Is Tribalism Really on the Rise? Meh.

A Trump supporter (right) argues with a demonstrator taking part in an International Women’s Day march in New York City, March 8, 2018. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Fury and finger-pointing are all the rage on social media. Plenty of Americans just shrug.

‘By now we all understand that America is in the grip of political tribalism,” Yale professor Amy Chua wrote in the February 22 New York Times. “We lament and condemn this phenomenon even as we voraciously engage in it.”

It’s a familiar refrain, is it not? Chua’s widely discussed new book on the topic, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, has been praised as “timely,” “spot-on,” “brilliant,” and “insightful.” (The author’s earlier launch to fame was a bit more divisive: In 2011’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, she detailed her unorthodox method of perfectionist parenting, including the crazed and principled rejection of a crookedly folded, happy-face-strewn birthday card made by her four-year-old daughter.)

In any case, tribalism is hot right now — or so we are told. If you believe what you watch, read, and hear, America is hopelessly fractured among red and blue partisan team lines, poised for an endless and nightmarish cable-news-style shouting match. Support for Donald Trump, we are informed, is particularly “tribal in nature,” as Senator Bob Corker recently told the Washington Examiner. If you spend a lot of time on social media — and many journalists do — you’re probably convinced that this is correct. America is broken, we are told. People simply can’t see beyond party lines. Reason has failed. Tribalism reigns.

But what if this simply isn’t true?

Really, bear with me: What if a significant segment of the American population is completely left out of the larger media discussion about social media and tribalism? Think about your real-life experiences, not those that occur in front of a screen. You probably know these people. Perhaps you are even one of them. Let’s call them the “Mehs.”

“Meh,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is a neologism “used to express indifference or mild disappointment.” “Meh” is “an interjection used as an expression of indifference or boredom,” Wikipedia notes. “It is often regarded as a verbal equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders,” and people utter it when addressing a topic they have “no opinion or emotions about.” (That last line is kind of hilarious, given that our current cultural milieu urges people of all ages and levels of engagement to have passionate opinions on every topic in the universe, including subjects they know nothing about. But let’s move on.)

What if a significant segment of the American population is completely left out of the larger media discussion about social media and tribalism?

“Meh” was first widely popularized on The Simpsons, a TV show credited with predicting this year’s U.S. Olympic curling win against Sweden eight years before it happened, as well as forecasting Donald Trump’s presidency way back in the year 2000. Since its Simpsons debut, “meh” has appeared in various dictionaries as well as headlines for BBC News, ABC News, and the New York Times. “Meh,” apparently, has arrived.

In its political form, a “meh” might signify displeasure with American politics at large, but with none of the gushers of faux outrage and over-the-top feigned surprise that regularly festoon social media. (Remember, say, the trauma of the proposed Washington, D.C., military parade that was going to potentially end America as we know it and that inspired a brief burst of hysteria until everyone forgot about it a few days later? No? Ah ha! You might be a “meh.”)

As a “meh,” you might align with one political party — ahem, I’m sorry, political “tribe” — but in reality, that tribe frequently annoys and exasperates you and makes you wonder, at least once a week, why it even exists as an entity. You’re not the sort of rah-rah knee-jerk blinkered team player we’re so confidently told is on the rise. You just happen to think — based on actual policy preferences, not base caveman instinct — that the other side is worse. (This also explains the predicament of Evangelicals, by the way, who are often painted in the media as tribal robots. Many were reluctant Trump voters at best.)

Most significantly, the “mehs” have a crucial skill in this day and age: They understand the grand unifying theory of politics, which is that a frighteningly large percentage of the people involved in politics can be insufferable and wildly out of touch. At moments of trivial political absurdity, the “mehs” can say, “Ugh, well, that’s politics,” as opposed to completely freaking out and acting as if trivial political absurdities have never occurred before — not with people surviving to tell the tale, anyway — and ratcheting matters up to eleven on a one-to-ten scale, as social media tends to inspire people to do.

To say “meh” isn’t to say “who cares?” when it comes to important issues. But it does involve a certain detached understanding that much of our federal government is a gigantic, sprawling, often self-serving mess. On one side, a “meh” understands why we’re somehow voting on a gargantuan $1.3 trillion funding bill when the supposedly fiscally conservative political party is power. On the other, a “meh” understands that The Handmaid’s Tale is not unfolding in real life.

I hope that the rise of the “mehs” will correlate with increased calls for limited, accountable government, and the votes to back them up. This rarely happens, but hey, we all can dream. In the meantime, you, too, can adopt the “meh” lifestyle. Does this column infuriate you? If this one doesn’t, is there another on the docket that makes you want to pull a proverbial Incredible Hulk? Close your eyes, lean back, and say “meh.” Trust me. It’s really a glorious way to live.

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