The Tribalism Bugaboo

(Mesut Doğan/Dreamstime)
Our system handles factionalism pretty well: Gridlock is better than rule by a tyrannical majority.   

The hot topic among intellectual types these days is the notion of “tribalism.” The problem with our country, the smart set is arguing, is that we are too focused on our own parochial cliques — economic, geographic, religious, whatever — so we cannot even think about the general welfare, let alone act together to achieve it.

Heather Wilhelm gave a good rejoinder to this anxiety last week: “Meh.” Most people, she suggests, express “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.” I think that is about right. I am reminded of a great book by Morris Fiorina, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, which argued that while Americans are evenly divided, they are not deeply so. You will not get such a nuanced impression from cable news or social media, but that is just another good reason not to participate too much in either of those forums.

I would like to push this analysis a step further: Our system of government was in fact explicitly designed to handle the biggest problem of “tribalism,” which the Founders might have called the tyranny of the majority. And it accomplishes that task very well. In the United States, the persistence of tribalism is at worst an annoyance, rather than a calamitous threat to basic rights and public security.

Although the use of the world is relatively new, anxieties about tribalism are very old, for they point to the most basic question of government: How do we get people to look out for the good of the whole community, rather than just themselves? The ancients had a tragic answer to that question, envisioning government as an endless cycle between just and unjust versions. But early modern thinkers were more optimistic, reckoning that there were conditions under which good government was sustainable. In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu argued that one solution to tribalism was to be found in a “small republic:”

In an extensive republic, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views; it is subordinate to exceptions and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is more obvious, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have less extent and, of course, are less protected.

This view was very popular in the United States in the 1780s, when the states held the balance of power. The feeling was that the government of a small polity such as New Hampshire or Georgia was best able to articulate the public interest. Everybody will more or less be on the same page, political leaders will reflect those shared values and act accordingly.

But this theory did not fare well during that tumultuous decade. The 13 states were often dominated by popular majorities that had no appreciation for the bigger picture. They instead empowered governments that harassed political minorities, frustrated neighboring states, and damaged the international reputation of the nation. It was this failure that induced twelve of the 13 states to participate in the Constitutional Convention, where James Madison introduced his radical alternative to Montesquieu’s notion of a small republic.

Like many political thinkers, Madison reckoned that “factionalism” (his word for tribalism) was part and parcel of human nature. The solution was not a small polity — because that could empower a single faction to run roughshod over everybody else. Instead, he recommended an extended republic that took in a variety of factions or tribes, each positioned in such a way as to check the self-interested designs of the others. Madison’s idea was that having factions share power with one another would result in the type of laws that were good for the whole country.

To appreciate how this functions in practice today, consider Brexit. Many conservatives celebrated that decision, but I did not. As a staunch Madisonian, I did not like that a narrow majority of 52 percent could force such a massive change upon a 48 percent minority after a single vote. That could probably never happen in our system of government. For starters, you would need a larger majority than just 52 percent — or at least that 52 percent would have to be broadly distributed across the country. After that, you would have to sustain popular passion on the issue across several elections spanning multiple years. And finally, you would have to get buy-in from elected representatives to go ahead and do it. None of this is to say it would not happen, but rather to say it would occur only after voters reached a broad, deliberate, and durable consensus.

The Madisonian system is far from perfect. Madison himself acknowledged that it would only reduce the tendency toward factionalism, and history has demonstrated that there are gaps within its protective shield. For instance, distributive politics is a problem: This is where legislators create logrolls that join diverse pieces of legislation into a single bill. It allows disparate factions to join forces with one another to secure passage of a bundle of laws that otherwise could not succeed on their own. Also, a lot depends on who gets counted as a citizen — minorities who cannot vote do not get to defend their interests.

Furthermore, the extended republic creates more gridlock than would otherwise exist. Factions can selfishly prevent changes to the status quo that would be good for the whole nation. This was a common complaint of the progressives, especially Woodrow Wilson, who thought our government was too slow-moving and incapable of keeping up with the evolution of public opinion.

In any system that depends on majority rule, there is nothing to stop the majority from taking the reins of government and ruining it for its own, selfish purposes.

But the great virtue of the Madisonian approach to politics is that it really does cut down on the potential for majoritarian tyranny, of the type that existed in the 1780s. This is the sort of tribalism that is the most fearful — when a single tribe amounts to a majority. In any system that depends on majority rule, there is nothing to stop the majority from taking the reins of government and ruining it for its own, selfish purposes.

In the history of the United States, we have never really had tribalism devolve into majoritarian faction. We have had minorities, usually wealthy ones, acquire outsize political power. We have had logrolls in which factions bundled their interests to maximize their gains at the expense of the common good. And of course, we have struggled to expand the definition of citizenship so that it incorpoartes all segments of society, ensuring that racial and ethnic minorities receive the full protection of the state. But we have never really had a single tribe or faction take control of the entire process. That is a very good thing. And I prefer a government that sometimes impedes wise reforms as the cost for preventing the wicked designs of majoritarian tribes.

None of this is to say that tribalism is not a problem. Under the Madisonian schema, if the people cannot agree about what constitutes the general welfare, the result is often that nothing gets done. So the government often grinds its gears while public problems persist or get worse. But as frustrating as that is, it is far preferable to the tyranny of a single tribe that governs everybody else for its own purposes.

Jay Cost is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College.


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