The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Tribal Mind and the Nation State

Flags outside the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

Over at Spliced, Matt Johnson has a very interesting article on Jonathan Haidt, Robert Wright, and whether the nation-state is the largest political unit that can satisfy the tribal instinct.

He begins:

During a conversation with Robert Wright on, Jonathan Haidt argued that there’s a clear limit to human solidarity: “A nation state [sic] is, actually, the largest unit we can do for which our tribal instincts still work.” Wright responded: “Wait, you’re talking about a number of people that is the max? Three hundred million is the max? Or geographic scope? Or are you just saying that there has to be some other group that we are opposed to?”

Haidt explained that we don’t necessarily need an enemy to arouse our tribal instincts, but we have to be “part of a group that has an identity and has a quasi-religious nature to it.” He cited the American sociologist Robert Bellah, pointing out that the “nation is the largest unit that does all the stuff that activates the tribal mind.”

Wright countered that the nation is an arbitrary dividing line: “You’re acting as if it violates human nature to extend brotherhood beyond the scope of the nation, but it’s not as if the nation is a natural compass . . . we’re not designed by natural selection to feel a sense of kinship with 300 million people.” Wright goes on to describe national solidarity as a “cultural adaptation” that can be transcended.

Johnson goes on to side with Wright (and Peter Singer) that the nation-state is probably not — or at least needn’t be — the outer boundary of our in-group identity:

In a 2016 article in The American Interest, Haidt argues, “As societies become more prosperous and safe, they generally become more open and tolerant . . . this openness leads almost inevitably to the rise of a cosmopolitan attitude.” However, he also points out that multiculturalism, mass immigration, and other internationalist projects can lead to animosity among people who feel threatened by globalization. This is a perfectly reasonable concern, and he’s right to caution against dismissing all forms of nationalist backlash as simple expressions of bigotry.

But here’s what’s curious about Haidt’s article in light of his arguments about the inescapable, permanent sway of national identity: He admits that entire societies are capable of embracing a “cosmopolitan attitude” under the right circumstances. This raises a few questions: Are the societies he’s talking about more or less cosmopolitan than they were, say, 75 years ago? If the answer is more, isn’t it possible that Singer is right? Isn’t it possible that our circle of ethical concern really is expanding? Couldn’t it continue to do so?

I think Johnson makes a good point. What interests me is that he makes no mention of religion as a transnational institution of tribal loyalty. The “Catholic” in Catholic Church means “universal,” and for a very long time before the Westphalian system, it served as — or strived to serve as — a pan-ethnic, pan-national form of ethical association.

Islam did as well. From the Islam and Nationalism entry at

The Prophet (S) who founded the classless and universal society of Islam, actually brought various nations together and removed their tribal hues. At a gathering of three Muslims from three countries, namely Salman from Pars, Soheib from White Romans and Bilal from Black Ethiopia, an Arab named Gheys-bin- Motateba entered and addressed the above as ‘foreigners’. The Prophet (S) said in anger: “Your father is the same and your religion is the same, and the Arabism of which you seem to be proud belongs neither to your father, nor to your mother (meaning Adam and Eve are the parents of all of you)”. Then he declared: “He who propagates the creed of tribal solidarity or fights for its sake or offers his life for it, is not of us.”

Here’s Bernard Lewis in The Return to Islam:

For the Muslim, religion traditionally was not only universal but also central in the sense that it constituted the essential basis and focus of identity and loyalty. It was religion which distinguished those who belonged to the group and marked them off from those outside the group. A Muslim Iraqi would feel far closer bonds with a non-Iraqi Muslim than with a non-Muslim Iraqi. Muslims of different countries, speaking different languages, share the same memories of a common and sacred past, the same awareness of corporate identity, the same sense of a common predicament and destiny. It is not nation or country which, as in the West, forms the historic basis of identity, but the religio-political community, and the imported Western idea of ethnic and territorial nationhood remains, like secularism, alien and incompletely assimilated.

It seems to me that the only current contender for anything like a global tribe requiring anything like global solidarity would be a resurgent old religion or some kind of new one.

But even then, one reason I think a global sense of ethical or tribal solidarity is very difficult to achieve is that one of the key ingredients of tribal solidarity is opposition to an “other.” Global religions still define themselves — in practical terms — as opposed to some other religious view or group. Johnson’s point about cosmopolitanism is a good one, but it overlooks the fact that many of the cosmopolitans, or “globalists,” very much act like a tribe pitted against what they consider to be the populist rubes beneath them. As Ross Douthat notes, the cosmopolitans are a tribe, too.

Ronald Reagan used to talk a lot about how the nations of the world would drop their differences in the face of an extraterrestrial threat. He was often mocked for saying this, but I think he was making a fairly profound point. It’s not obvious that it would have to be little green men knocking on our door. If the Sweet Meteor of Death had fulfilled its campaign promise, one could imagine a similar dynamic of global unity in the face of a global threat. Lord knows this is a major political passion underneath a lot of climate-change activism. Indeed, William James in his “Moral Equivalent of War” address explicitly talked about the need to use the war against “nature” as a substitute for the natural martial tendency to wage war against the (human) other.

I’m inclined to believe Haidt is wrong about the nation-state being the final and largest form of in-group solidarity, but it’s clearly an enormously sticky concept with a lot of staying power. Moreover, it’s not obvious to me that the possible replacements would amount to improvements.

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