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On democracy, tribalism and our precarious political dynamic

I appreciate the writing of journalist Andrew Sullivan, mostly because he is a serious, honest and brave critical thinker. Honest and brave critical thinking means you do not knee-jerkingly follow any particular party line. Sullivan used to call himself a conservative, and I gather still does, in some sense of the word that I’m sure he can justify. But he seems to be on what we call the liberal side of a great many issues. But not all.

I stumbled on one of his New York Magazine essays yesterday, analyzing the descent of U.S. political culture into tribalism. He’s not the only to notice this, of course. But his take was honest, brave, nonpartisan, unpredictable and totally convincing. Whichever tribe you are in (left or right, Dem or Repub), you may tend to think of the “other” tribe as the one that has really lost all critical thinking skills. Sullivan’s abuse of tribalism is bipartisan and ambidextrous.

The essay is long, but just kept gathering strength. I was blown away with how brilliant it was, and I immediately resolved to pass it along to MinnPost readers. Which I’m hereby doing, with one confession. After I finished it, I noticed that it was published last September. I normally pass along fresher stuff. If you already read it when it first came out, good for you. But I suspect it’s worth reading again. If you’ve never read it, it comes across as quite fresh.

I know I’m guilty of tribal thinking, from the liberal side. Many of you probably are too. Of course, we secretly believe conservatives, and especially those who have somehow hitched their wagon to Trump, are guiltier of it. But Sullivan is not interested in mediating a debate over which side is worse. He will pound on you, and yes, you too, to do your own thinking and not to worry whether some of your thoughts are out of sync  with your partisan or ideological tribe.

Enough of me. I’ll save whatever space is left for excerpts from Sullivan essay, but you should really just read the whole thing, and, in case you become convinced of that, I’ll provide one more link below.

 Writes Sullivan:

A Monmouth poll recently found that 61 percent of Trump supporters say there’s nothing he could do to make them change their minds about him; 57 percent of his opponents say the same thing. Nothing he could do ... 

We don’t really have to wonder what it’s like to live in a tribal society anymore, do we? Because we already do. Over the past couple of decades in America, the enduring, complicated divides of ideology, geography, party, class, religion, and race have mutated into something deeper, simpler to map, and therefore much more ominous. I don’t just mean the rise of political polarization (although that’s how it often expresses itself), nor the rise of political violence (the domestic terrorism of the late 1960s and ’70s was far worse), nor even this country’s ancient black-white racial conflict (though its potency endures).

I mean a new and compounding combination of all these differences into two coherent tribes, eerily balanced in political power, fighting not just to advance their own side but to provoke, condemn, and defeat the other. ...

The project of American democracy — to live beyond such tribal identities, to construct a society based on the individual, to see ourselves as citizens of a people’s republic, to place religion off-limits, and even in recent years to embrace a multiracial and post-religious society — was always an extremely precarious endeavor. It rested, from the beginning, on an 18th-century hope that deep divides can be bridged by a culture of compromise, and that emotion can be defeated by reason. It failed once, spectacularly, in the most brutal civil war any Western democracy has experienced in modern times. And here we are, in an equally tribal era, with a deeply divisive president who is suddenly scrambling Washington’s political alignments, about to find out if we can prevent it from failing again. …”

If you can resist reading the full Sullivan version, that’s your problem. If all you need is another link so you don’t have to scroll back to the top, here it is. 

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Comments (57)

Yes, I Get it

It is understood that acceptable discourse must include the recognition that "both sides do it." It is divisive and evidence of tribalism not to acknowledge that understanding at every opportunity. We cannot point out the misdeeds of one party without listing the corresponding misdeeds of the other (not, that is, without being divisive and tribal).

Is it, however, tribalism to point out that one side does it more often, and arguably more effectively, than the other? Or that one side has exacerbated the typical and healthy divisions of opinion in a democracy?

I think

I think after years of disagreeing with both tribes... That is called "rationalizing"... :-)


Well-written, thought-provoking, occasionally uncomfortable reading. Would that more of my tribe read it, and the other tribe(s), too. I'm with RB Holbrook for the most part, but the fact that one side distorts reality more often and/or more effectively, or has exacerbated differences of opinion shouldn't lead to a categorical denial of the humanity or intellect of everyone with opposing views. Demagoguery isn't limited to a single political party, nor is truth-telling, nor is religious and cultural tolerance. And I want to pointedly add that "tolerance" is not the same thing as "adoption," or even "acceptance."

A multicultural society, to survive as a society, has to practice tolerance on a broad scale, and let people who are "not me" in dress or behavior be "not me" without penalty, with equal access to opportunities, and with equal rights. Having said that, however, it also seems true to me that, as I said, tolerance doesn't mean I must personally adopt every difference as my own. It's truly "live and let live," and in order for the society to survive, the ideals of our founding documents – not necessarily as they've been implemented (or ignored) – have to serve as a common thread. Without tolerance, and a willingness to adopt those ideals – some of which can be, shall we say, contradictory – there's nothing to hold us together. Immigrants have been coming here for centuries, and for centuries their reasons for doing so have been largely based on a desire for a better life, and for at least as much, if not more, of the freedom they've been lead to believe exists here.

The fact that my cultural identity and ethnic background is different from yours doesn't render one of us less human or less deserving of equitable and equal treatment under both the law and the more informal rules of day-to-day society. I have voted for Republicans **and** Democrats, and have done my best to avoid supporting ideologues of either left **or** right. Sullivan is correct, I think, in labeling tribalism as the default human condition, but it can't be – and isn't – the basis for industrial society. Modern societies require cooperation and collaboration.

Cooperation and Collaboration

Elsewhere I recently expressed my deepest frustration with both tribes and I am not sure if our children can afford much more of the cooperation we have seen over the past 40 years. :-(

Tribe A: Wants lower taxes and a little more spending.
Tribe B: Wants significantly more spending and taxes.

And neither tribe seems concerned that our national debt to GDP ratio is almost as high as after WWII or that the trust funds for our primary welfare programs (SS, SSD & Medicare) will become insolvent in about 15 years.

They both seem obsessed with hunting and gathering for their tribes, no matter the burden it will place on our kids and grand kids. It is interesting what folks will sacrifice for their tribes.

Whoa Whoa Whoa There

Tell, which tribe wants less spending? Did you see the budget deal that just came out and blasts a hole in the budget? Did you see the tax scam that was passed in December?

Which tribe last had a balanced budget?

Who's zooming who?

I am no happier with the

I am no happier with the Conservative tribe regarding their fiscal irresponsibility than you are.

As for fact checking your question. The answer is both or nether, depending how you interpret the following.

"Democrat Bill Clinton was president the last time the federal budget was balanced, and Republicans controlled Congress."

I have always said I loved gridlock... :-)

Surely You Jest

The GOP Congress kept spending in check under Clinton? Here's where that analysis falls down: If GOP Congresses keep spending in check for Democratic Presidents, it should be further in check when there is a GOP White House AND Congress. But borrowing explodes when the GOP has all the levers. That's what happened for Bush in the early 2000's and it's happening again now.

Let's go further. The Era of Debt really got going with Ronald Reagan, who couldn't get the GOP nod for dog catcher today given his huge tax increases (Norquist would slay him). They did come under better control under Bush I, but there was a Democratic Congress pushing him.

In 2018 federal borrowing will be up nearly ONE TRILLION dollars over last year, a mind boggling 84% increase.

THE GOP owns this financial mess, lock, stock, and barrel. It will remain such until adults are once again in charge and these drunken sailors are shown the door.


Spending may be slightly problematic when the GOP is in charge, however the real problem is that they keep giving us citizens the lower taxes we crave. Without having the backbone to cut spending simultaneously.


They give the Pentagon a blank check. Our spending on the military (it's not for defense) dwarfs that of any other country. It's a welfare program for contractors, and the GOP opens up the spigots. But hey, it's a great source of campaign donations.

When it comes to military spending conservatives become Keynesians.


Personally it looks like a whole lot of personnel expenses to me.
- Active duty compensation
- Caring for past members
- Maintaining bases
- Replacing old equipment

And since we tend to play world peace maker and benefit hugely from that role, it seems to make sense that it costs us a lot more. Just imagine the disruption in our country if trade was blocked between us and Japan, China, Europe, etc for any reason...

Tribalism made

Tribalism made tangible::

"On Thursday, CBS News reported that Nunes plans to construct a physical partition to separate Republican staffers on the House Intelligence Committee from their Democratic counterparts. While committee Republicans have denied any knowledge of the plan, they intimated that it was conceived by Nunes. “I’m not part of that decision,” Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, who took over the committee’s Russia probe after Nunes was accused of running interference for the White House, told the outlet. “You’ve got to talk to Devin. I don’t know what they’re trying to do one way or the other.”
(end quote)

These are not "Tribes"

Political parties are not Tribes, actual Tribes exist as do real Tribal members. These "Tribal" narratives are thinly veiled racism that associate disfunction and conflict with "lesser" civilizations i.e. "Savages" that belong to Tribes.

There is absolutely NOTHING "Tribal" about irrational commitment to political leaders. This behavior descends from Feudal societies organized around royalties and religious dogma. The suggestion that Trump is teaching us what it's like to live in a Tribe is actually deeply offensive and completely facile.

This is an incoherent analysis based on deeply flawed assumptions regarding the nature of political and social reality in the US over the past few decades. This is the worse kind of false equivalence that portrays a political elite devoted to representing the nations elite as a "fractured" system at odds with itself. Nothing could be further from the truth. To the extent there is "division" here, it's a division between the political system and the people that system is supposed to represent. The problem isn't that the Party's are so far apart, the problem is that electorate is realizing that neither Party represents.... the electorate. That's not a "polarized" Nation failing it's Democratic aspirations, it's frustrated electorate demanding representation. It's not a collapse of democracy although it is something of a collapse of the illusion of democracy.

You can fault Trump voters for their loyalty, ignorance, and intellectual failings, but you have to acknowledge the fact that no one but Trump was talking to them. We had tens of millions of Americans that felt so abandoned and alienated by both parties that they were willing to roll the dice on Trump. I can't respect that roll of the dice, but I can understand it, and it has nothing to with Tribes.

The problem with conservative analysis is that many conservatives don't actually believe in democracy. The Civil War wasn't a failure of democracy, it was a triumph of democracy. Nor was that war a product of "tribalism", it was product of toxic capitalism.


One of Merriam Webster's definitions fits well.

Tribe: "a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest"

Seems like Eric and the New Yorker author have hit the nail on the head.

Though maybe there are more than 2 tribes... I can think of at least 5...
- The Progressive Tribe
- The Liberal Tribe
- The Fiscal Conservative Tribe
- The Religious Conservative Tribe
- The Alt Right Tribe

Well, suggest a better word

Well, suggest a better word than "tribalism" that describes the affiliative nature of the grouping

Feudalism was a coercive power structure where people were bound by law and land to a local strong-man. That is not what is going on in this time.

I would suggest that the "abandoned and alienated" people who voted for Trump were first coalesced around the TEA party ("taxed enough already") which generally combined the outlook of "keep your hands off of my Medicare" people and the idea that a dollar spent a block away from their street was a dollar stolen from them. While there were some elected representatives who followed that strict ideal when they got to Congress, most saw the myopic impracticality of the tailoring the government for that one individual or local group. In practice, it was similar to the never reached carrot of the repeal of abortion that had repeated driven the faithful to the polls but somehow always out of reach of the electorate.

The problem is that their elected representatives never let them in on the "secret" that the world was a big and complicated place and the parochial interests of their local constituency were only part of the bigger picture. The elected representatives never brought back the "bad news" that getting their own particular way on one particular issue faced the same odds as all of those other issues and needs of a country, and that there was really a process of give and take that needed to be followed. Their politicians campaigned like absolutists and, horrors upon horrors, compromised in the realities of policy-making. So the GOP is being hung on its failed campaign promises that were used to whip up the votes but never followed through on.

Enter Trump, the man with bigger, bolder, brighter promises to bring big gubmint to it knees and give each person what they wanted--and barring that, poke the eye of those who had failed to deliver on the pre-election promises that always seemed to be so elusive after the election.


How again do the folks in the Democratic tribe differ?

It seems to me that they vote on very individual issues like free/ subsidized healthcare, increased welfare, immigration pardons, more immigration, union rights, additional regulations, Pro Choice, etc for the individual tribe members.

All with little discussion of their impact on the US as a whole. (ie Global Competitiveness, Motivation of Citizens, Impact on National Debt, 2 Parent Households, Welfare of Kids, etc)

Why don't we just call them what they are?

Republican extremists, or Trump extremists, or Trump supporters... that IS who we're talking about, why can't we just call them what they are? Who decided we need some other description? If you want to describe their characteristics in more detail we can easily establish a profile of intellectually challenged Americans, magical thinkers, irrational voters, etc. None of these are characteristics of tribes or tribal members. Again, tribes are not historical artifacts or abandoned features of social evolution, millions of people all over the world are members of actual tribes. Why disparage them? Because we don't want to admit that 25% of our primarily white population is intellectually challenged?


How are you so certain that your beliefs are correct and their beliefs are incorrect?

How do you envision the future of USA playing out if your tribe and their tribe are equally confident and committed to their truth?

Beyond tribalism

I don't know that I agree with Sullivan that "tribalism" is what's really wrong with the American body politic these days. I think there's a difference between the ethnic and religious strife that melted down Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Lebanon or Syria and the political, cultural and religious antagonisms that pervade our Nation's consciousness. Whether it's called "tribalism" or something else, Sullivan has done a good job of describing the antagonisms and strife on "both sides."

Whatever it's called, it's been building for some time. My problem with Sullivan's piece is that he seems to think it's only become a problem since those on "the left" have begun to be as "tribal" as those on the self-identified right. I think "tribalism" might be an apt description for the political strategy of the right. I'd trace it to Ronald Reagan who practiced a mild form of "red-baiting". It became most evident in the 1994-1996 Congress era when Newt Gingrich called for his "Contract with America" and formulated a "List of Words". These were words Gingrich recommended be used by his GOP followers to describe opponents of "conservative" ideas or those with whom he (or they) disagreed. Gingrich attempted and succeeded in making "liberal" a negative word for many people and pinning it on the Democratic party when it was not really "liberal". Words like "corrupt" , "greed", "hypocrisy", etc.:

These are "bumper sticker" polarizing words that convey an emotion without any further context or explanation. Without context or explanation, they easily stop thought and rational discourse or exchange of ideas. Bill Clinton was not a 'liberal" or "progressive" Democrat nor were many of the Democrats in the Senate or House, even as they were falsely vilified and excoriated as such by Gingrich and his "conservative" followers. Many of these words, of course, could be used equally against Gingrich or people who followed him and have been since. This is where Sullivan's "tribalism" came from.

It's hard for me to ignore that in the 20 years following 1996 when those identifying themselves as "conservative" began using these polarizing words to divide the country. They have used them successfully to promote ideas and take positions unthinkable to politicians 30 or 40 years ago without suffering any political downside. A good but typical example is the refusal of the GOP controlled Senate to hold a hearing on Merrick Garland, a maneuver without precedent in political high-handedness. Or, as we've seen in Eric's post the other day, the willingness of one party to redraw political boundaries to keep that party permanently in power. A part of the "conservative" program is stunting democracy by tactics like voter dilution or suppression but also by divisiveness like appeals to race, religion and sexual identity. "Conservative" writers deplore the rise of identity politics, which, frankly, I do too. (Sullivan mentions this and the tendency now prevalent on "the left" to reduce all disagreements to extremes). But those "conservative writers" ignore the extent to which "identity" has been subtly used to advance "conservative" agendas to divide voters. (e.g. Trump's subtle use of race by citing gun violence only in cities like Chicago and Milwaukee to win suburban votes). "Tribalism" has worked to the advantage of one side and one political class.

Sullivan is right that at some point, "both sides" are going to have to climb out of their trenches and meet on no-man's land to find some common ground to prevent the wheels from coming off the bus. But only one side now is driving the bus and that side is unlikely to relinquish its control or give up the means by which they gained control without struggle. It's unlikely that the Democrats will regain control of both houses of Congress; we'll be lucky if they regain just one. And lucky if Trump is not re-elected in 2020 and is gone from politics. The best scenario I think in the short term is a standoff until the entire Nation will get another chance at a fresh start.

I think I’ve been writing

I think I’ve been writing about critical thinking and not following a “tribe” from the very beginning. The main thing is that any idea should be evaluated on its own merit, without any consideration of where it came from. And it’s so difficult

Of course, tribalism is a concept that helped people survived at some point but then it was rooted in blood and culture. Now it is rooted in ideology and is constantly reinforced by the media. But, as I have also said often, people have not changed much…


I watched some of it and that was a silly set up by FOX... The people they asked and the quotes they used were likely to get that reaction whether Trump or Obama had said them.

FOX is sure good a getting their tribe all worked up. :-)

Set up or not, the point is

Set up or not, the point is that people have pre-conceived notions based on belonging to their tribes (and yes, FOX has its tribe – which pays Fox’s bills) and, rather than, as I said, ignore who said it and evaluate the statement, go by the tribe’s thinking.

That Video!

I didn't watch the whole thing. Did it say how many students were consulted? Did it say how many were left off the video footage?

Because Fox would never edit something like that to prove a point.

When I said that it’s

When I said that it’s difficult I honestly meant that it is difficult for both tribes so it’s irrelevant whether it was Fox or MSNBC – the result most likely would be similar… And it applies to adults as well. The only difference may be in self-evaluation…

Just another centrist lament

There's nothing "apt" about describing Republican extremism as "Tribal" behavior.

There are 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States... exactly which one do YOU think Republican extremists look like?

Look, I get it, people use "tribes" as a metaphor.... find a different metaphor, this one is racists and misleading. You want a description for Republican extremism... how about: "Republican Extremists". Why not just call people what they are?

Let's look at the numbers: Today, maybe 40% of Americans "support" Donald Trump. If 61% of that 40% claim that nothing can change their minds, that's 25% of the population. Why would you call those people a "tribe"? That's not a tribe, it's a group of irrational and ill informed Americans who are prone to magical thinking. Do you think those people didn't exist until when? A year ago? Those people have always been there, they just didn't have a President to stand behind until now.

Why would you call the other 75% of Americans an apposing "tribe" as if they are just as irrational as Trump supporters? How can this model possibly explain anything?

We don't have two political Parties dug into trenches. We have ONE Party that has been constructing an alternate reality for decades. Republicans have been promoting division, magical thinking, and anti-intellectualism for DECADES and there has been no comparable response to their growing extremism. The idea that there is or has ever been any liberal extremism attempting to "balance" Republican extremism is centrist delusion. So no, Americans are not caught betwixt the extremes of two "tribes". Americans are facing a government that has been captured by Republican extremists. The vast majority of Americans reject that extremism so you can't describe this as a "polarized" political environment.

I don't mean to offend anyone but what I see when I look at a guy like Sullivan is an affluent white guy who's been sitting a comfort zone and coasting through decades of failed policies without any serious personal consequence. All of the various crises that tens of millions of other American's have been coping with have just been background noise... until now. Now the Republican extremism that centrists have been ignoring or minimizing for decades has finally emerged as a possible threat to the elite, and suddenly we're democracy in crises at the hands of tribalism?

To the extent that we are in a crises today it's a crises born of liberal complacency and conservative acquiescence. There's nothing "tribal" about this. If we want to describe our crises we should call it what it is, a triumph of extremism. If our democracy is to survive it won't be because non-existent extremists on BOTH sides have crawled out of their trenches and come together in the centrist fantasy of no-mans-land. If our democracy survives will because the majority of Americans who reject Republican extremism manage to prevail. The fact that the majority is having so much trouble prevailing in what is supposed to be a "democracy"... is a function of a political system that fails the majority, not a political system trapped in tribal behavior.

Fair enough

and I agree with you. Triumph of extremism is correct also but a triumph borne of a strategy which I think uses what might be better called "appeal to tribal instincts" (or reptilian brain) to divide and conquer. You're right to call "tribalism" in this context a "metaphor" and that's as far as I think it should be used. Maybe I wasn't clear about that. Sullivan's piece goes beyond the metaphorical use of the term to use "tribalism" as a diagnosis and a cure for what ails the country. That's where he's wrong.

OK but dude....

This metaphor just claimed that millions of people who belong to tribes all over the world... are functioning with reptilian brains. The whole idea that someone else's real thing is YOUR metaphor is a colonial mindset, it's cultural misappropriation. How would Catholics respond is we decided that these Trump voters are acting like Catholics? How about we describe this situation as a descent into Catholicism?

Everyone understands that tribal members, people who belong to REAL tribes here in Minnesota and around the nation... read Minnpost. How would you feel if someone just told you that you have a reptilian brain? Or that you're culture is an historic artifact from a time when people had reptilian brains?

OK, I'll stop now, but I'm just saying....

Just saying what?

OK, you've lost me. Just what are you saying? I have no problem with being told I have a "reptilian brain" because I think all humans have "reptilian brains" or at least parts of our brains which make us responsive to, let's call them "primitive" or "primordial appeals to subconscious instincts." We're talking metaphors because we obviously aren't lizards or snakes. For that reason, I'm no less susceptible to manipulation of these instincts-call them "reptilian" or "primordial" or tribal" instincts or whatever-than the next person. I never claimed to be exempt. I would hope that something in my background, be it from upbringing, education, religion and culture, helps me to resist manipulation as those who would make such appeals to divide us.

It occurred to me that maybe there's an objection by someone who belongs to a "tribe" in the sense of a modern group of people who identify as members having shared historical and/or cultural backgrounds (such as the Ojibway, the Lakota, or other Native American tribe) to the use of the English word "tribal" in a different way as referring to a group of primitive people with a common leader (Webster's Dictionary). Modern Native American tribes use "tribal" to describe their polity, their customs, culture and their history and other aspects of their identity which today most of us understand and accept as anything but primitive. The English word "tribal" however, also is sometimes used as an adjective synonymous with "primitive" or, perhaps "savage" or "barbarian". Maybe Sullivan's essay fails on that account in trying to draw too much out of a metaphor or an adjective that does have more than one meaning.

I should have thought it obvious that I never meant to suggest or imply that that whomever belongs to a "tribe" as a modern Native American tribe meant I believed they or their customs, ancestry or culture, were also "tribal" in the sense of "primitive" or "reptilian." I know there are people who object to another English word which means "stingy" but sounds like a racist slur so it's seldom used anymore. But the objection to that word which I've seen raised, arises from a similar confusion. That confusion, in my opinion, destroys the ability of language to understand and reconcile our differences not to mention threatens the impoverishment of our rich and nuanced English language.

One last try..

I know I said I wouldn't post again but I'll give it one more try, now that I know I'm trying to explain things to a reptilian brain... just kidding :)

The concept of a "tribe" as a primitive group of some kind certainly exists in the dictionary, but that is a racist stereotype derived from a colonial heritage of genocide. That "primitive" tribe simply never existed, it was construct/narrative created to justify colonization and genocide. Likewise those who want to use the word: "tribal" to describe Republican or Trump extremism are obviously using that term in the colonial tradition, clearly it's not meant as a compliment.

Real "tribes" actually exist, so it's very simple... show us the actual tribe that you think Trump and his followers resemble? Do they resemble the Mille Lacs Band of Obibwe that the Grand Casino in Hinckley? If not, why make that comparison?

If you're looking for "clarity" in language I would suggest that you avoid using words that refer to non-existent entities that were created to justify genocide and oppression based on racial and cultural delusions of superiority. If you want clarity... don't call a group of people who are not a tribe any rational sense of the word... a tribe. If you have to work THIS hard to justify using a word... use a different word.


Quit torturing the narrative and call them "cohorts" if you must. I know you're of opinion that we're all in this together but clearly 50% or so of the population is still voting in lockstep with one side or the other, regardless of opinions on the issues underlying that position. That comes from somewhere. While it would be nice to have the electorate voting in such a manner that its utilizing its combined might to leverage the parties into positions beneficial to it as a whole, that ain't happening now. Think pieces such as this exist as a means to figure out why.

Think piece?

We've had a two Party in the United State for all but a very few short periods of time. That means that by-and-large the votes have always broken down along party line with very Presidents capturing more than 50% of the popular vote. Trump got 46%. This is not a "new" feature of a tribalized electorate.

Likewise a political regime that is unresponsive the majority of American's is not "new" feature of the American experience.

This analysis garbage because it creates a garbage narrative. It manufactures a model of newly emerging polarized extremism that's simply not supported by facts on the ground. Yes, we have a group of extremist in power, but that doesn't mean that those who appose extremism must themselves be extremist located on some polar opposite of a manufactured political or social spectrum. It's simply incoherent to characterize EVERYONE as some kind of extremists. Any model that portrays anyone who opposes a candidate like Roy Moore as an equivalent extremist or "polarized" tribal member is simply incoherent. How does simply being a responsible, informed, decent human being qualify a person as an extremist standing on a polarized landscape? There's no way this narrative or model can help us figure anything out.

Its not being an "extremist"

But it is being something "other" than the extremists being opposed. As far as I can tell, no one is labeling any of the opposing positions as normative, that isn't the point, but rather identifying what it is that is animating each group. Simply stating that one side is "normal" while the other is "extreme" may in fact convey the divide in the broadest of terms, it doesn't exactly give much insight into what's making the "extremists" extreme, nor what might be done to reduce their numbers. Telling them to stop doesn't seem particularly promising.


So, we're not all extremist, we just all abnormal? See, this is why centrism is ultimately incoherent. The truth is that it's perfectly normal impulse to resist toxic extremism that threatens to harm friends, family, and fellow citizens. Not only is it "normal", but it's actually a moral, political, and social obligation. Centrism is incapable of recognizing that fact because it seeks to accommodate those who we should be resisting. This is why Sullivan's essay can't possibly produce or provoke any coherent analysis beyond it's rebuttal.

This notion that extremists only emerge when pushed into extremism by other extremists is simply centrist gobbledegook to borrow a phrase. If you want to know where Trump and his supporters came from and how they got to be who and what they are, that's an historical question that dozens of writers and academics have been studying and answering for decades, anyone can look it up. The Cliff Note version is their emergence was facilitated by complacent American liberals and acquiescent conservatives.

Complacent liberals minimized Republican toxicity and pretended they were normal players on the political landscape who could be "worked" with. Acquiescent conservatives took advantage of electoral victories as if they were useful idiots who could be shut down at will. This process has been well documented but completely ignored by those living within the centrist bubble that contained that process. It has nothing to do with polarization or "tribes".

In the meantime, staring into our own navel's and imagining that we might be just as "extreme" as those we oppose is a recipe for paralysis... that actually IS how guys like Hitler come to power. The obtuse notion that facile pseudo self reflection is a substitute for basic morality and political action becomes a downright dangerous proposition in times like these.

Last attempt

So what exactly would your approach look like in the real world. Was it complacent liberals who elected the likes of Wellstone or more recently Dayton? How far back should we go? What was accomplished by running a McGovern or a Mondale, to use presidential elections as an example. I think I understand your argument, but I fail upon multiple readings to figure out what it is you'd like to do about it. In most recent presidential race a liberal lost to a centrist, who lost to an extremist. Great, but that's hardly the only example we have, and it shouldn't obscure the broader arc of history. Centrist accommodation didn't select Wellstone, McGovern or Dayton, so why did it select Clintons twice or Klobuchar repeatedly. Why did it select Trump over Cruz, or Obama over McCain? More than just "normalcy" and opposition to conservative extremism is making the %75 you cite tick. Don't you think figuring out what drives sentiment toward liberals as as opposed centrists is an important goal?

My approach....

Would be to transform the Democratic Party into liberal party that promotes several existing popular liberal agendas. I would work to enact several basic popular liberal priorities that have been sitting on the shelf and kept off the table by centrists and Republicans for decades. I wouldn't accommodate racism, bigotry, magical thinking, ignorance, or anti-intellectualism. I would win elections by being liberal, representing constituents rather than the elite, and making the government work unapologetically. I would deploy reason and make policy based on evidence, logic, and basic human compassion. Yes, centrists think this is naive and unrealistic... that is why and how centrist have brought us to the edge of the abyss. This is the part where those who couldn't imagine Trump winning tell those who have been predicting the emergence of a Trump president for decades who has the superior understanding of "reality". Whatever.

Centrism is primarily a liberal/Democratic practice, so it doesn't explain Republican candidates. Republicans don't "drift" leftwards to reach the center. Yes, on occasion successful liberal candidates have emerged despite centrist control of the Democratic party, that didn't alter arc of history towards Republican extremism because far two few of them managed to emerge. Wellstone described himself as belonging to the "liberal" wing of the Party. He was one guy. Just because we point to a few a liberals or even progressives that centrist failed to suppress, doesn't mean centrist are off the hook for accommodating Republicans.

As for sentiment, that question has been asked and answered, centrist just want to keep asking the question because they don't like the answer. This brings us full circle, articles like this pretend to ask serious questions and offer serious insight but they're really just comfort food for moderates who don't want to take responsibility for our situation. The "tribal" narrative reinforces moderation or centrism by telling centrist that the the problem is that they've drifted too far away from the "center". The truth is that if you keep splitting the difference with extremists who are dragging the country towards the abyss... you end up on the edge of the abyss. What's NOT predictable about that?

Facts and Data

Now the data shows clearly that our country has been moving Leftward for the past 50+ years. How do you see the Democratic Centrists enabling the GOP? Now I agree that the GOP has some success moving the pendulum Right for the past year or so, but that will probably slow in Jan 2019.

In 1967, the total government spend was ~30% of the GDP.
Today it is about 38% of the GDP.
I would be happy if we just got back down to 33%.

Source Chart S.04t


You're producing garbage data. Again, you don't seem to be able to distinguish between economic systems and political systems and priorities. If you put garbage into an analysis you can only get garbage out no matter how much magical thinking you dump into the equation.

You can compare GDP to government spending ratios all day but it's not going to tell you what an optimal percentage is aside from the basic fact that those nations with higher ratios are more prosperous than those with lower ratios. At the end of the day you're just making this up. At some point you might want to consider the possibility that this "problem" might be beyond your capacity to "solve".

Thank you

That gives a much clearer outline your view beyond "centrists are the problem". You may be surprised that I agree with much of what you lay out, with a few rather core differences. One, I don't know that I agree with your assessment of the core rationale driving centrism. I've been around "the Party" enough to know that there are no shortage of liberals and liberal ideology present. I don't know that its a desire to work with Republicans that drives the party right. Rather, I would say its the fiscal realities of modern electoral politics, and donor class whose ideology political entities become captive to, that drives the move. Its no coincidence that move the right has come in conjuction with the ever increasing cost (and never ending fundraising push) that political campaigns entail. This is part where remind me that campaign finance reform is a major plank of the liberal agenda and I'll agree that it is. Problem is, how do fix campaign finance without getting the power to do so? This leads to my second disagreement. I wouldn't characterize your approach to winning elections as naive so much as logistically problematic. Yes, Bernie's campaign (and to a certain extent Obama's) showed us a NATIONAL campaign can be viable utilizing a "crowd source" model of a vast number of small donations as opposed to big money donors. I don't dispute that its possible to win this way, and it makes it possible to run a truly liberal candidate as a result. How that translates to local politics is what I question. We NEED to take back state and local politics or all of this is moot. I am far more pessimistic than you with regard to true liberals competing against big money cons in local elections, not because the ideology is bad, or because only centrists can win, but because the money isn't there. If the only way you get donations is to run a moderate, what do you do? If the only folks you elect are moderates, how do change the finance scheme? To bring it all back around, I don't think its important to ask questions about the motivating factors behind "tribalism" because of some burning desire to understand the motivations that create the conditions that elect a monster like Trump, rather I want to gain any advantage possible that will allow liberals like us to overcome the structural hole we find ourselves in to take back power in such a way that we can actually fix the problems with our democracy long term. Maybe this particular piece doesn't do that, but the underlying idea that we always need more information to better tailor our message to maximize its reach does.

Well! Here we go then!

I think liberals can win elections and I think a liberal Party CAN be viable, In fact I think it would be far more viable and successful than a moderate party... mainly because in many ways a liberal American Party would in fact be quite moderate on the political spectrum. Sanders's New Dealism is by no means far leftism and it's extremely popular.

Be that as it may the "rightward" drift won't reverse until Democrats decide to be an unopologetically liberal Party. It's true that both Parties have historically been captured by elite financial sponsors, and that dependence has pushed the Democrats towards the Republican spectrum, and that's not a "moderate" trend.

Progressives like myself had basically written off the Democratic Party until Sanders came along. Back in the 90's we would have said he was wasting his time... the problem is we never produced a realistic alternative. Sanders actually came very close, much closer to capturing the nomination that most of us would have predicted. His model for fundraising and connecting with voters got much much farther than any progressive in the 80's or 90's would have predicted. I think the model can work on the local level but it will take time and consistency. Voters don't just want to win elections and celebrate their victory, they want to plug into something bigger better that makes them bigger and better. You gotta have a clear identifiable long game to connect with voters on that level, and that's what a liberal agenda provides, liberalism will give Democrats the advantage they need... I'm just not sure they'll grab that lifeline.


After much deliberation it has helped me to think of the situation as a previously normal distribution that is morphing more and more into a bimodal distribution.

Back when we had a common national news and talked to a diverse group of people more often, it helped the distribution stay normal.

However with the popularity of different news sources, social media, unfriending folks you disagree with, etc the tribes / bimodal distributions are becoming more clear.

So there are still outliers on both ends of the curve. (ie Roy Moore, Bernie Sanders, etc) AND there are Liberal and Conservative tribes inside of them... AND a shrinking Moderate grouping in the middle.

We still have a normal distribution curve.

We have normal bell curve with clear majorities of the electorate distributed in the middle. Furthermore our majorities tend to cluster around liberal agendas like universal health care, civil rights, and environmental protection. What we don't have is a political party that is clearly and substantially devoted to servicing those majorities.

The Democratic Party is currently focused on resisting some Republican initiatives but beyond that they still haven't embraced any of the long term proposals that are supported by clear majorities of Americans. We can predict that they will "win" in the next election cycle, and then lose some more. It's kind of a one step forward, one step back affair with Democrats.

Bernie Sanders isn't an outlier in any way comparable to Roy Moore. Sanders is actually the most popular politician in America while Moore is one of if not the most reviled. These attempts by Republicans and centrist to portray Sanders's as some kind of "leftist" are simply facile.

Although a minority of American's get their information from unreliable sources, clear majorities informed by reliable information still manage to emerge somehow. The minority just keeps spinning ever further out into it's alternative reality, but that's a minority spinning out into an alternative reality, it's not a process of polarization wherein one group is spinning out into it's own reality while another spinning in the opposite direction.

This will be my last comment on this thread....

Look, all I'm saying is that what I see with all these centrist laments is basically a bunch of people who find themselves standing in the real world for a change... and they don't like it, and they're not sure they can ignore it so they want us to go back to some kind of "normal". What they don't get is the fact that their "normal" didn't, wasn't, and won't work for tens of millions of fellow Americans.

Sure, the old normal was great if you weren't a woman, a person of color, an immigrant, someone who needed healthcare they couldn't afford, an old person who couldn't afford to retire, unemployed or underemployed, etc. etc etc. And the two Parties safeguarded THAT normal as long as they could. But we've had a rising right wing element in this country that kept gaining power because two Party system accommodated it. That was never a sustainable normal, and won't be.

I watched a TPT special on Hubert Humphrey a couple weeks ago. If you didn't see it let me ask you: What was one of Humphrey's major platform issues in 1968? ... It was expanding Medicare. Humphrey was just pursuing a basic Democratic assumption that Medicare would eventually be expanded to cover everyone. So don't tell me that Bernie Sanders is a "leftist" of some kind, aliberal "extreme" battling against Trumpism with poor American's caught in the middle. Medicare for All isn't a leftist "extreme", it's common sense major party agenda dating back to 1968.

This idea that a New Deal Democrat in 2018 is some kind of counter extremist from the left is simply ridiculous. Maybe YOU think you can live with Republican extremism because you got by in the old "normal" days, but the nation can't.

I just see centrists trying to blame someone else for the crises. Centrist pretending that they're the adults in the room trapped between extremes who can't work it out. This is a dangerous delusion. This isn't a crises of polarization, this is the emergence of an extreme right wing, one that centrists have been accommodating for decades. Sure, it's easier to blame imaginary "leftists" than it is to accept one's own responsibility. The people trying to combat Republican extremists aren't extreme leftists, they're just normal people, and we need those people now more than ever.

Facts and Data

In 1967, the total government spend was ~30% of the GDP.
Today it is about 38% of the GDP.
I would be happy if we just got back down to 33%.

Source Chart S.04t

Government spending

is part of a feedback loop.
The money goes to people and corporations, who in turn spend it, and so on ....
One might argue that military spending is more wasteful because it is spent on products that don't themselves contribute to the economy. So the real question is what the government (that is,l us) spends the money on.
Also note that your source is a private (and conservative) individual who appears to be well regarded, but doesn't always make the sources of his data clear.


Yes, government and private spending are both components of our economy.

The Liberal tribe wants to delegate more of their personal / family finance decisions to politicians and bureaucrats.

The Conservative tribe wants to maintain more personal / family control over their personal finance decisions.

As my source shows, the Liberal tribe has been pulling our society their way for 100+ years for better or worse. The Conservative tribe says they want to pull it back somewhat. However they seem to cave to our current citizens who want lower taxes and higher benefits, no matter the mess it leaves our kids.

As for military spending, it is at historical lows relative to our GDP. Not sure what the consequences of that will be. Also, please remember that most of that funding goes to pay American citizens and develop technologies. so it also is part of that feedback loop.

Not to mention that a stable world is good for trade, which is excellent for American citizens.


If Uncle Sam can take $100 of Taxes and provide $99 of beneficial services to America, where if we needed those services privately it would take 10 $100 of private $ to get the same services, The real answer is not the taxes, its a perspective that certain taxes have perceived value from some and not others. The great example is police protection, its a waste of money until you need a cop! So, need a cop pay up $3000, or take out $125 a year from your property tax. Without specifics, its a Don Quixote argument. Now, curious what tribe am I in? The wants to do the right thing for the largest majority at a reasonable price, but it doesn't necessarily have to benefit me today tribe?

Great fundamental point

Your police example can be applied to just about every other thing the government does (much better and more efficiently than the private sector does or could): Pay (a non-profit) $125 per year for "complete coverage" you may or may not use directly; OR pay $3,000 every time you need it (after the crime rate skyrockets because no one's doing "routine police work" anymore because no one's paying for it anymore because Republicans convinced them getting rid of the taxes that used to pay for that part of "government waste" would save them a LOT of money -- $125 a year -- once the private sector police force was able to show what an amazing job it could do).

For anyone who'd like a preview of the NEXT installment of the Great Republican Plan to give us all a Great Big Dose of that kind of thing, take a look at this article and think (a little harder) about how TOTALLY OPPOSED you may be to paying 10 or 15 cents more for gas at the pump (an average of $75 to $100 per year):

"Trump's Infrastructure Plan Is Actually Pence's—And It's All About Privatization"

If you like the idea of paying for things like private prisons with taxpayer-guaranteed multi-year leases with operators who run their marvels of "enhanced efficiency" using the money-saving techniques used by dog kennel and horse-boarding owners who eventually get shut down for "cruelty to animals" violations, you'll LOVE the president's plan for YOU to pay private (Friends of Don) contractors TRILLIONS ("Big beautiful trillions . . . Trillions, believe me") to make our infrastructure Smoother, Shinier, Brighter and Greater Than Ever Again for the Forgotten American People who will be paid Very Very Well -- Very Well, Believe Me and Only Me -- to do the Most Massive and Important Infrastructure Work in History.

Until those (FOD) contractors (from places like Australia, Spain and, probably, invisible Russia) file bankruptcy, blow town and turn the mess they made -- on their way to scooping a few year's-worth of lease fees and tolls -- back over to big bad government.

Do not vote Republican in 2018 or, if you know what's not good for you, ever again because -- !!BULLETIN!! - - they don't work for people like you and me (their tax-paying constituents who pay them); they work for crooks (who use our non-tax money -- some of their "profits" -- to pay Republicans whatever it takes to get elected to help them extract even MORE money from taxpayer-funded government and . . . guess who else? . . . taxpayers when they're spending money on things other than taxes).

There are lots of problems with the word "tribe"

It's probably best reserved to describe stable, kin-based societies. There may be a further connotation of connection to the land in a particular geographic area.

Here you're alluding to a group that finds a shared identity in a purely abstract notion, like liberalism or conservatism. I am not sure humans are wired in a way that allows us to form a strong shared identity around an abstract idea. I think the identities you're talking about actually maintain some strong, perhaps unconscious basis in one's perceived ethnic group, or to a lesser extent one's perceived geographical region.

Liberalism isn't about identity; it is purely abstract, diffuse, with hazy boundaries, and little strong loyalty. Any liberal identity you may find is a weak secondary effect.

Conservatism on the other hand is all about identity. American conservatism is inextricably tied to a specifically American understanding of race, which distinguishes between whites and nonwhites. It believes that white people are a race and believes that the United States is properly a white country, which may choose to accommodate others, as long as they do not challenge the white order.

So the conflict Sullivan talks about really involves only one tribe battling to dominate the rest of us.

It’s gobbledegook,

It’s gobbledegook, Eric Black.

I suppose I might have a tribe or many tribes in this muddled view, but I acquired a world view encompassing our connection to and uniqueness in all life on Earth from beginnings to now. The tribe meme is pretty useless unless you are a Native American or African immigrant with a tribal identity or buy into Sullivan’s endless treatment.

Read something from a bit earlier in 2017: Edward O. Wilson’s Origins of Creativity. You should probably check out Steven Pinker’s forthcoming book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. These guys are chiefs in my main tribe, I guess.

Public intellectuals

Wilson and Pinker are good examples of public intellectuals who's current reputations are based on scientific work they did a generation ago.

All scientists are

All scientists are “public intellectuals,” but relatitively fewer such authors are scientists, the difference being the greater possibility of spouting stuff publicly that just ain’t so, much more common in the latter group, but not unheard of in scientists (take some climate change deniers of some specialties outside climate science). BTW, Pinker and Wilson, to a lesser degree, are still working scientists.

New as dirt


(in ancient Rome) each of several political divisions, originally three, later thirty, ultimately thirty-five.

Example sentences

"Then, if the assembly was composed of Tribes, the order of the vote had to be determined."

"A bare majority of the assembled tribes — eighteen out of thirty-five — was deemed sufficient to express the will of the whole Roman people."

"Lucilius vilified reprobate consulars such as Lucius Opimius and Gaius Papirius Carbo, also undisciplined tribes and dishonest political lobbying."

"The early people of Rome were from a tribe called Latins."

"Lucius Opimius was Roman consul in 121 BC, known for ordering the execution of 3,000 supporters of popular leader Gaius Gracchus without trial, using as pretext the state of emergency declared after Gracchus's recent and turbulent death."

"A consul held the highest elected political office of the Roman Republic (509 to 27 BC), and ancient Romans considered the consulship the highest level of the cursus honorum (an ascending sequence of public offices to which politicians aspired)."

And speaking of there not being anything new in politics, the person who said, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun," (commonly thought to be Ecclesiastes, but, they say, no one knows for sure), said it somewhere around 1,000 BC, commonly known as 3,000+ years ago.

So, somewhere around 2,100 years ago there was a politician named Lucilius calling other politicians reprobate jerks and trashing "undisciplined tribes and dishonest political lobbying." Looks like he turned out to be right about Lucius Opimuis who suppressed the vote by declaring a state of emergency and then just killing 3,000 voters.

Somehow it all -- this column's topic, the discussion and the above, seems to give a little extra credence to that 3,000 year old idea that "There's nothing new under the sun" (not to mention what the same person had to say about, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity").


So I obviously reneged on my promise to stop posting on this thread.


It happens

Mr Sullivan’s article is an undifferentiated mess.

Decontextualized, leveled and stripped of cause and effect, its bits of observational debris obscure rather than illuminate analytical understanding and, importantly for Mr Sullivan and the party he always has served, culpability. Mr Udstrand in several paragraphs provides far more of value in understanding our “tribalism” (objection to the term aside) than Mr Sullivan in his many-paged exertion.

The views of the polity aren’t represented by a bell curve nor, as Mr. Appelen suggests, bimodally. Maybe two-thirds of the polity subscribes to basic values of democracy (ordered liberty, equal opportunity). This group can be arranged in a bell shape largely toward the right (due to the pull of the establishment frame) on a continuum that describes the optimal balance of private vs. collective economic prerogative. The other third are authoritarian followers, eager to trade freedom and existential agency for security. We are not “polarized”; again as Mr. Udstrand notes, the two-thirds muddle about where they always have, while a third have been caused to abandon the democratic sphere entirely.

Authoritarianism cannot exist absent a frame of “us” vs. “them,” for without enemies that threaten, the security imperative evaporates. What Mr Sullivan calls “tribalism,” then, is the core of the authoritarian follower’s view of society. And the never-ending succession of false enemies is the means by which the authoritarian inclination is cultivated and nourished in those whose democratic commitment and civic capacity otherwise might have been strengthened.

Conversely, the democratic view, in its essence, is anti-“tribalist.” To the left, the crux of civic engagement is the obligation to shed self-interest as much as one can, to lend one’s best efforts toward creating laws and norms that are fair toward all in their circumstances (see John Rawls). The left defines the very project of civilization as surmounting the innate atavistic fear of what lies beyond the circle that the fire illuminates, always extending the concept of the “clan” to encompass an ever-widening sphere of humanity different in superficial matters of race, faith and culture.

In short, one “side” is defined by its inability to exist without demonizing the other, while the other “side” is defined by its rejection of the us vs. them dichotomy. Indeed, which of these prevails will decide whether civilization endures. There is no lazier and more irresponsible act of Both Siderism than to begin by assuming a symmetry that defines the essence of our present civilizational struggle out of existence.

Thank you Charles

I was so focused on "centrism" I hadn't noticed how the "polarized" narrative actually serves authoritarianism in the way you describe. Of course manufactured divisions of extremes are an historical foundation of authoritarians... thanks for pointing that out.

Nicely done

CH: Very nicely written, seems like (My opinion) the "tribe" of the "We the people" vs the "tribe" of the us vs them.

Facts and Data