Pluralism and Tribalism

Pluralism and tribalism both stress that people have different interests and identities arising from their particular group involvements and that such differences result in political conflict, but these perspectives  are very different. Pluralist societies have many cross-cutting group involvements such that no particular interest or identity predominates; indeed,  in pluralist societies, groups realize that their limited size and power precludes domination and thus they seek cooperation, accommodation, and compromise with other groups.  Tribal societies have cumulative group interests and identities, such that one set of interlocking groups is strongly loyal to one tribe (or party or ideology) while another set of interlocking groups is strongly committed to an opposite tribe.  Tribes seek domination over their tribal opponent; in pursuit of domination, they stereotype, marginalize, and oppress those groups that are part of the opposite tribe.  Two dominant tribes –  liberal Democrats and conservative  Republicans – are prominent in an increasingly polarized America today.  In prior pluralist America, loyalties to opposing parties and ideologies were much weaker, as people’s other group identities played larger roles in their conceptions of the good life, a good society, and good government.   I am a committed pluralist and abhor tribalism.  Here I expand on these judgments.

Pluralism has many meanings, and political scientists have not always lauded pluralism.  When colleagues at political science conferences inquired about my current research interests I would typically respond that I was still working on pluralist theory, which often generated retorts about my concerns being  “regressive,” “archaic,” and “far removed from the cutting edge” of disciplinary research.  For many political scientists, pluralism meant “orthodox pluralism,” a perspective that focused on how individuals join groups that represent their personal interests,  that focused  on the existence of a vast array of such groups in America, and that claimed that the distribution of power among these groups is relatively equal or at least widely dispersed.   Counterclaims that our political processes are really dominated by a few powerful groups  fueled disciplinary understandings that pluralist practices undermine the attainment of democracy and justice in American politics.  Critics charge pluralists with being naïve and providing theories that sustain an illegitimate system that really favors elites.

I never challenged such criticisms of “orthodox pluralism,” and instead sought to reformulate pluralism so that it could accommodate such criticisms when warranted by normative concerns and empirical evidence.  I have argued that a more complete understanding of pluralism contains (at least) three main components.

First, there is moral pluralism, which assumes that individuals have different understandings of “the good” — of what they and others want and need to have a good life. Normatively, moral pluralism encourages tolerance of our different conceptions of the good life.  Empirically,  moral pluralism recognizes  that different moral values are nevertheless emphasized in particular  social circumstances and political environments.

Second, there is social pluralism, which assumes that individuals are members of social groups that often generate and reinforce moral differences and that facilitate pursuit of our diverse moral convictions.  Social pluralism also assumes that we have different social identities.  Some of these social identities (such as those based on our nationality, locality, partisan orientation and religious affiliation) directly express these moral differences.  Other social identities  (such as our class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and sexual identity) have tendencies that are widely perceived (and sometimes misperceived) as representing a particular set of moral concerns.  Social pluralism gives rise to conflict as each group seeks to have its values and principles recognized, rewarded, and furthered in society.

Third, there is political pluralism, which assumes that the differences arising from moral and social pluralism will inevitably be major bases of the conflicts that arise on concrete political issues in our political communities.  Political pluralism emphasizes the need for governmental structures that can resolve our moral and social differences with as much consensus and fairness, and as little violence and oppression, as possible.  For a further discussion of moral, social, and political pluralism, please see “On Pluralism,” at

Tribalism is a very limited and degenerate form of pluralism.  It assumes that members of various groups are now part of opposing collectivities (e.g., parties, teams, and communities) that have polar opposite characteristics and values.  Some collectivities are virtuous, and others are villainous.  It assumes that collectivities can be characterized as “us” and “them.”  It assumes that politics is a bloody battle between the virtuous us and the corrupt them.  Of course, in this understanding the good guys must prevail and the corrupt guys (and their naïve gals) must be vanquished.

In recent years, pluralism has been diminished as tribalism has grown.  Of course, America has always had its tribes.  I was (and, at least to some degree, still am) part of the (Green Bay) Packer tribe.  I have identified more with Christianity and the Democrats than with Islam and the Republicans;  etc.  But in accordance with pluralist thought, the force of my tribal loyalties was and remain limited.  As orthodox pluralism asserted, I have so many group (and tribal) memberships and identities that they are cross-cutting.  The Packer tribe is open to Republicans and Democrats, to Jews and Muslims as well as Christians.   The diversity of the Packer tribe enables members of the Packer team to choose  whether or not to take a knee when the National Anthem is played, indicating to their fans whether they identify more with the Black community or with the American nation.  Pluralist tolerance is recognized as stronger than loyalty to a particular social identity.

As a pluralist, I am loyal to many teams; not only am I part of the Packer tribe, but I also have identified with the Appleton (High School) Terrors, the Beloit Buccaneers, the Wisconsin Badgers, the Kansas Jayhawks, the Kansas City Royals and Chiefs, and so forth.  Only when these teams meet in head-on competition do I have to decide which team to root for, and I seldom got too invested in who wins these competitions.  I never get too upset I if one of my teams has a losing streak, as the victories of my other teams supply solace.

As a pluralist,  I identify simultaneously with the global community, the United States, the two states in which I reside (Kansas and Wisconsin), and in the towns were I most (have) often reside (Appleton, Lawrence and Townsend).  I didn’t have to decide which community deserves my greatest allegiance, as I can stress whichever communal identity seems  most relevant under various circumstances.  While I might sometimes stress my allegiance to one or another of my tribes or communities, I do not lose sight of my other allegiances, and this helps me appreciate and respect the various allegiances of others.

Many explanations have been offered for why pluralist tolerance and accommodation have decreased while tribal intolerance and hatred have increased.  Probably the most prominent theory focuses on technological changes.   A half century ago, members of different communities and tribes nevertheless consumed common understandings of what was happening in social and political life by watching network news and reading commentators that were committed to objective interpretations of events.  But today, we consume narrow-casted, rather than broadcasted news, and commentators are more interested in appealing to their narrow audiences than to the general public.

Another perspective has now been offered by a  research group called More in Common.  Their report, Hidden Tribes, shows that only a small number of Americans belong to the two tribes who cling most strongly and cohesively to extreme views on the central political issues of our time:  Progressive Activists on the left comprise only 8 percent of all Americans, and Devoted Conservatives make up only 6 percent of all Americans.    At bottom, the basis of the polarization between these two tribes is their preoccupations with historical injustice, which they perceive differently.  The Progressive Activists emphasize racial and gender oppression and thus focus on the deep and centuries-old problem of white male privilege.  The Devoted Conservatives emphasize the marginalization of their Christian religious beliefs and their resentment of the special treatment they see flowing from liberal governments to minorities and immigrants since the 1960s.  According to these researchers, most Americans are exhausted by the culture war between these small ideological tribes and support compromise on our main issues.  However, they also report that a third tribe they call Traditional Conservatives, who comprise 19 percent of the population are much closer to Devoted Conservatives than to more moderate tribes, and thus perhaps a third of all Americans contribute to our polarization.  A fourth engaged tribe, traditional liberals, who comprise 11% of the population are absolved from their contributions to polarization as their shared concerns with progressive activists are moderated by their greater tolerance of conservatives and religion and their willingness to compromise.

While such theories of tribalism have merit, I have another “pet theory” – probably little more than speculation –  about the cause of our tribalism:  our becoming increasingly focused on sports and using sports as a metaphorical basis  for understanding social and political life.   Just as we must be devoted fans of our favorite teams, so we must be loyal to our tribe – and increasingly the tribe we are loyal to is a political party.  Just as we cheer or boo the players and referees in sports, so we cheer or boo politicians and even those “referees” who seek to stand above the fray and apply penalties to those who break the rules of the game.  Every sporting event is a bloody battle that must be won.  When  our team loses, we become dismayed and lose sight that there will always be another game and another season.

But pluralist politics is not sports.  One team does not need to win while the other must lose.  In the long tradition of public philosophy, preoccupations with tribal, class, and partisan victories are disruptive of political stability.  Genuine politics – or good governance – is a search for common ground, for solutions to issues that maximize public support and acceptance among as many citizens (and across as many “factions” -groups and tribes – as possible).  If we date modernity to the 17th century, “republicanism” is the label that philosophers and statespersons have given to such an idealized form of politics.  But today’s Republicans have lost sight of their historical roots and see politics as a game that is more brutal than that played when the Packers confront the Bears.