Editor’s Note: SE Cupp is a CNN political commentator and the host of “SE Cupp Unfiltered.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. View more opinion on CNN.
It’s become the political buzzword over the past few years, increasingly used to describe the root cause of our divisions and our resentments: tribalism.
The idea that Americans are more divided than ever, entrenched in ideological camps and unwilling to meet in the middle, is so pervasive that one hardly goes a single hour without hearing about it on a cable news show.
Since 2016, numerous books by very smart people, including Jonah Goldberg, Amy Chua, Steve Kornacki, Stevan E. Hobfoll, Sarah Rose Cavanagh and others have been devoted to tracing, explaining or solving America’s tribalism.
But is tribalism really to blame? It’s more complicated than that. Tribalism, after all, is part of our evolutionary DNA. The need to identify with a group, to belong and commune with like-minded people is not only biological, it’s what has helped motivate our desire for and devotion to all kinds of important cultural institutions, from organized religion to sports fandom.
What isn’t natural, however, is the oversized importance we’re increasingly putting on politics.
A popular exercise
Tribalism, of course, is a compelling argument, considering that we’ve reduced our political beliefs to untenable absolutisms, have sacrificed compromise and comity for purity and are subjecting each other to increasingly unproductive tests of loyalty.
We are more and more defined not by our friends but our political enemies — collecting them like badges of honor. It was actually a question at a 2015 Democratic debate: “Which enemy are you most proud of?” None of the five candidates batted an eyelash, eagerly rattling off their political hit lists. Hillary Clinton was practically giddy: “Well, in addition to the NRA,” she said, “the health insurance companies, the drug companies, the Iranians. Probably the Republicans.”
This election feels somehow even worse. Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden has been harassed by people in his own party for complimenting Republican lawmakers, for seeming to be congenial, for vowing to work across the aisle if elected. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders insist if you’re not as far to the left as they are, you’re lacking intestinal fortitude.
And on the right, we all know how that goes. President Donald Trump and Republicans have decided that anyone not fully behind them is an enemy, and maybe isn’t even an American — the latter of which Trump alluded to in a series of racist tweets targeting four women lawmakers of color.
That is tribalism by definition. But we can’t throw it completely under the bus or out with the bathwater. After all, we literally can’t live without it.
Forming communities — even and especially ones based on strong loyalties and allegiances — is in our DNA. It’s what’s kept us alive for millions of years.
As UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman wrote in his 2013 book, “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect,” “Mammals are more socially connected than reptiles, primates more than other mammals, and humans more than other primates. What this suggests is that becoming more socially connected is essential to our survival. In a sense, evolution has made bets at each step that the best way to make us more successful is to make us more social.”
Tribalism isn’t just political
The need for community, to belong to something, is one important reason two very powerful communities have thrived: organized religion and professional sports.
Both communities are organized around intense allegiances, often with the explicit requirement that adherents reject and disavow competing entities. Few worshipers believe equally in the major tenets of Christianity and Judaism — that Jesus is both the Messiah and that he’s not. Almost no baseball fans root equally for the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. That would be, well, sacrilegious.
The “us vs. them” structure demanded of many religious and sports faithful is not only accepted within those contexts, but it’s used to justify some patently bad behavior, from taunting rivals and hooliganism at sports events, to bigotry, hate crimes and even wars in the name of religion.
The tribalism in both, however, has inarguably helped their success in creating vast global communities across generations and geography; becoming important agents of change in breaking down civil rights, race and gender boundaries; and providing purpose and a sense of family for billions of people.
The tribalism in today’s politics is similarly double-edged. On the plus side, one could argue political engagement has benefited from an intensified political environment. 2018 was the first year that more than 100 million Americans voted in a midterm election, for example.
On the minus, it feels impossible to civilly discuss politics — or avoid it altogether — when tensions are so high. It infects every aspect of our culture, from award shows to football games, our favorite coffee and fast food. Political “teams” may build enthusiasm and loyalty, but they inherently pit American against American, citizen against immigrant, young against old, and so on. That, as we’ve seen, can lead some to vengeance and violence in defense of their political tribe.
It seems like politics has surpassed sports and organized religion as the most defining part of our identity. Our politics has become synonymous with our values and our organizing life principle. Instead, politics really should merely be a mechanism to govern.
It’s not just tribalism in politics that’s the problem — it’s our outsized belief in its significance in our lives. We’re spending more on political campaigns, moving to places where our political views are popular and, according to a new study in the American Journal of Political Science, our politics may even be overriding our morals. As Peter Hatemi, one of the study’s authors, explains: “We will switch our moral compass depending on how it fits with what we believe politically.”
Our obsession with the presidency
Partly to blame is our increasing obsession with the American presidency as an embodiment of hope and change, to borrow a phrase.
Long before former President Barack Obama was supposed to save the country from its many suffering ills, so too were Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush. These were merely men — politicians, at that — but onto each of them was foisted a heavy mantle of expectation that was never going to be fully realized.
The paternalism of the presidency was baked in from the get-go. George Washington recoiled at the notion of being called “the father of his country” in newspapers, and, as Thomas Fleming writes in “The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers,” Washington did “his utmost to avoid acknowledging this tendency to view him as a demigod.” But our view of the chief executive as a fatherly figure who is there to guide us and care for us only grew.
In conservative columnist George Will’s weighty new book, “The Conservative Sensibility,” he describes this as the “infantilization of the public.”
He recalls a 1992 town hall-style debate featuring Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot, where an audience member asked, “How can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect … you to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it?”
The American president, it is believed, must solve all our problems, both complex and mundane. He or she must reflect to us our idealized best selves and represent all we hope to become as a nation over the next four years. Whether we seek a Republican or a Democrat, a strong man or a caretaker, a traditionalist or a progressive, we truly believe we can find and deserve the Aaron Sorkin version of a president — a leader who is omnipresent in our lives and reflective of our values.
Demystifying the persona of the presidency
In reality, the president has very little to do with our day-to-day challenges. The most influential people in our daily lives likely run our schools, our municipalities, our health, safety and sanitation boards. Most of us couldn’t name any one of those people.
The election of President Donald Trump amped up our presidential cult of personality to 11. With no political record and a campaign of personal attacks and fear-mongering, Trump wasn’t elected to “do politics” or solve problems, but to mirror to his supporters the image of a forgotten man and all his grievances.
How we unwind our long obsession with the presidency is complicated, and in some ways, like putting toothpaste back in the tube. But an essential part of deemphasizing the role of politics in our private lives is demystifying the persona of the president.
A pretty good year to be alive
Now, I know it might feel like we’re at a crisis point in America — we are, among other things, contemplating impeaching our president. But while you might not know it from watching the news or reading the headlines, 2019 is a pretty good time to be alive.
By nearly every metric of human well-being, the world around us is a much better place than it was a century or two ago. As Max Roser, an Oxford University economist, writes in “The Short History of Global Living Conditions and Why It Matters That We Know It,” we’re freer, more democratic, healthier, richer, better educated and more literate than we ever have been.
And yet, especially in high-income Western countries like the United States, we’ve never been more stressed or felt more anxious.
According to a recent survey, a scant 6% of people in the United States said things were getting better when asked, “All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse?” It’s no wonder, under those conditions, that we’ve become more divided, angry at our neighbors and resentful of others.
Investing in our communities
But there’s reason to believe change is possible. And it’s important that we start looking inward, to our own communities. Over the past half-century, we dreamed big, looking outward to the horizons to expand our global opportunities and connectivity. That was a good thing, but in doing so we often ignored our own backyards. Instead of marching on Washington, imagine marching on your town square for smaller class rooms, cleaner water, less crime. Instead of tweeting about Trump or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, what about doing some community service or volunteer work. Instead of teaching our kids to parrot our political views, let’s teach them civic engagement and how to make small differences in their own communities.
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If our political identities are how we build our own individual community, how we weed out friends from foes, how we judge each other above all other things, the logical conclusion is an America that sees politics as religion, that justifies intolerance and exclusion as virtue and righteousness, that rationalizes patently bad behavior in the name of a cause.
We can continue to blame tribalism for our anger and division, but it’s an important part of our evolutionary makeup and a survival skill we’re not likely to ditch any time soon. The problem isn’t that we’re too tribal — it’s that we’ve let politics replace community.