Political Tribalism

Humans have always had tribal instincts, supporting those in their group and viewing outsiders with hostility. In primitive societies, people cooperated with other members of their group, and viewed outsiders as potential predators, and potential prey. Encounters between people who did not know each other were likely to be violent.

People in primitive societies identified members of their group based on personal knowledge, which limited the size of their groups. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar concludes that people are only able to have stable personal relationships with about 150 people, so primitive societies were small, limited to those the members knew personally, and interactions with outsiders were often hostile.

Adam Smith said the remarkable growth in the productivity of modern societies is a result of the division of labor (specialization), but that the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. Primitive societies, which operated based on everyone having personal knowledge of its members, were necessarily small, which limited the extent of the market and therefore their economic productivity.

Advanced economies are more productive than primitive societies because institutions have been developed that give people an incentive to interact peacefully with others they do not know personally. Money is one such institution. If it is generally accepted, people can cooperate with others by making exchanges even when the people do not recognize each other, because they both recognize the money.

Governments that punish those who harm others are another such institution, or more accurately, a combination of institutions, including courts, police, and political institutions. You don’t have to like government to recognize that they do create order and allow people to live peacefully among those they do not know personally.

These institutions that enable cooperation among strangers stand at the foundation of the global economic progress that has occurred over the past three centuries. global cooperation has increased the extent of the market and produced unprecedented economic prosperity–because we are more willing to cooperate with people we do not know personally.

Still, people retain their tribal instincts, and institutions have developed to channel those tribal instincts in peaceful ways. Sports fans channel their tribal instincts toward cheering for their teams to win, substituting games for violent encounters. I teach at Florida State University, home of the Seminoles, where one line in our “fight song” says “scalp ’em.” Yes, we do have a fight song, and we do claim to want to scalp our opponents. We glorify our sports competitions by making them sound more violent, and more tribal, than they really are.

Despite institutions that channel people’s competitive instincts in non-destructive directions, people remain loyal to their groups and see others as outsiders who are viewed with hostility. Racism is one manifestation of this hostility, as is xenophobia. We have a tendency to dislike people who are different.

One of the areas of social progress over the past half-century has been a reduction in hostile feelings toward those who have different racial backgrounds, religious views, and social views. People who, at one time, we would have viewed with suspicion and hostility, we now accept as part of our society. Our tribal instincts have been tamed in some dimensions.

But I wonder if this isn’t like squeezing a balloon. Squeezing down tribal instincts in one area might cause them to pop out in others, and perhaps that is one factor underlying increased political polarization. As racial segregation evolves into integration, and people are more willing to accept socially those with different cultural backgrounds, political polarization might be one consequence. Instincts of tribalism have not been erased, but are channeled into a different dimension of “us against them.”

The increasing division between the political left and right might be a consequence of easing tribalism in other areas. Today’s political tribalism might be the result. Instincts can be rechanneled, but they cannot be erased.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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