Why are right-wing movements and ideas so successful in taking over governments, even though their programs are opposed by large majorities? A related question: how can so many Americans (about 33% in many polls) support cruel and criminal policies, like separating children from families at the Mexican-American border and jailing them indefinitely, policies which most people in the world find appalling and destructive?
There are simple, related explanations for both of these processes, but they require us to see that human nature varies dramatically between people with different politics. If we don’t understand this dynamic, we will continue to be shocked and blindsided by each new wave of austerity and repression, and each new stolen election, until we’re living in a full-on police state with no way to fight back.
The key is this: People are tribal. The Right gets this; they are tribal themselves, but Left ideas are usually universalist: things like equality, democracy, and integration. These ideas are opposed and feared by the Right, who feel the need to strengthen and defend the tribe against threat, not worry about the rights of those outside the tribe.
Tribal politics work because all of us are born tribal. When people lived in small groups, survival depended on close identification with, and total commitment to family and the extended family of the tribe. You had to be there for them 100%, whether they were right or wrong, because without them you were dead. And this commitment required dehumanizing the next tribe over, who might attack you at any time. So, humans learned to sharply distinguish “ingroup” from “outgroup” and treat them very differently. We have evolved to see difference easily and to fear it.
Psychology writer Karin Temerius says that, because of our tribal history, “All people are xenophobic to one extent or another. and a certain degree of ingroup favoritism and suspicion of outsiders is to be expected in any group.”
In the 21st Century, most of our families and societies educate us out of tribalism at a fairly young age. Over millennia of people’s meeting and mixing, most people are now raised to see everyone as human like themselves and deserving of equal rights, or at least to say they do. Otherwise, how could people coexist in cities?
This change hasn’t come easily. Great teachers like Jesus, the Buddha, and Mohammed preached that people were equal and that identifications of tribe were artificial and not approved by God. Psychology and sociology give universalist ideas scientific support, showing us how we’re all similar. Movements such as socialism opposed nationalism with slogans like “Workers of all nations, unite.”
Now liberalism, not tribalism or the nationalism into which tribalism has evolved, is widely professed around the world. But tribalism is always inside us, just below the surface, and it frequently bubbles up. Over and over, we see people turn against others they have known for years, dehumanize (“otherize”) them into an outgroup and do terrible things to them.
Creating an outgroup and dehumanizing them is easy. The group doesn’t have to be racial or national. Republicans and Democrats are tribal about their parties; the rich are often tribal about their class. Studies show that even when membership in groups is arbitrarily assigned and members are fully aware of the method of their placement, people still view their group as superior.” In “minimal group paradigm” studies, people are divided into groups based on the most minimal characteristics (say, eye color or the flip of a coin), and then asked to rate each other, interact with or allocate resources to each other in some way. People almost always treat their ingroup better than they treat the outgroup members, even though there are no objective differences in the groups. Imagine how much greater this effect will be when applied to national, racial, or religious groups, and when real resources (such as jobs) are involved.
Do you see how this dynamic explains the vicious attacks on immigrants we see in the US every day, or White support for the ongoing mass incarceration of African-American men? Even though these policies are morally debased, economically and socially disruptive and violate international law, millions of Americans support them. That’s because cruelty to the outgroup feels good if you’re in a tribal mindset. Tribalism is strictly us vs. them. Hurting “them” is good for “us,” because it shows our power; it favors “our” group’s survival and prosperity. Even if “them” is our neighbor down the street with different colored eyes or sexual orientation.
The role of capitalism
Tribal vs. universal is a conflict in which capitalists play both sides. They present as universalists: favoring immigration and travel, opposing tariffs and restrictions on trade. Despite ongoing racism and sexism, they are happy to include people of color and women in their leadership, if it makes them more money. “Globalization” is a universalist-sounding slogan for billionaires’ taking over the world.
But capitalists also see tremendous value in tribalist mindsets, using them to promote profitable wars and turn people against each other. We can see how the rulers play both sides in the fight over immigration. Think about the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” wrote poet Emma Lazarus. She could have added ‘and willing to work for $1 / day,’ because her poem was an ad for cheap labor to build multimillionaires’ empires. Liberals think the poem is this noble humanitarian sentiment, an “American value.” But when their labor is not needed anymore, immigrants find themselves targets of capitalist-inspired hate campaigns like Donald Trump’s.
The rulers play the tribal card over and over, and it almost always works. They divide us into tribes based on skin color, on ethnicity, language, sex, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, taste in music, whatever. As we saw with the minimal group experiments, people will form tribes based on anything or nothing. The newest tactic is splitting us by age, as with the #OKBoomer meme that’s going around, with old and young people blaming each other for capitalist-created social decay.
The upside of tribalism
Universalism vs. tribalism is not right vs. wrong. Tribalism pulls people together and allows them to accomplish great things, like the Nazis did in rebuilding Germany after World War 1. Russian nationalism, more than socialist ideals, pulled the Russians together to sacrifice themselves and defeat the Nazis in World War 2.
Jewish people constitute an ongoing natural experiment in tribalism vs. universalism. Judaism started as a tribal religion, but after losing their home to the Romans in the year 70, the tribe scattered and became internationalist to survive. For 1800 years, they gave leadership to the world in trade, science, and culture, but also suffered regular abuse and periodic massacre at the hands of nationalist Christian Europeans. No one came to their aid.
In the 1900s, Jews called “Zionists” determined to reclaim Jewish nationalism in Palestine. Now, after decades of war and aggression, Israel is a thriving world leader in right-wing ethnonationalism, and Jews’ traditional universalist values have all but disappeared from Israeli conversation.
Universalism faces a severe disadvantage, since its core values of equality and fairness mitigate against doing the kind of cheating and violence that the Right, though sometimes honest and generous within their group, feels fine with doing to outsiders. From rigged US elections to violent coups and invasions, universalists are on the defensive. All over the world, right wing nationalists, backed by capitalist money power keep winning because a) they motivate their people so much better and b) they are not hamstrung by ideals of equality and fairness.
Can the Left win this unfair fight? Evo Morales, the elected president of Bolivia overthrown by a US-sponsored coup, remains hopeful: “The coup wasn’t against me but against the entire country. They want to dismantle the Plurinational State. Fascism does not accept the diversity of cultures and thought. But together we will know how to get up.”
I hope Morales is right, but I don’t have answers. Can we create another Us vs. Them more favorable to us? Maybe one based on class? We can try.