The Fractured Power: How to Overcome Tribalism – Foreign Affairs Magazine

When the United States looks abroad to assess the risk of conflict, it relies on a host of tools to understand other countries’ social and political divisions and how likely they are to result in unrest or violence. These techniques reflect decades of research, in both government and academia, into the root causes of civil disorder and state failure. The idea is that by better understanding those causes, policymakers can prevent conflict before it breaks out or, failing that, help states recover quickly once it does.
One such tool is the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Conflict Assessment Framework, which is designed to illuminate the underlying dynamics of countries in various stages of civil strife. Analysts use the CAF to understand local grievances and divisions in a particular country, the resilience of the country’s political system, and events that could trigger violence. The process can require dozens of personnel and take months to complete. Diplomats and development experts scrutinize confidential cables in secure facilities in Washington and conduct public surveys in conflict-prone countries. They interview local stakeholders on the ground and consult experts in capitals around the world. They make every effort to understand fractured societies in granular detail, both to predict potential conflicts and to propose interventions to stop them.
For most of recent history, Americans have deployed such frameworks elsewhere, reserving concerns about instability or conflict for countries other than their own. When applied to the United States in 2021, however, the U.S. government’s own tools paint a damning picture of American politics. The contentious 2020 presidential campaign laid bare deep divisions in American society, exhibiting precisely the kind of tribal politics—when strict loyalty to a foundational identity (such as race, religion, clan, or region) is the organizing principle of political life within a country—that sets off alarm bells when seen abroad. The campaign looked less like a contest of ideas and more like a battle between tribes, with voters racing to their partisan corners based on identity, not concerns about policy.
These divisions, moreover, are coupled with a growing belief that U.S. political and social institutions are no longer functioning as intended. According to a 2019 report by the Pew Research Center, over 60 percent of Americans believe that declining levels of trust, both interpersonal and in government, are making it difficult to solve the country’s problems. Tools such as the CAF also note the importance of the longer-term context to understanding the likelihood of violence. And the context in the United States is troubling. The FBI has reported that in 2019, the United States saw more racially and religiously motivated hate crimes—including 51 murders—than it had at any point in the previous two decades. Sales of firearms reached new highs in 2020, with African Americans, worried about becoming the targets of racial violence, purchasing guns in record numbers. The killing of George Floyd in May 2020, and the summer of reckoning that followed, brought racial tensions in the United States to their highest levels in a generation.
Hardened ethnic and ideological identities affixed to political parties. Political leaders exacerbating sectarian divisions. Public institutions that are distrusted by more and more citizens for their failure to deliver policy solutions. The capitol stormed by rioters for the first time in over 200 years. A heavily armed society in which a defeated head of government claims that the election was illegitimate yet continues to enjoy the loyalty of nearly half the electorate. If American diplomats and aid specialists found this fact pattern elsewhere, they would call for diplomatic intervention. But just as experiences from elsewhere offer a reason to worry about American tribalism, they also provide valuable instructions for how to overcome it. If they learn the right lessons from their counterparts abroad, U.S. citizens, civic groups, and leaders can bridge the country’s tribal divisions and begin to revive American democracy.
Tribalism, and the conflict that it can produce, is often understood through facile comparisons between primitive villages and civilized cities or between the West and “the rest.” Contemporary U.S. politics, however, resists this simplistic dichotomy. Tools such as the CAF demonstrate that tribalism, and its potential to ignite conflict, is a general force that connects one’s identity to one’s politics—regardless of location or political system.
The more tribal a society is, the more closely membership in the tribe is policed and the less one is permitted to cooperate with outsiders. Such forces did not disappear with the advent of the modern nation-state, and they aren’t limited by nationality. Modern Israeli Jews, Iraqi Shiites, and American Southern Baptists can exhibit the same tribal loyalties as ancient West African Ashantis, South American Incas, or imperial Persians. The central benchmark is whether citizens of diverse backgrounds can use reason and argument to transcend foundational identities and work together toward a common good.
Although there have been other moments in U.S. history when the country’s governance failed to meet that ideal—most notably during the Civil War—the current era ranks high among them, especially by the standards the U.S. government uses to evaluate the risk of conflict abroad. Today, the tribes are the country’s two major political parties, bolstered by the demographic subgroups that compose their most loyal and predictable constituencies. Over the past two decades, these groups have grown further and further apart—each side accusing the other of stirring up historical grievances among its core supporters. According to two 2020 studies by the Pew Research Center, roughly eight out of ten supporters of either Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, or President Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, said that they disagreed with the other side over “core American values,” and roughly nine out of ten—again in both camps—said they worried that a victory by the other side would lead to “lasting harm” to the United States.

The two parties have also grown apart demographically. Although religion and race have long been two of the most salient predictors of a person’s party affiliation, they now lock people into political viewpoints in dangerous ways. Even though Trump managed to improve his performance among minorities in 2020, people who identify as African American, Asian American, or Latino overwhelmingly vote Democratic. White Americans—particularly those who identify as evangelical Protestants—overwhelmingly vote Republican. Indeed, a majority of white Americans have voted for the Republican candidate in every presidential election in the last 50 years. Few other characteristics seem able to shake these dividing lines: education, income, region, and gender all pale in comparison when it comes to predicting a given voter’s party preference.
Unsurprisingly, politicians’ behavior reflects the growing divide among their constituents. According to one metric from the Brookings Institution, from 1992 to 2013, the ideological divergence on committee votes between Democratic and Republican House members grew by over 50 percent. In that environment, cooperation across the aisle is nearly out of the question. Such profound polarization has made it impossible, for example, to pass comprehensive immigration reform despite a clear need to address the issue. Likewise, a fundamental problem such as health care, which affects every single American, is still embroiled in partisan politics even as a global pandemic of biblical proportions ravages the country.
This is not politics as usual. It is worse than the gridlock and culture wars that began in the 1990s, which the Clinton White House or politically savvy moderate Republicans could sometimes overcome. Rather, the current state of affairs represents a real departure from both past practice and civic ideals. The United States’ once resilient institutions are now largely incapable of keeping tribal influences in check. At the federal level, serious problems increasingly defy solution, not for a lack of feasible proposals but because politicians are determined to inflict defeat on their opponents in the name of tribal solidarity: Trump’s impeachment over allegations of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, for instance, was decided almost entirely along party lines, notwithstanding the facts of the case. The United States has suffered the most COVID-19 deaths of any country in the world at least partly because of partisan differences at the state and the federal level, not a lack of information about how to defeat the virus. Such “chronic capacity deficits,” to use the CAF’s language, can produce serious grievances that, under the right circumstances, might spark conflict.
These developments have not gone unnoticed abroad. The United States’ allies and partners regret that tribalism has diminished American diplomatic influence and soft power. Its enemies and rivals view that tribalism as an opportunity they can exploit. Russia, for example, took advantage of American society’s racial and political fissures during the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, when Russian cyberwarriors flooded social media platforms with disinformation aimed at Black and Latino voters and targeted inflammatory racist posts toward white voters. (As a senior FBI agent told an election security conference in early 2020, “To put it simply, in this space, Russia wants to watch us tear ourselves apart.”) Foreign adversaries determined to undermine U.S. governance from within could easily replicate these techniques. Efforts to stoke tribal hatreds and deepen partisan divisions have succeeded before; they could succeed again.
If diagnosing the United States’ currently tribal politics relies partly on tools originally developed to assess foreign countries, such as the CAF, then the solution can be found in a similar place. By learning lessons from other societies that have emerged from tribal conflict, the United States might be able to overcome this divisive moment.
One central lesson is that leadership matters. On the whole, conflict-affected states have found it nearly impossible to overcome tribal divisions unless their opposing leaders commit to doing so. Conversely, strong and principled leaders can help point the way toward a more united future. Notwithstanding the generational brutality and oppression meted out by Afrikaners and other white South Africans against the Black and Coloured populations in South Africa, the antiapartheid activist Nelson Mandela famously worked with President F. W. de Klerk, a member of the party responsible for apartheid, to dismantle the apartheid system. The Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and the Unionist David Trimble bridged bitter and violent differences to negotiate the Good Friday Agreement and bring peace to Northern Ireland. To be sure, the conditions need to be ripe for leaders to move their supporters from hostility to comity with long-established adversaries, but a willingness to renounce violence and work across tribal divides matters immensely. It can be the difference between perpetual conflict and durable peace.
The United States is neither apartheid South Africa nor Northern Ireland during the Troubles. But even though political parties in the United States do not engage in open armed conflict, there is still an acute need for leaders who are prepared to cross tribal lines for the good of the country. To their credit, throughout 2020, every living U.S. president (save one) and many other former elected officials publicly called for an end to tribal politics in the country. Following the election, former President George W. Bush released a statement urging Americans to move beyond their entrenched boundaries, saying, “The challenges that face our country will demand the best of President-elect Biden and Vice-President-elect Harris—and the best of us all. We must come together for the sake of our families and neighbors, and for our nation and its future.” Former President Barack Obama made a similar plea when he called for Americans to “do our part—to reach out beyond our comfort zone, to listen to others, to lower the temperature and find some common ground from which to move forward.” Such statements were less forthcoming from political leaders in office. Although the political calculus of those actively serving differs from that of those who have left public life, taking personal risks for the greater good is the very definition of bravery. Americans must demand that their elected leaders show the courage necessary to bridge partisan divides.

Another lesson drawn from conflict-affected countries is the importance of civic engagement. Precisely because serving leaders are constrained by politics, civic groups dedicated to peace may be needed to make compromise possible. The Community of Sant’Egidio, a group of Catholic laity based in Rome, for example, helped negotiate an end to the civil war in Mozambique in 1992. The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement, led by the peace activist Leymah Gbowee, played a similar role in ending the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003 by organizing Christian and Muslim women across confessional lines to demand a negotiated settlement to the conflict. For her efforts, Gbowee shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
In the United States, all manner of groups could take up the challenge of building these sorts of bridges. Many already have. The civic campaign Millions of Conversations, founded by the Tennessee attorney and former White House fellow Samar Ali, seeks to foster dialogue across party lines and social divisions. In November 2020, it sponsored a “depolarization summit,” which sought to proactively address potential violence following the 2020 election. The Episcopal Church, likewise, has made racial reconciliation a priority in its national ministry. Beyond the moral imperative underlying such work, the documented correlation between racial and political identities in the United States means that healing the country’s racial wounds will have an important effect on governance. A full accounting of the country’s racial history, coupled with focused attention on stubborn socioeconomic inequalities that affect communities of color, could help move the United States’ political culture beyond one of its most entrenched tribal divisions: partisan identity tied to race.
Although this is work in which every citizen can engage, as president, Biden must take the lead. To start, he should convene a national summit on tribalism and American politics to examine the issue, explore its threat to U.S. governance and security, and propose recommendations to address it. The gathering could be co-chaired by two former U.S. presidents of opposite political parties and include academics, members of the business community, civic leaders, and other former elected politicians, all on a bipartisan basis. Together, they could produce tangible proposals, from the local to the national level, designed to fortify American governance against the scourge of tribalism.

Beyond civic engagement, however, institutions also matter. Legal systems and constitutions can either encourage or discourage cooperation. This is why many peace agreements brokered in countries riven by tribal conflict have concluded with either a substantially revised constitutional framework (as in South Africa after apartheid) or a binding power-sharing deal (as in Burundi in 2000, after the country’s civil war). Americans are proud of the durability of their country’s constitution, which the Founding Fathers designed to stifle factionalism. Yet today, the framework provided by the U.S. Constitution is no longer up to the task.
Of the various proposed constitutional reforms designed to modernize U.S. institutions, the most important for addressing the challenge of political tribalism is ending partisan gerrymandering. The practice, employed by both political parties, creates majority districts without regard to natural or sensible geographic boundaries. In so doing, it incentivizes legislators to play to a partisan base rather than seek compromise across the aisle, lest challengers further to their party’s ideological extreme penalize them. Tribalism is thus reinforced by the system. Efforts to end political gerrymandering have been underway for years, but politicians need to accelerate the process. One option is for individual states to ban the practice in their jurisdictions. The other is for national leaders to amend the U.S. Constitution to end the practice nationwide. Although both approaches would face stiff political opposition, there is no other structural reform that would do more to diminish the impact of tribalism on U.S. politics.
In Bosnia, Burkina Faso, Cyprus, and many other countries beset by tribalism, it took external intervention to resolve ongoing conflicts. In some instances, that intervention took the form of mediation efforts by regional organizations such as the African Union or the Organization of American States. In others, it involved peacekeeping forces from third parties such as the UN or NATO. Unsurprisingly, the United States is unlikely to tolerate outside help when it comes to bridging its divisions. The country will never listen to a démarche from the European Union expressing concern about rising tribalism, nor will it invite peacekeepers to rescue Black neighborhoods from aggressive policing.
So it will fall to Americans to do the work themselves of bridging their country’s tribal divisions. The task will not be easy, not least because the citizens on whom the burden of addressing the crisis falls are themselves caught up in the tribalism that pervades society. Solving tribalism in the United States is not unlike the biblical admonition “Physician, heal thyself.” Yet the state of U.S. democracy, as well as the country’s place in the world, depends in large measure on whether its citizens can meet this challenge. American foreign policy and national security experts, accustomed to dealing with events beyond the country’s shores, would do well to participate in domestic forums aimed at healing schisms at home. Citizens who are normally loath to engage in anything political should find ways to spend time regularly and meaningfully interacting with people from distinct backgrounds and perspectives. The goal is not to eliminate differences but to learn how to govern despite them.
Although the United States is not at imminent risk of a civil war, it is unable to resolve many of its pressing domestic problems or encourage other countries to do the same. Tribal divisions within the United States are susceptible to manipulation by enterprising politicians at home and malevolent adversaries abroad. Strengthening the country’s capacity to govern itself across these boundaries is more than a moral good; it is a national security priority. The case for U.S. global leadership has never been simply that the country has an economy or a military that is stronger than any other. It is that the United States’ example, and the ideals the United States embodies, is worthy of emulation and respect. A country that reveres its freedom and insists on its exceptionalism should also meet the standards of governance it sets for itself.
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