leaders put the needs of society ahead of the needs of their party, business, or organization?

It starts with straight-talk.  So here goes…

In a democratic society we get the leaders we deserve.  We get the behaviors we tolerate.  If we don’t like their leadership or their behaviors then we have no one to blame but ourselves.  It’s time for “leadership from the middle”, by which I mean leadership by you and me.  So maybe we’re not the elected leaders or maybe we’re not all bank presidents.  But if you’re reading these words chances are that you are a leader.  It’s time for us to come together and lead.

We need leaders from across civil society to come together and start working to restore our collective confidence and strengthen our commitment to the greater good.  The great arc of history, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, bends toward justice but only if people make it.  We have to come together and bend our history toward sustainable economic development built on a foundation of integrity.

For our first meeting, I’ll play host.  We can gather at the COMMIT!Forum on September 26-27 in New York City.  I don’t believe that one meeting can solve all our problems but I know for sure that without a meeting, they won’t get solved.  Your eyes may glaze over at the idea of a conference solving real social problems but the great social problems of history have, in fact, all been dealt with in meetings.  The Constitutional Convention was a meeting.  The March on Washington was planned in meetings and was itself a meeting.  The only way humans can solve problems is by coming together, sharing ideas, and creating shared vision in – you guessed it – meetings.

Join this first meeting and commit yourself to leading from the middle.  Commit yourself to rebuilding our frayed civil society.  Commit yourself to jump-starting the next wave of sustained economic development built on a foundation of integrity.

[1] Source: “How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans”


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