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


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