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Tribalism: The Advancement of Fear Politics

Tribalism pushes the left and right to extremes to protect the tribe.

Key points

  • Tribalism is printed deep in our evolutionary DNA. Threat of extreme loss triggers a tribal response.
  • Existential threats ignite tribalism.
  • Dogmatism is a trait of the extreme left and right: When we vilify the "other" we deny their humanity.

We see tribalism as a primitive way of viewing the world, something that is foreign to us in the West.

As I discuss in my 2018 book, Tribalism: The Evolutionary Origins of Fear Politics, it is quite correct to see tribalism as primitive, but not in the sense we use the term, where we see others as primitive and ourselves as advanced. This primitive aspect of humankind is instead primitive in that it is deeply ingrained in our DNA. For most of our evolutionary development we lived in tribes or bands of families, and for most of that period these bands numbered less than 150. We are programmed to protect the tribe, and distrust the “other.” This does not mean we are slaves to our tribal impulses, but that they are not far under the surface. This also means that our tribal tendencies are not on the level of conscious thought but may influence much of our behavior.

The threat of loss and actual loss of who we are and loss of that to which we are attached evoke a primitive tribal response. On the mundane level, we see this in sports behavior. We can be intensely linked to a team, despite the players on that team having no such allegiance. Sports hooliganism is such a problem in Europe that police task forces monitor the travel of fans from one nation to the next, and violence is common. It is no small jump to see that these same hooligans are targeted for recruitment by White Nationalist groups. Players coming home after defeats in soccer games have been murdered for missing a goal or letting a goal slip by them. And teams, like military, wear certain uniforms and colors to identify themselves to their fellows and against their enemies.

So, where is this tribalism in us evidenced today? It rears its ugly head in increased right wing militancy evidenced in the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capital and in the conspiracy plagued messaging of the QAnon movement. The truth is twisted. Facts no longer matter. And, as often occurs in tribalism, a powerful hero-leader emerges, who claims to be savior and healer. We see this in the militancy of the more extremists within this tribe, and the condoning of this militancy by others in the tribe who might themselves be more comfortable in suits and ties. We see this in White Supremacist groups, who foment hatred against the immigrant, Jew, Black, and Asian. A common aspect of what we see in this pattern is the claim to attack on family values. When the Nazis first rose to power they did not speak of Jewish financial schemes, but of Jewish men “violating” Arian women.

In Goldhagen’s 1996 book, we see posters at early Nazi conventions that spoke of “stopping Jewish men from raping Arian women.” Nothing evokes tribalism as does threat to the family and violation of one’s women. Indeed, the violation of women in the Congo’s recent conflicts and in the war in the former Yugoslavia was often used as a weapon of war.

There is also a more subtle tribalism of the left, and it is important to note that Rokeach (1960) in his classic work on dogmatism, found it to be a trait of the extreme left and right. Although less militant, the denial of free speech on campuses, the cancellation of speakers, and the unwillingness to hear the other side’s arguments, are all elements of tribalism’s shutting out of the “other’s” messages. Environmentalists want clean air and are against coal production. But to destroy the thousands of miners’ livelihood without first substituting alternative work or creating comprehensive reeducation for other employment, is a “Let them eat cake,” form of tribalism as it ignores the suffering of the “other” as important.

The antidote to tribalism is dialogue, listening, and breaking bread together in the search for understanding and common ground. Blaming, name-calling, and chastising feed tribalism. Finding common ground between our tribal camps may not be palatable to the extremes, but just might be found in time between the center-left and center-right to bridge the gap and save us from our worst tribal selves.


Goldhagen, D. J. (1996). Hitler’s willing executioners: Ordinary Germans and The Holocaust. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Hobfoll, S. E. (2018). Tribalism: The evolutionary origins of fear politics. New York: Palgrave/Springer.

Rokeach, M. (1960) The open and closed mind: Investigations into the nature of belief systems and personality systems. New York: Basic Books.