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« Legislate In Haste, Repent At Leisure | Main | This Week in Tyranny »

Tribal Conflict in America

There’s been a question rattling around my brain for a while now: Where have the Second Amendment champions been the last few years? Those in favor of liberal gun ownership laws usually speak about it in abstract terms, most commonly harmony with the land and guarantees of liberty. The first argument hasn’t been seriously challenged, but what are their thoughts these days about checks against a tyrannical government? Shouldn’t the burgeoning surveillance state be anathema to them? Isn’t this the kind of issue they should be up in arms (har) about? I would have thought the massive increases in spying and indiscriminate data sweeps would be an unsupportable infringement of their liberty.

The least charitable explanation is that they don’t really believe all the high-flown language they spout - they really just like making big noises and blowing stuff up. I don’t buy it, though. There are people like that in the world but not enough to sustain a movement. It could be they don’t really bother unless a physical intrusion is imminent. If ATF agents are rolling towards your house it’s time to man the barricades, but if the FBI is quietly vacuuming up every email and phone call it isn’t such a big deal. That seems possible, but I suspect if they are concerned enough to consider gun control an intolerable intrusion by the government they are also emphatically opposed to anything else that smacks of it. Maybe they figure they’ve got their hands full with firearms rights and can’t spare the effort elsewhere. But that just leaves me with the nagging feeling that they know something really bad is happening and on balance are OK with it. What causes a group to assent to a situation that goes against its core beliefs? The only explanation that adds up is tribal loyalty.

It may be officially neutral on politics but firearms groups like the NRA have been largely associated with Republicans and the right wing for a long time (I know there are exceptions - I wrote “largely” not “entirely”). Political affiliation is a tribal membership, and those ties create a sense of identification that resides at a very basic level. We typically think of tribal conflict as something that only happens in remote and undeveloped areas, but believing that blinds us to the fundamental ways we align with different groups. And for the record I do not consider myself immune to it. I think it explains a great deal of the contemporary political landscape. In the case above it explains why a group might generally ignore a development that strikes at the very heart of one of its central concerns. Loyalty to the tribe dictates a decorous silence until the presidency goes to a more palatable opponent. We tend to dismiss such light treatment of ideals as hardball politics, but more accurately it’s loyalty to the tribe.

M.J. Rosenberg wrote of Charles Krauthammer this week “[h]e believes that Israel must triumph in every situation because it is innately right while the Arabs are innately wrong”, which is as nice a summary of tribal thinking as you will find. James Carville compares Bill Richardson to Judas, Merrill McPeak compares Bill Clinton to Joseph McCarthy - these are coming from people in “camps” with clearly drawn boundaries, and they glare suspiciously out from them. I don’t think it’s enough to say politics ain’t beanbag and this is how the game is played. It isn’t just semantics - describing it as, say, overheated rhetoric instead of tribalism is extremely significant. For one, it tends to minimize the intent of it and disguise the motivation behind it. More importantly it keeps us from confronting how it drives our own actions, or from acknowledging when it prompts us to dismiss principles we claim to cherish.

Maybe I have been oblivious to it all my life, but it seems that the razor-thin and contested election in 2000 and terrorist attack the following year either created or revealed tribal identities that had gone unnoticed for a long time. Many retreated into territories defined by politics and religion. In this historic primary season it has happened again, now along racial and gender lines. It isn’t absolute by any means, just much more clearly marked. All of it is driven by group identification, and in that sense it comes from a level too low to be reached by persuasion. It may be dressed up in formal clothes, sober tones, a big vocabulary and impressive rationalizations, but much of the time what passes for dialog seems to come from some of our most primitive instincts.

Reader Comments (6)

There is no other reason why the Posse Comitatus and other militia groups have 'gone underground' with any sort of protest concerning our diminished civil liberties. You'd think they'd protest the TSA, even, but not one squawk? Not one organized protest at the Capitol?

How much do we hear about survivalist methods and businesses? Certainly not as much as we did 10 years ago. I think they think they're on hold for the Rapture, and have saved food and guns enough to deal with the preliminary chaos. They probably think we're fools to care about the Constitution, and see the election of either HRC or BHO as an alarm clock for Armageddon. They've already left the national stage to tend to their own compounds, and are willing to undergo bankruptcy or foreclosure, as long as they have the weapons to fight it out with the police, when the time comes.

In short, they've already checked out from Democracy; they're waiting to rule in Anarchy.

March 28, 2008 | Unregistered Commentercgeye

Thanks for your thoughts. I think you're right about the lunatic fringe having retreated to their bunkers. It's the much larger group nearer the center that I've been wondering about.

March 28, 2008 | Registered CommenterDan

Thank you for this post. This is a very interesting subject to me. I am currently reading Bob Altemeyer's book, The Authoritarians, and it goes into quite a bit of detail about the underlying personality characteristics of people such as those who, on the one hand, are strong gun rights people; but also seem to see no contradiction in holding that view while also supporting the unitary executive principle. The authoritarian mindset which these people have allows for these obvious contradictions. Altemeyer lists seven characteristics which almost all of these personality types will share.


1) Illogical thinking
2) Highly compartmentalized minds
3) Double Standards
4) Hypocrisy
5) Blindness to themselves
6) Profound ethnocentrism
7) Dogmatism

I have found his views on this authoritarian mindset to be very fascinating. It has been quite revealing to look around at this country's political environment today and take into account all of the characteristics which have given this dissonance you describe such fertile ground in which to grow. There is a very real danger in the rapid proliferation and acceptance these views have enjoyed in this country over the last generation. We would do well to keep a very close watch on it. It is often very subtly pitched and this subtlety, along with repetition, is what is depended on to catapult these views into the mainstream.

Thanks again for your posting. We could use a lot more examination of this subject.

March 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Thanks Mike - those are all really good points. And we need to be careful about those characteristics in our own thinking as well, lest we fall into the trap of saying "we aren't being tribal - they are!"

March 28, 2008 | Registered CommenterDan

Maybe I'm the only lefty who has found it difficult to get the venom with which the gun control/non control issue has been fought. Or maybe I came into the argument in the middle and haven't sufficient history in it. But what screams out at me from the discussion of tribalism in general is the extent to which the media (or you might extend that word to include "economy") depends on setting people against each other.

Way too many people want to switch on the box in the evening and see the TV screen light up with something controversial.

I'm listening, as I write this, to an audio stream from CSpan in which some interesting people are talking about anger, justice and forgiveness. They're discussing how far down the road we have gone to anger and how difficult tolerance and forgiveness have become. My own view is that we see less and less of our immediate neighbors and communities, having replaced them with an ersatz community created for us by the corporations who control the media. It doesn't even have to follow that all corporations are uniformly evil. Rather, they are amoral, not our friends (if not our enemies), don't live in our community, don't have communitarian values or respect for individuals. Their interests are competition and gain, purely and simply. They compete successfully for our attention with our own friends and communities. They have become the places we go for understanding and shared values rather than to our nearest and dearest. We theoretically don't trust corporations much. Even so, in our hour to hour, day to day existence, we give them more time, money, and attention than we give members of our community.

The gun control issue, the Terry Schiavo issue, the Iraq issue, the... you name it, there are hundreds of issues -- all of these have been reframed by media. They have been turned into narratives which have heroes and villains, righteousness and evil, patriots and traitors. We plug into those narratives daily. They become the framework within which we make decisions, live our lives.

Tribalism has always been there to a greater or lesser extent. But now it has become a profit center. That's why moderation -- some gun control here, a certain latitude there -- has become anathema to those who profit from our partisanship. "No AK-47's in the supermarket, please" has become a red flag for one group, and "I need a shotgun because I have to deal with rattlesnakes" is a red flag for another. The ensuing angry fight in a city council meeting gets 45 seconds on the nightly news and $5,000 worth of advertising for that station. No fight, no entertainment, no revenue.

I've been fascinated with authoritarianism ever since I first got introduced to it through Fromm and Adorno. Fromm saw what was happening to us back in the '50's.

March 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPW

I'm glad you commented at 3pints and I had the chance to check this post out.

I've been thinking about this exact issue and inordinate amount lately, and I'm pleased to hear someone's well thought out opinion on it.

"Shouldn’t the burgeoning surveillance state be anathema to them?"

This is more or less exactly what I've been throwing around in my head, and the heads of anyone that will listen, for the past number of weeks.

Let me mull it over and I may a post a more insightful comment. If I don't, I've still enjoyed your post. So, thanks for taking the time.

April 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJad

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