Democracy doesn’t work in tribal societies like Afghanistan – or America

The problem with “nation building” a place like Afghanistan is that it’s a collection of wildly different places and peoples. Three-quarters of the people still live in the countryside. They comprise about a dozen main tribes and countless smaller tribes. Many different languages are spoken. Two are official languages but the dominant one is not spoken by a quarter of the population.

It’s true that nearly all Afghans are Muslim. But a millennium of strife in the Middle East has driven home the point that there are Muslims and there are Muslims, and they like to war with one another. Their wars are typically over stupid things.

The Muslims are not alone in their religious wars. Look at the centuries of Christian war in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants. Those are tribal wars founded on hate.

These tribes and their wars are not limited to religious strife, and also exist in societies we like to consider civilized. The clans of Scotland and rural England feuded for centuries and brought their feuding ways with them to American Appalachia. Remember the Hatfields and McCoys?

Tribal warfare is the natural state of humanity. A million years of human evolution was in small tribes numbering just a few dozen or perhaps one or two hundred people. Those tribes were continually threatened by competing tribes. We learned the lesson that survival depends on hating and eradicating that other tribe. We learned our lesson well.

Too well. The nature of society changed but the nature of humanity did not. Our instinct is still to tribalize. The entire industry of spectator sports in based on tribalism.

In places like Afghanistan, tribal societies never ended. They’ve always been tribal, and still are. In other places, tribalism was submerged for a while by such things as population movements, abundant land, class mobility and common enemies, but now the tribal instinct is re-surfacing.

One such place is America.

Most Americans traditionally are not tribal, except in the American nationalism sense. They’re products of a melting pot of British, Italians, Irish, Mexican, African, Indian and so on. They’ve seen themselves as Americans.

Virtually all Americans in our history have spoken the common language. They either immigrated from an English-speaking country or learned English shortly after arriving.

Most important, the culture of America was liberalist in the classic sense. Apart from some appalling exceptions such as Jim Crow laws and the anti-Semitism pervasive through the middle part of the last century, America was a place of ideas, opportunity and merit. Great wealth and power came to smart people with good ideas who worked very hard, from Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

But American culture is changing. Identity politics and the shift in democracy from the representative kind to the popular kind have tilted the culture back to tribalism. People are encouraged to see themselves not so much as Americans, but as a member of a trendy tribe. It’s as if people in Denver started to define themselves not as Americans but as Denver Bronco’s.

Immigrants are encouraged not to learn the common language and not to assimilate into Americanism – despite their desire to do so. Anyone who suggests they should, is shouted down and cancelled as racist. “Liberalism” now perversely stands for intolerance for the other tribe’s point of view.

Merit is considered a tool of suppression wielded by “bad” tribes of heteronormative white males against the trendy “good” tribes of people with particular skin color or sexual proclivities. Ideas are not evaluated by their validity but by their source. Truth is now a matter of tribal perspective.

This won’t work over the long run because it disregards basic principles of cause and effect. Abandoning the concept of merit will produce less of it. Failing to judge ideas will produce more bad ones. Disregarding truth will produce more falsity.

The left has embraced this tribalism most overtly in service of its strategy to maintain a permanent constituency of voters to whom it thinks (incorrectly, in my view) this approach panders. But the right, too, has become more tribal.

The death of journalism has contributed to this tribalism on both sides. What used to be a profession dedicated to telling the news like it is, has become consciously and candidly a scam of click-baits and an echo chamber of political activism.

A person getting his news from Fox News is likely to think that the average Democrat is a flame-throwing Antifa rioter, while a person getting his news from CNN (or, increasingly, the New York Times or Washington Post) is likely to think the average Republican voter is a head-shaved white supremist.

The end result is that many people of one tribe are unwilling to vote for the other tribe. They are unwilling to even consider solutions proposed by the other tribe. The other tribe is not a group of people deserving debate in search of compromise or solutions, but is a group of evil-doers deserving extermination.  

A nation cannot exist as this collection of hating, competing tribes. Forget about nation-building Afghanistan. Right now, we can’t even nation-maintain America.

38 thoughts on “Democracy doesn’t work in tribal societies like Afghanistan – or America

  1. Afghans topography makes for separation and survival of the fittest. They are tough people in ways we can never understand. Obviously.

  2. In my opinion, it started about 100 years ago, intentionally, with the subversion of our public educational system by the various far left radical socialist type folks.
    They knew this nation couldn’t be conquered in the traditional warring sense… they sought to corrupt the minds of our young to create Future Soldiers of Social Change.

    • And they largely triumphed by plunging us headlong into the naive pursuit of “diversity” and “multiculturalism,” the direct antecedents of “equity” and “inclusion.” These things are culture-smashers and nation-wreckers. They simply don’t work, except to promote more tribal resentment and intolerance. Oh, but we fell for it!

      • There’s a very good book on the subject titled Crimes of the Educators by Samuel Blumenfeld and Alex Newman, Mr. Newman had written a series of columns for the Epoch Times on how screwed up American Public Education has been since it’s inception here at the hands of people like John Dewey and other Utopians.

      • Yes, with pablum like “Diversity is our Strength”, for which I pose the question, is there any country anyone can name that is stronger rather than weaker because of its diversity? Belgium, India, Russia?

    • Let’s be more specific about this charge regarding “subversion of our public [so-called] educational system”: John Dewey.

  3. I first heard tribalism praised and promoted from the then-publisher of Seattle’s “alternative” “underground” weekly. This was early-mid 90s. Knute and his circle of affluent friends wanted me to advise on setting up a private school — for their children alone, with paid staff — using WA’s homeschooling laws to support and shield their activities from WA’s statutes regarding private schools. No lawyer I, nonetheless I gathered that they wanted to use my standing as a prominent and weightily credentialed (as customarily counted) homeschooler as authority for justifying their intentions. I told them that IMO they would have to use WA’s private school laws for what they wanted to do. They did not again seek my counsel or support. They wanted to tribal-ize their offspring’s schooling . . . and save expenses, such as a physical plant and reportable wages.

    My favorite song, as far back as I can remember, is We Gather Together To Ask The Lord’s Blessing. I guess that is my answer to tribalists. Since more unites us than divides us, it is more difficult to be a tribalist than it is to be a good neighbor, just as it is more difficult to be a liar than a truth-teller. I wonder why the churlish want to make their lives so burdensome.

    FWIW, I would answer tribalists along these lines:

    We share:
    The Fatherhood of God
    The Motherhood of Earth
    The Brotherhood of Man
    The Love of Liberty
    The Ubiquity and Persistence of Dharma
    The Implacability of Karma
    The Yearning for Happiness
    The Desire for Peace
    The Ability to Recognize The Truth when we see or hear It (or reject It, which is the same thing)
    The Pangs of Hunger
    The Pangs of Infatuation
    The Ecstasy of Love
    The Eagerness to Breathe
    The Delight in Light
    The Savor of Good Food
    The Revulsion at Rot and Decay
    The Desire for a Calm and Painless Death after Happy Years of Life
    The Desire for Protection by Mommy and Daddy
    The Bi-Laterally Symmetrical Morphology (a quality we share with millions of species)
    The Ability to Reason (more or less strongly, but the ability itself is universal; Parmenides: “Where there is Being [Ontos], there is the Logos [Reason] of Being.”)

    Our Declaration of Independence from tyranny enumerates shared universals in quite deliberate contrast to tribalistic jingoisms and workings-around commonality: life, liberty, and you know the rest. Tyranny is rejected by us precisely in terms of shared universals, commonalities, rather than in terms of a new tribalism. IMO, this our common enumeration of commonalities — precisely, specifically (!) to reject tyranny, including tyranny by a minority, which most tyrannies are — remains a quite sufficient defense and attack against dividers and other lawless skirts. Sufficient, I mean, unto their being thrown headlong into a condition of unconditional surrender, which is the only condition they deserve and we can countenance.

    We are not, such as we are, as we are but as we aspire to be. As we aspire to be inside the Peace of God, and do that methodically, without vacation, everything else takes care of itself. Oh, He has no trouble reaching us very directly when He wants to do that. One does not mistake Who makes that epiphany. That knock dispels all differences.

    • Well, I cannot edit the foregoing now when I see that in pre-posting editing I eliminated, inadvertently, a literary conceit involving the word skirt in the first and penultimate paragraphs. Accordingly, in the first paragraph, please read

      “. . . using WA’s homeschooling laws to support and shield their activities from WA’s statutes regarding private schools.”

      as this

      “. . . using WA’s homeschooling laws to skirt WA’s statutes regarding private schools.

  4. Good analysis. As for the execrable Joe Biden of your prior three essays, I do have to credit the guy with one bright idea (which no one paid any attention to): his proposal to partition Iraq into three states — Suni, Shia, and Kurdish. The three groups would continue to war against each other, no doubt, but at least they wouldn’t have to worry about their next door neighbors as much as we do about ours. Repeat after me: multiculturalism does not work!

    • I must differ with your take in this matter, based on consistent reports from the ground over 20 years. Unlike Afghanis, Iraqis have a sense of national identity. They have a very successful SOF force — the main force taking the fight to ISIS and paying the price — who are very strongly and deliberately, even proudly, non-sectarian.

      The partition idea was pushed by a chief at CFR in the early 00s and Biden picked it up. Iraqis themselves rejected it. It was and remains a bad idea in principle and not what Iraqis want, which is what matters. Anyone on the side of division is on the side of chaos. Biden has always been a Euro-American Socialist. He lives under the Red Flag.

      American and Coalition main mistakes in Iraq were (1) splitting command of US operations in-country between State, DOD, and, as usual, CIA, who run private business enterprises, much as do IRGC, (2) demobilizing the Iraqi Army — State’s idea, DOD disagreed — (3) not sending to GITMO or assassinating clergy, Sunni and Shiite, and especially Sadr, (4) treating mosques as religious buildings rather than military installations, and (5) not showing the WMDs that were found and Saddam’s programs to develop and use the same.

      In other words, right from the start, US assets deployed to war in Iraq without intent to win that war. Orders to deploy to battle which lack or prohibit intent to throw the target into a condition of unconditional surrender rise to the Nuremberg definition of unlawful orders. Such orders are for trifling, not for war, and therefore any harm they cause are outside the justifications for war and inside the definitions of criminality.

      GWB issued unlawful orders to continue OEF and OIF past the mission profile of punitive expeditions. He made them wealth transfer platforms under color of “nation building.”

      • Well, it’s good to know that Iraq after Saddam was not quite as bad as India after the British, or the former Yugoslavia after the Soviets. Perhaps there’s an answer to tribalism other than totalitarian rule.

        And I’m not surprised to hear that Biden didn’t have even ONE good idea.

      • You sir are spot on. There is no such thing as a limited war, you fight wars to win and if yo can’t define what winning is you shouldn’t be fighting a war. Limited war is immoral and creates tremendous suffering, death and corruption. This should be the grand lesson for U.S, policy makers since Vietnam,
        Hell, wishful thinking, now there is a push to go back in to Afghanistan, God help us.

  5. I understand and largely agree with the thrust of your article. However, I must say that I can not think of a single idea being proposed by the left, which is presently embodied in the democrat party, with which I agree, so how would it be possible for me to achieve a consensus with them? As I see it, there has been a steady ratcheting leftward in this country since the Wilson presidency. What began as a representative and constitutionally based republic founded largely on Christian morals and social conventions imported from Europe of the Enlightenment has been moving steadily away from that foundation and toward a centralized bureaucratic totalitarianism favored by the left. The modus operandi is elegantly simple. The left always stakes out a position far to the left of the status quo; the right (or conservatives) merely seeks to preserve that status quo. The resulting compromise that inevitably follows is thus always moving toward the goal established by the left and never back in the opposite direction. Gun control is a perfect example. Each time a new gun restriction is proposed, the response is merely to keep the status quo. When a “bi-partisan” compromise is achieved, it simply means that the drift toward increasing strictures on legal gun ownership advances, albeit to a lesser degree than what was proposed. It is never reversed. Thus, I can not agree to accept anything proposed by the democrat leftist cabal. I challenge the readers of this blog to convince me otherwise. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

    • A fair point, Steve. But here are a few areas where the conservatives have some wins (albeit incomplete ones):

      Charter schools, banning men competing in women’s sports (not all, I recognize, but public opinion is on our side), limiting abortion somewhat, maintaining monogamy rather than outright embrace of polygamy (this is something that was in doubt in the 60s and 70s), rejecting the idea that the Second Amendment is not a personal right, rejecting outright socialism, rejecting socialized medicine, protecting the sanctity of a person’s house against warrantless search and seizure, retaining due process in criminal proceedings (and defeating the lack of due process in public college sexual claims, preserving the right of free speech in a way that is shocking to the rest of the world.

      In any event, if a person is frustrated about too many losses and not enough wins against the other side, I don’t think the solution is to say, “I’ll take my ball and go home.” Home, where? America is the only game in town. A better approach is to redouble one’s efforts to win.

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  7. I think the solution is to keep the dominant tribe dominant, until minority tribes can be assimilated within the common border, and united for all, rather than divided within. We, the US, went through this in the 1920’s, and other periods when immigration was restricted until assimilation could catch up. Law and order for protection against other tribes does not really exist in Afghanistan, which is why they caved so fast to the Taliban, after the US abandoned the air base that was providing air support and resupply to the provinces. The Taliban promised protection, albeit with Shariah law, which appeared a better choice to some in the countryside, but not so great for women.
    The relative order, even with lots of corruption, at least was going forward. The Marxist order can’t function with individual and property right and freedom. It needs division to get to a centrally manages society for the common good [of the new ruling class – them]. So Maxist Joe and his puppet masters, pulled the plug to allow the Taliban being sheltered and strengthened in Pakistan, to retake Afghanistan in 11 days.
    The US faces external threats from both radical Islam and internal threats from the Marxist left within. Anything that weakens our Capitalist driven society, helps to advance the crap of Marxist philosophy. CRT, BLM, cancel culture, 57 Genders and all the rest of their ilk are just the flies circling around the Marxist shit.

    • Agreed. Alas, our dominant culture, charmed by John Lennon’s “Imagine,” pissed it all away in a few short decades.

      • Sad. You slide into marxism, but have to shoot your way out. That’s the real reason for gun confiscation.

  8. I am ashamed to admit I did not know until today the severe contrast in spirit between the US and French national anthems. I had heard La Marseillaise only in French, never with English translation. As a musician, I saw and felt the elevating martial spirit in its compositional structure as well as in its audition. However, as English translation shows, La Marseillaise is hyper-bloodthirsty, severely tribal.

    No E Pluribus Unum spirit here:

    Contrast Whitney Houston’s famous Super Bowl XXV, All-American happiness withal:

    Our Framers were rightly appalled at the tribalism of The French Revolution, who brought forth the Communist Ogress who hag-rides the nations to this day. Tribalism has no truck with peace or happiness, which are carried in the heart of the captain or be not aboard.

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  10. Time now for one of my favorite Northern Ireland jokes:

    One night in 1995 an American on business for a week in Belfast steps out of a pub on the Falls Road, which divides an all-Catholic neighborhood on one side of the street from an all-Protestant neighborhood on the other.

    He only gets about 30 feet before a man steps out of an alleyway, thrusts a gun into his ribs, and mutters, “You’re a strange face around here, boyo, so what is it then? — are you Cat’lic or are you Protestant?!”

    Not liking his chances of surviving this encounter, our brave American adopts a bewildered face and replies, “Neither, my friend. I happen to be a Palestinian Arab who is visiting your country and who wanted to hear some authentic Irish folk music, which this pub is noted for.”

    And the last thing he ever beholds is his interrogator looking up to the heavens, exclaiming “O, Mother of God, I must be the luckiest Jew in Ireland!”

  11. Ho, hum, just another great article, Glenn, thanks, and we agree with what you say about “tribalism,” and add that the libs/lefties/”progressives”/moral relativists/subjectivists/humanists/secularists/Democrat elites promote anything that contributes to this tribalism because it contributes to their ability to control the sheep with goodies for every tribe–the problem being, that those libs/lefties/”progressives”/etc do not realize that these sheep are not going to allow ourselves to be controlled by their sick ideas, all the way to the death.

    And lastly, we do not agree that “A person getting his news from Fox News is likely to think that the average Democrat is a flame-throwing Antifa rioter…” Rather, a person getting his news from Fox News is likely to know that the average Democrat is an uninformed, gullible, feel-good, simpleton.

  12. Mostly true, what Glenn wrote about tribalism. But but not the part where we’ve devolve to that point. I think we’ve always been tribal. 250 years of slavery, 100 years of segregation and 300 years of overwhelming North American Natives isn’t exactly non-tribal. It’s just that English speakers were the dominant tribe, forcing other tribes to accommodate. Maybe the whole American Experiment was doomed to being with. Or, maybe we’re just historically due. If we date western democracy to the Magna Carta, it’s been around for about 8 centuries. That’s more than 3 times as long as roman democracy which, until the 1215, had the next best run. Even if we start counting with the establishment of the english Speaking New World Colonies, we’re more or less lied with republican Rome on longevity.

    • It’s certainly true that English speakers were dominant in American history, but that doesn’t mean they were tribal. To me, “tribal” refers to a culture that subordinates traits of the Enlightenment to emotion like fear and hatred for other tribes.

      Yes, the English speakers gave the native tribes a very bad deal and gave the slaves a very bad deal too. But they did so for mostly practical reasons, not just because they hated and feared them.

      As for the American Experiment being doomed, I would suggest that it was an extraordinarily successful. To say America was a failure is like saying that a couple who live together mostly in harmony and raise good kids and then divorce after 30 years, are a failed marriage. They’re not; they’re just a successful marriage that ended.

      That said, it’s indeed possible that America and its success are ending. Cultures that reject the Enlightenment in favor of tribal emotionalism soon end.

  13. So Fox is no better than CNN/ABC/NBC/CBS/PBS et al? Fox lies like, or on the same scale as, the rest? No side is any nearer the truth than the other so a pox on all their houses?


    • The writing at Fox stinks — reports are often typo-ridden and even full of grammatical errors. The click-baiting is shameless — how often do they use a headline that hides the main fact solely for the purpose of making you click on it? It’s terribly unprofessional. The political bias is as undisguised as at CNN, and less disguised than at PBS.

      Fox News is certainly your and my tribe, just as CNN and PBS are the other tribe, and it’s very tempting to like Fox for that reason. But as I’ve tried to explain in this column, that’s a lousy reason unless you want to perpetuate the tribalism that is bringing down America.

      (IMO, the only reasonably accurate and professional news outlet today is the Wall Street Journal. And I say that not just because they’ve published me. Journalism in America is largely dead.)

  14. It is my understanding that 40% of Afghans polled believe that suicide attacks are legitimate activist tactics to employ. So, are we supposed to ignore what was violently taught to us by muslim brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar “Far-From-War-Torn-Homeland-Trying-to-Fit-In” Tsarnaev?
    40% of 6,800 is 2,720. I’m just sayin.

  15. As spot on as this observation is it continues an error or failure to recognize the largest contributing factor, of which does not appear here. This didn’t just evolve or happened to go that way. There were people who planted the seeds and nurtured it along the way and if you acknowledge it, you are smeared for conspiracy theories and yet they tell their plans and story over and over. This book was published in 1932 and I ask, on page 316 here, how much has been accomplished. The pointed marker to me, when assimilation fell from grace, is when the Boat People started to arrive, how cruel it was to expect refugees and immigrants to forget their heritage of the country they left to adopt what they ran to, no that was made a bad idea and by 1990 GHW Bush dropped the stringent English Requirement from our Citizenship requirements, or why should we have print ballots in so many languages? It all comes from pandering and to divide our population into controllable, easy to buy off tribes of voters

    • Wow. At first I thought Lamm was being ironic — he couldn’t possibly mean this literally, but was crisply summarizing the tactics of the left as “my plan to destroy America” in order to communicate how insane and evil it all sounds. No? He really WANTED all this to happen?!? I know nothing about the guy, but I do respect Levin’s intellect and passion, and he appears to think so. I’d love to hear what others think.

      Anyway, thanks so much your contribution. This nails it!

      • No. Lamm was clearly against the things he warned of. What’s interesting about his speech is that he was a Democrat — back when Democrats were usually sane.

      • Then this is a great speech, one that serves as both the blueprint and a barometric baseline by which to measure the force of the progressive zeitgeist that has swept across the West in the past two decades, while we’ve been stupidly asleep by and large.

  16. Tribalism is as old as humanity, and going further back, it was “species-ism.” Other species were either food or they could kill you. Or both. Monkey and apes form tribes (troops) and defend their feeding areas from other troops. This is baked into the brain. Experiments have shown that the amygdala lights up when viewing a face that looks “different.” The primitive brain sees “different” as dangerous and “same” as safe.

    The question is, can we transcend this baked-in tendency? Do we need to? As a trans-partisan progressive Democrat, I prefer multiculturalism to monoculturalism. If we could celebrate our differences through culture, as we do through music, theatre, and the arts, and get to know each other as fellow humans, there’s the possibility that we wouldn’t have to tear each other down and apart. There IS room for all opinions, even those that say there’s no room for other opinions. It requires discussion, being open to hearing the “other” beyond the rhetoric, and getting to know those Other People as people. Friends, not foes.

    This is what I value, and what most progressive Democrats I know value. Multiculturalism is not a dirty word, and it doesn’t have to take anything away from you. It means you get enlightened by seeing that there are other points of view, that humans are diverse and beautiful in all colors and flavors, and that it’s possible to get along when we see that we are all children of God. Except for those who kill people. We should kill them. (That’s a sort of a joke.)

  17. Indian subcontinent consists of an umpteen number of separate linguistic communities, at times sharing a common language and culture and again, at times standing in huge difference in dialects. It is already acknowledged that cosmopolitan and metropolitan populace possesses their indigenous sophisticated version of language and mode of communication. However, the point of interest in this context is the mode of utilisation of the language of tribes and tribal population in the country.

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