Tribalism is resurging. One of its most obvious manifestations can be seen in politics. Today what seems to matter first and above all else is loyalty to one’s political tribe and its leaders, not the facts about an issue, not the truth on any given controversy, not the right policy to adopt — all of these are pushed to the background.
The writer Andrew Sullivan is particularly incisive in capturing today’s pervasive political tribalism: “so many severe critics of George W. Bush’s surveillance policies,” Sullivan observes, “became oddly muted when Obama adopted most of them; Democrats looked the other way as Obama ramped up deportations to levels higher than Trump’s rate so far.” For their part, Sullivan notes, Republicans have exhibited the same mindset. They “were obsessed with the national debt when Obama was in office, despite the deepest recession in decades. But the minute Trump came to power, they couldn’t be more enthusiastic about a tax package that could add trillions of dollars to it.” In her book Political Tribes, the legal scholar Amy Chua summarizes our current state this way: “At different times in the past both the American Left and the American Right have stood for group-transcending values. Neither does today.”
Tribalism is resurgent also on college campuses. Students are taught to view themselves, and others, as primarily members of some group, or tribe, defined by race, by gender, by sexual orientation, by economic status — or, increasingly, by some intersection of these group memberships. These groupings are then plotted out in a matrix of privilege and oppression. The key lesson they’re given is about viewing people not as individuals but as “representatives” of some tribal group. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at New York University, has raised the alarm about the push for such “identity politics” in academia.
Academia and politics are just two of the most salient illustrations. Tribalism has moved from the fringes of society to the mainstream. We live in what’s becoming a tribal age.
What does that bode for our future?
What we can expect from tribalism, when it’s unleashed into the cultural mainstream, encouraged, and normalized, is savagery. Take a look at societies where tribalism is deeply enmeshed in the culture. Look at the unending tribal conflicts of the Balkans; the hundreds of thousands of corpses that piled up during the eruption of tribal conflict between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda; the sectarian wars that pervade the Middle East. Our tribal future promises to be dark, brutal, violent.
How can we counteract the trend of intensifying tribalism? We need first to understand its nature and source. Sullivan, Chua, and Haidt — among today’s most clear-eyed critics of current tribal loyalties — have described some important features of our present predicament.
But they leave us with a muddled conception of tribalism. An unintended result is to normalize tribalism, pushing it further into the cultural mainstream. We need an analysis that pinpoints its essential nature. To that end, I will show that we have much to gain from Ayn Rand’s philosophic analysis of tribalism. Rand not only penetrates deeply into the phenomenon of tribalism, she lays out clearly a positive alternative, the ideal of individualism, which is the antidote to tribalism.
Today’s political-cultural landscape
Sullivan, Chua and Haidt point us toward some telling features of today’s political-cultural landscape. Each notes that tribalism means seeing oneself as a member of some group, and viewing your life, other people, the world from a group-first perspective. Chua argues compellingly that race is a salient, if not the major, form of “political tribalism” in America today.
Sullivan captures how loyalty to a political group is appealing to some. “One of the great attractions of tribalism,” he observes, “is that you don’t actually have to think very much. All you need to know on any given subject is which side you’re on. You pick up signals from everyone around you, you slowly winnow your acquaintances to those who will reinforce your worldview, a tribal leader calls the shots, and everything slips into place. After a while, your immersion in tribal loyalty makes the activities of another tribe not just alien but close to incomprehensible.”
Such tribal loyalty, Sullivan writes, is uncritical, unthinking, blind. “When a party leader in a liberal democracy proposes a shift in direction, there is usually an internal debate. It can go on for years. When a tribal leader does so, the tribe immediately jumps on command. And so [after Trump’s election] the Republicans went from free trade to protectionism, and from internationalism to nationalism, almost overnight.”
Sullivan, Chua and Haidt all observe how tribal groups in today’s culture typically exhibit a suspicion, even hostility toward nonmembers, outsiders, them. For example, Haidt laments a growing trend on campus of teaching students to think that “Every situation is to be analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people.” This leads to a “paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.” Chua writes that when tribes feel threatened, they “close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.”
Sullivan, Chua, and Haidt succeed, up to a point, in analyzing some manifestations of tribalist behavior in our culture. But beyond that, what they offer only muddles our conception of tribalism, and they effectively normalize a pernicious phenomenon. They share two profound confusions: (1) they claim that tribalism is in some sense innate, and (2) they claim that there can be good forms of tribalism. Neither of these claims is true.
Is everyone a tribalist?
For Sullivan, Chua and Haidt, tribalism is an innate, built-in factor in human nature. Chua asserts that “Humans are tribal,” suggesting that the impulse — or “instinct” as she also puts it — to belong to a tribe has a neurological basis. Sullivan offers a similar perspective, basing his view on observations from anthropology. He notes: “Tribalism, it’s always worth remembering, is not one aspect of human experience. It’s the default human experience. It comes more naturally to us than any other way of life. For the overwhelming majority of our time on this planet, the tribe was the only form of human society.” Although few actual tribes exist today, he observes, “that doesn’t mean that humans are genetically much different.”
Haidt, for his part, notes that, “When we look back at the ways our ancestors lived, there’s no getting around it: we are tribal primates. . . . Tribalism is in our hearts and minds.” It’s something we’ll “never stamp out entirely,” though he seems to think its effects can be mitigated. Even so, we must recognize, Haidt claims, that our minds have evolved “for tribal warfare and us/them thinking.” Certain factors, then, can “turn on [students’] ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle.” We are, in short, hardwired to be tribal.
Is every single one of us tribal? Pause to trace out the full meaning of that claim. To be tribal is to put blind loyalty to the tribe above your own first-handed grasp of the truth and of right and wrong. That describes some people, but there’s no evidence for the sweeping claim that within each of us is a raging tribalist itching to burst out and blindly follow the group’s dictates, even to the point of savagery.
This assumption that tribalism is an unavoidable feature of human nature leads to a second claim, which further clouds the issue. The claim is that there are, in fact, good forms of tribalism.
In her widely praised book Political Tribes, Chua writes that “Some tribes are sources of joy and salvation; some are the hideous product of hate mongering by opportunistic power seekers.” [Emphasis added.]
Haidt argues that there are benign, good forms of “identity politics.” What distinguishes these good forms of tribalism is that they draw a wider circle of inclusion, rather than a narrow one of exclusion. They acknowledge the common humanity of those involved. He gives the example of Martin Luther King Jr.’s push for civil rights. Things go wrong, in Haidt’s view, when people cling to “identity politics” tribes as a way of excluding and vilifying others, instead of coming together around an awareness of our common humanity.
What explains this shared notion that some tribes are healthy, benign, good? For Chua, Sullivan and Haidt, the observable fact that people join into groups is explained by our tribal drive. Belonging to groups is something we “crave,” it’s an expression of our “tribal instinct,” we’re born that way. But we can also see something important about the groups people join: not all of them are bad. Being a Packer’s fan or a member of a Facebook group for Dead Heads is obviously, and crucially, different from, say, belonging to a white supremacist gang or an “Antifa” cell. Since some groups are destructive and others are benign, this apparently implies that our innate tribal drive manifests itself in bad tribes and good tribes.
This bizarre view ignores the reality of what a tribe is. Think of the tribes in Rwanda, in the Balkans, in the Middle East; or the American tribes of white supremacists and of “Antifa”: all of these groups have far more in common with each other — in how they view themselves, how they behave — than they do with groups of Packers fans and Dead Heads. But Chua, Sullivan, and Haidt lose sight of the obvious fact that not all groups are tribes. This fact eludes them because they insist, without good evidence, on a tribal instinct to account for why we human beings form groups, rather than live in isolation.
What is the difference between a tribe and other groups? Ayn Rand offers a clarifying answer, one that flows from her philosophic account of the nature of today’s tribalism.
Tribes vs. non-tribal groups
Rand observed that tribalism has so infused people’s thinking that they struggle to understand “what constitutes a rational human association.” She wrote those words in 1973, but they apply, with added force, today. In sharp contrast with Sullivan, Chua, and Haidt, Rand views tribalism as entirely avoidable. It reflects, not an innate feature of human nature, but a path that people choose. So, on her view, not all groups are tribal, and, there’s no such issue as distinguishing between “good” and pernicious tribes. Instead, we need to understand what sets tribalism apart from other, proper, ways in which individuals come together into groups. Rand writes:
There is a crucial difference between an association and a tribe. Just as a proper society is ruled by laws, not by men, so a proper association is united by ideas, not by men, and its members are loyal to the ideas, not to the group. It is eminently reasonable that men should seek to associate with those who share their convictions and values. It is impossible to deal or even to communicate with men whose ideas are fundamentally opposed to one’s own (and one should be free not to deal with them). All proper associations are formed or joined by individual choice and on conscious, intellectual grounds (philosophical, political, professional, etc.) — not by the physiological or geographic accident of birth, and not on the ground of tradition.
Two key points here deserve special emphasis.
First, notice Rand’s stress on what counts as rational loyalty to a proper group. For example, you choose to join a tennis club because you value the sport, want to get better at it, and wish to find other players who share your passion. Your loyalty is to the values that define the club, and that you’ve joined for the sake of. Or, you sign on to a political party because you’ve thought about its positions, you believe its principles merit your support, and you want to see those ideas enacted. These two examples, which can stand for an endless variety of others, contrast with the kind of tribal loyalty we saw earlier, particularly in Sullivan’s examples of Democrats and Republicans acting in loyalty not to any principles, but to their tribe’s leader.
Second, notice Rand’s focus on the individual. Proper associations are the product of the choices of individuals to come together over shared ideas and values and principles. For Rand, the individual is the starting point, not only when distinguishing tribes from other groupings, but in all moral-political thinking.
The ideal of individualism was a defining theme of Rand’s philosophic thought and writing, and it was fundamental to her analysis of tribalism. Rand’s conception of individualism, it’s important to note, was distinctive. For many people, an individualist is someone who follows his emotions, whose “individuality” is defined by negation: by rejecting whatever other, conventional people do and believe. For Rand, that’s a caricature. Such a person is as beholden to the group as is the conformist: he watches what the group does and then does the opposite. Central to Rand’s conception of individualism is a deep-rooted commitment to facts and reason. On Rand’s view, an individualist is someone who accepts the responsibility of living by their own independent, first-handed judgment.The individualist, in Ayn Rand’s conception, is fundamentally active-minded. This contrasts sharply with what we’ve already identified as distinctive characteristics of the tribalist. Click To TweetThis independence of thought is a hallmark of Rand’s fictional heroes. To give just one example, the character Howard Roark, in The Fountainhead, is an innovative architect who puts nothing above his own rational judgment, his own understanding of the truth, and his own artistic standards — amid immense social pressures to conform to unthinking tradition and conventional standards. The individualist, in Rand’s conception, is fundamentally active-minded. Such a person is committed to grasping the facts, reaching conclusions guided by reason, and acting in line with what’s true and morally right. Clearly, this contrasts sharply with what we’ve already identified as distinctive characteristics of the tribalist. What lies beneath those tribal characteristics?
What tribalism is
Let’s start by looking at one variety of tribalism that surged to the forefront decades ago and that Rand analyzed. In her 1977 lecture “Global Balkanization,” later published in essay form, Rand examined the rise of “ethnic” tribalism in Europe and North America. At the time, “ethnic” groups not only in the Balkans, but also in Scotland, Spain, France, Italy, Canada, and elsewhere clamored for political recognition and separatism — in the name of realizing their collective identity. Why were men and women in scientifically and technologically advanced societies going tribal? In answering that question, Rand points us toward the essentially anti-intellectual nature of tribalism. She observed:
Philosophically, tribalism is the product of irrationalism and collectivism. It is a logical consequence of modern philosophy. If men accept the notion that reason is not valid, what is to guide them and how are they to live? Obviously, they will seek to join a group — any group — which claims the ability to lead them and to provide some sort of knowledge acquired by some unspecified means. If men accept the notion that the individual is helpless, intellectually and morally, that he has no mind and no rights, that he is nothing, but the group is all, and his only moral significance lies in selfless service to the group — they will be pulled obediently to join a group.
Which group? If people have absorbed the idea that their own mind and judgment are unreliable, and if they have been deprived of self-esteem, they can feel no confidence to make the right choice. What that leaves each of them with is to join some “unchosen group, the group into which you were born, the group to which you were predestined to belong by the sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient power of your body chemistry.” In today’s world, that power is labeled your “ethnicity,” which is some agglomeration of your genetic lineage (i.e., racism) and the traditions practiced by your grandparents.
There is no surer way to infect mankind with hatred — brute, blind, virulent hatred — than by splitting it into ethnic groups or tribes. If a man believes that his own character is determined at birth in some unknown, ineffable way, and that the characters of all strangers are determined in the same way — then no communication, no understanding, no persuasion is possible among them, only mutual fear, suspicion and hatred.
“Ethnic” tribalism was, and remains, a common form of a wider phenomenon. For Rand, the term “tribalism” encompasses a range of manifestations that share a common root. These included racism, “ethnic identity,” xenophobia, caste systems, guild socialism, gang culture. (To that list we might add today’s assorted gender-based tribes.) What’s in common to such tribes is a distinctive, anti-intellectual mindset.1
Tribalism as a chosen, not innate, mental passivity
For Rand, the tribal mindset is in no way innate. Ultimately its sources lie in an individual’s choice to default on the responsibility of independent thinking. Rand characterized that mindset as a special kind of cognitive passivity, especially in regard to conceptual thinking and fundamental principles. “It is a mentality,” she writes, “that decided, at a certain point of development, that it knows enough and does not care to look further.” The tribalist’s passive, anti-effort, anti-intellectual mentality, on Rand’s account, “is not a product of ignorance (nor is it caused by a lack of intelligence), but rather self-made, i.e., self-arrested.”
Rand’s conception of tribalism, with its source in a particular kind of passive mindset, clarifies features of tribalism that Sullivan, Chua and Haidt have called to our attention: the hostility to outsiders and the indifference to moral thinking and principles. From Rand’s perspective, these symptoms flow from a self-arrested consciousness.
Rejection of moral thinking
The tribe enables, and encourages, its members to abdicate on the responsibility of engaging in moral thinking and applying principles. The tribal member can shirk that cognitive effort. In return, the tribe demands something he’s only too willing to give: an unquestioning, uncritical, unthinking loyalty to the group. Rand observes:
The basic commandment of all such groups, which takes precedence over any other rules, is: loyalty to the group — not to ideas, but to people; not to the group’s beliefs, which are minimal and chiefly ritualistic, but to the group’s members and leaders. Whether a given member is right or wrong, the others must protect him from outsiders; whether he is innocent or guilty, the others must stand by him against outsiders; whether he is competent or not, the others must employ him or trade with him in preference to outsiders. Thus, a physical qualification — the accident of birth in a given village or tribe — takes precedence over morality and justice.2
This is manifest in the tribalist’s rejection of moral thinking. For tribal Republicans it was a grave moral offense that President Bill Clinton had an affair with an intern and lied about it. But notice the conspicuous absence of outrage today, from supposed moralists, about President Trump’s apparently numerous extramarital affairs, including with a porn actress, and the lies, payoffs and cover-ups to silence his bedmates. If an action is unwise or destructive or immoral, the fact that it is your tribe’s guy doing it cannot make it wise or constructive or virtuous. But for the tribal mentality, that’s what matters. And that’s all that matters, when you’ve abandoned moral ideas and principles. The tribalist is profoundly antimoral.
Hostility to outsiders
To the tribal mentality, outsiders are felt to be a special kind of threat. When he’s around people of his own tribe, he is comfortable: they are like him (usually sharing his skin color or other physiological, accidental features); they share his unquestioned customs and traditions and ways of living. Among them, he can remain in his state of mental lethargy. And this kind of mentality copes within a tribal grouping, so long as no part of it is challenged. But outsiders constitute one kind of challenge to it and provoke a response that ranges, as Rand puts it, from “fear to resentment to stubborn evasion to panic to malice to hatred.”3
To engage with “outsiders” means having to communicate, trade, evaluate, interact with people who differ from those he’s familiar with. “Outsiders” means “the whole wide world beyond the confines of his village or town or gang — the world of all those people who do not live by his ‘rules.’” To interact with them means having to exert the kind of conceptual mental effort that he has habitually avoided, and he feels ill-equipped to the task. “If his professed beliefs — i.e., the rules and slogans of his group — are challenged, he feels his consciousness dissolving in fog. Hence, his fear of outsiders.” He does “not know why he feels that outsiders are a deadly threat to him and why they fill him with helpless terror.” The threat he feels is not existential but pertains to his ability to think and deal with the world: to deal with “outsiders” requires “that he rise above his ‘rules’ to the level of abstract principles. He would die rather than attempt it.”
We can see aspects of how that mindset experiences non-tribal members, in the words of one student, a self-described former “radical” activist. The student came to regard certain political dogmas as “sacred,” which in this context means not to be questioned, and bristled at people who held different views, no matter what their reasons.
If someone does question those beliefs, they’re not just being stupid or even depraved, they’re actively doing violence. They might as well be kicking a puppy. When people hold sacred beliefs, there is no disagreement without animosity. . . . [P]eople who disagreed with my views weren’t just wrong, they were awful people. I watched what people said closely, scanning for objectionable content. Any infraction reflected badly on your character, and too many might put you on my blacklist.
Taking this sketch as illustrative of a particular kind of tribalist, we can see how some students come to experience “outsiders.” An outsider’s mere voicing of an opposing view is felt to be “doing violence” to them. This us-versus-them attitude runs deep, and if there seems to be no way to bridge the gulf — the outsiders are clearly wrong and unreachable — you can see why it would fuel fear, suspicion, hatred, and worse.
The rise of tribalism
What explains the resurgence of tribalism? It’s illuminating to contrast Rand’s explanation with the views of Sullivan, Chua and Haidt. On their premise that a tribal drive is innate, they suggest a number of social, cultural, economic and political factors that somehow, and often in combination, switch on “our tribal circuits.”
This kind of explanation fails because it ignores the fact of human agency and volition.
For Rand, by contrast, tribalism is the result of a default on independent thought, and to understand its rise, we need to look at our culture’s dominant ideas and their spread. An individual’s choice to become dependent on a tribal group occurs within, and is influenced by, a particular cultural context. Rand observed several major contributing factors that, across decades and centuries, helped to re-inject tribalism into the culture. The resurgence of tribalism in the 1970s — which we’re still living through today — is a product of long-established intellectual trends permeating the schools, the universities, political life. These trends push people to become tribal.
The thrust of these trends is to negate two values that came to the fore in the Age of Enlightenment: individualism and reason. The subversion of these ideas has been unfolding across decades in schools and in universities. When students learn that reason is unreliable, that we cannot reach truth, that we can only trust the inter-subjective agreement of a group, they emerge as adults lacking confidence in their own judgment and their self-worth. They’ve been groomed for tribalism.
The greater the intellectual-cultural assault on individualism and reason, the more we can expect a rise in tribalism. Seeking guidance and a semblance of self-esteem, people imagine that they can gain both from a tribe. Rand observed that “Tribalism is a product of fear, and fear is the dominant emotion of any person, culture or society that rejects man’s power of survival: reason.”
Consider, for example, the meaning and implications of just one recent book on psychology and moral thinking, intended for general readers, which showcases cutting-edge academic research. The book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, is not only a best seller, but actually widely read. Its key messages: We’re all driven by our passions and emotional reactions; reason steps in to provide after-the-fact rationalizations. Rather than a “scientist searching for truth,” reason is like a cross between “a politician searching for votes” and a “full-time in-house press secretary,” justifying whatever view we already hold, no matter how bad. The book instructs us that the “worship of reason” is one of the “most long-lived delusions” in Western history. To give up on this “rationalist delusion” is to be “wary of any individual’s ability to reason” and to reach truth. And, finally, the academic research purportedly shows that we’re innately tribal; it’s unavoidable.
The book’s author is Jonathan Haidt. But Haidt is not even remotely in the vanguard of intellectuals who are openly dismissive of reason; on the contrary, Haidt thinks of himself as trying to make our cultural and political discussions more reasonable. Yet the effect of his book is not only to subvert reason and individualism, but also to whitewash and push tribalism further into the mainstream. Haidt’s book is one drop within a vast intellectual tide, sweeping throughout the culture. The origins of that tide date back two centuries to the counter-Enlightenment.
Since early childhood, their emotions have been conditioned by the tribal premise that one must “belong,” one must be “in,” one must swim with the “mainstream,” one must follow the idea of “those who know.” A man’s frustrated mind adds another emotion to the tribal conditioning: a blindly bitter resentment of his own intellectual subservience.
Such cases of torn individuals point to important aspects of Rand’s distinctive explanation of tribalism and its resurgence. First, it’s not innate, but a matter of the individual’s default on independent thinking within a cultural context that too often tells him he is unable to think. Second, precisely because it’s a default — a matter of choice — the individual can choose, though it is hard, to work his way out of a tribal mindset, resist the cultural influences engulfing him, and exert his mental resources to become independent on principle, in every facet of life. Finally, a culture’s dominant ideas, she argued, can (and should) be changed, so that people emerge from their schooling better equipped to think and confident in their own judgment. Within a culture that prizes reason and individualism, its dominant intellectual trends and ideas would encourage and equip people to be independent, rather than blindly obedient to a tribe. It is that kind of future that Rand believed is achievable.
An antidote to tribalism
The spread of tribalism, Rand observed, “is an enormously anti-intellectual evil.” There’s no bargaining with tribalism, no accommodation, no compromise to be found with it. Tribalism can, and must, be marginalized and eliminated.
The antidote for tribalism — the positive to aim at — is the ideal of individualism, which animates Rand’s philosophic thought and novels.The antidote for tribalism — the positive to aim at — is the ideal of individualism, which animates Ayn Rand’s philosophic thought and novels. Click To TweetThe heroes of her novels and the kind of real-life heroes she admired were individuals who looked at the world with unborrowed vision. They were “first-handers” who put nothing — no authority, no group loyalty; nothing — above their own perception of the facts. They were passionate idealists committed to grasping what’s true, and understanding what’s right and wrong — not what some group told them to believe. The source of their virtue lies in their choice to think for themselves.
For Rand, that path is open to every single one of us, if we choose it. We can seize the reins of our minds and look at the world ourselves, drawing our own conclusions and making our own evaluations. The means of leading an independent life are within our grasp, if we will ourselves to be active-minded in all areas of life, at all times, on every issue, as a matter of committed policy. It is this fundamental commitment to reality that’s a necessary condition for self-esteem — the false promise of which is part of the tribe’s pull. It’s this fundamental commitment to reason and facts that enables you to pursue your own goals and happiness in life; to find the people you rightly choose to associate with and to love.
And, on Rand’s account, it is this fundamental orientation to reality, rather than some collective, that inoculates the individual from the virulent pull of tribalism.
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- Ayn Rand, “The Missing Link,” in Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984).
- Rand, “The Missing Link.”
- Rand, “The Missing Link.”