Is your Tribe doing your Thinking for you?

Tribalism is in our DNA. This innate tendency to adopt the beliefs and customs of the people around us was the glue that held together small bands of nomadic hunters and gatherers.

Ancient humans with tribalism in their DNA survived in their tribe and propagated their DNA. Those without it didn’t and didn’t. It’s the natural product of human evolution.

Managing ancient humans was not like herding cats. It was more like herding herds. Stray humans didn’t last long on the savanna. Later, tribalism enabled us to coalesce into towns and cities, and to defend our resulting civilizations.

Even now, tribalism influences our relations with employers, extended families and communities. That influence is often good. When people work for the benefit of their tribe, they create focused teams that are more effective than individuals can ever be.

In short, tribalism has served us well for 99 percent of human history and in some ways it still does.

But tribalism poisons modern politics. In today’s hyper-partisan world, people are often slaves to the position dictated by their tribe. Republicans and Democrats are expected to have their respective positions on the issues.

Obamacare, for example, passed the senate without a single Republican vote. The recent tax bill passed the senate without a single Democrat.

Did each of the senators reason their way through Obamacare and the tax bill and simply reach different conclusions about whether they were good for America, different conclusions that coincidentally matched those of their party?

Of course not. Most simply voted the way their party leaders told them to.

In fairness, politicians are perhaps no worse than the rest of us when it comes to tribalism. It’s comforting to have a tribe and to know that your position is their position.

But democracy is not comfortable; it’s hard. Democracy requires an informed citizenry making carefully considered choices. Those choices should occasionally cross party lines. Sometimes the best solution is held by the “other” tribe or is a blend of both tribes. Neither tribe has a monopoly on all solutions.

The alternative is not to solve problems but simply to embarrass, dominate and destroy the other tribe. It was good for a tribe to destroy competing tribes on the savanna, but it’s bad for democracy in modern America. A one-party democracy is not a democracy at all.

I personally am not immune to the pressures of tribalism. I root for the Denver Broncos. I enjoy the comical portrait of former President Barack Obama that was unveiled last week. I have a soft spot for the Scots even though they have the worst food and wine in the world (but the best whiskey).

In fact, I may be more susceptible to tribalism than most people because I write this column. I’ve occasionally been told by my tribe that I was getting soft. The implication was that if I didn’t toughen up, they might stop reading me. (To be clear, however, that threat is nothing compared with the threats that the other tribe routinely makes against me.)

But even though I am susceptible to the instinct of tribalism and recognize the personal risk of defying it, I consciously try to tame it. That’s why I sometimes challenge myself to name an issue where I have not adopted the orthodoxy of my tribe. So far, I’ve always been able to name several such issues.

For example, much of my tribe says abortion should be outlawed. I don’t.

My position is the same as Bill Clinton’s stance that he took a couple of decades ago: Abortion should be safe, legal and, importantly, rare.

That doesn’t mean I like abortion. No, I hate abortion. But I recognize that it’s a complex issue. It’s not to be taken lightly — it’s one of the most serious things a person can do in life — and I favor limits on it. But I would not outlaw it.

I issue the same challenge to you. Name a topic where you have not adopted the position of your tribe.

Name it in the comments section to this column, as in, “I lean left (or right or toward socialism or libertarianism, or whatever) but I nonetheless disagree with them on _____, and here’s why:____.”

We’ll see how many comments we get from each side. Whichever generates the most will be deemed the winning tribe. Oops, there I go again.

(Published Feb 17, 2018 in the Aspen Times at

5 thoughts on “Is your Tribe doing your Thinking for you?

  1. This is a bit belated by current standards of “instant news and commentary,” but here it is.

    Here is a link to the website of an organization called “Clearer Thinking” that purports to give people insights into ways to think more logically:

    According to this quiz, there is zero correlation between my political preferences and my understanding of “facts” (as recognized by a majority of “experts”). That squares with my perception of myself as a political centrist with a background in engineering and economics, and no strong connection to any “tribe” other than people who have views of social responsibility similar to mine.

    In that regard, I have been an outdoor enthusiast and “conservationist” long before “saving the planet” gained popularity — mainly among people to the left of center in their political beliefs. One area where I disagree with most of these people is on the issue of immigration to the U.S..

    I regard excessive population as the fundamental cause of environmental problems as well as poverty, and it is a fact that the U.S. population would stabilize at its current level of around 330 million except for continued high levels of immigration. While most immigrants are more ambitious than native born Americans and no more inclined to commit crimes (other than illegal status), they and their descendants will be competing with native born Americans and their descendants for limited resources, such as fossil fuels, fresh water, and desirable places to live and recreate. There are better ways that the U.S. can, should, and does help hundreds of millions of people living in miserable conditions throughout the world, than to open our borders to them. The cases where more immigrants will improve the quality of life of native-born American citizens and their descendants are very rare.

  2. I agree with your position on population and immigration. It’s tough to argue that more people make America a better place.

    So why does the Left see it differently?

    I think the answer to that question lies in the premise. the Left is NOT trying to make America a better place. They’re trying to destroy it. Just as, more broadly, they seek to destroy western civilization.

    So why do they seek to destroy western civilization?

    For many in the Left, it’s because they simply haven’t fared as well as they wanted to in western civilization, and they are envious of people who have. For others, it’s guilt. For still others, they feel victimized by residual racism/sexism/whatever-ism, and they’re looking for vengence against their oppressors (eal and imaginary).

    • I acknowledge the many injustices that European Americans committed against minority groups in the past. In particular, the atrocities committed against American Indians are hypocritically ignored by advocates of immigration claiming that America is “a land of immigrants.” A lot of good it did for the original inhabitants (not)!

      However, I don’t know of any country ruled by people of other than European descent that provides greater opportunities for anybody willing to adopt its language and customs. While labeling this observation as “racist,” liberal extremists are driven by their own form of racism in their desire to replace the white majority population by a non-white majority population, in part by admitting large numbers of immigrants, most of whom are now non-white.

      Somewhat curiously, the pro-immigration lobby includes many in the “country club” wing of the Republican Party, as represented by their main mouthpiece, the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Their motivation is based entirely on short term economic considerations, such as having a supply of cheap labor, an ever growing demand for the things that corporations sell (including newspapers), and an ever increasing gross domestic product that is simplistically equated with national power and high material living standards. That approach ignores the negative impact on both average per capita income, as well as non-monetary determinants of quality of life such as natural amenities and freedom from crowding (and the high level of governmental control that typically accompanies it).

      • You’re exactly right re the Establishment Republicans’ hypocrisy on immigration, as exemplified by the WSJ. The reason we have a crisis is the unholy alliance between Establishment Republicans who see immigrants as cheap labor, and democrats who see them as a constituency.

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