American tribalism

Political 'tribalism' has for far too long been seen as an African problem. It is also an American problem, reflecting parallel legacies of colonialism.

Image credit Mobilus In Mobili via Flickr (CC).

It is time to shift the geography of political tribalism in order to recognize the United States as a tribal society. This was the essence of the keynote speech given by Kwame Anthony Appiah at “A Night of Philosophy and Ideas” held at the Brooklyn Public Library on February 2, 2019. Though reading from a tablet, with his voice barely rising above the din of people still entering through the front doors, Appiah’s message was clear: the terminology frequently, and often gratuitously, applied to politics in Africa and more specifically Ghana, his childhood home, should now be applied to his home in the US. His perspective wasn’t entirely original—commentators as different as Steven Pinker, David Brooks and Amy Chua have also denounced recent American politics for devolving into tribalism. But Appiah’s views carried far more weight. Not only was this an instance of an African philosopher irreverently turning the tables of where tribalism exists in the world today, but here was an intellectual who could ground the issue in history. Tribalism in his lecture wasn’t simply generic western-speak for the absence of political civility. Appiah drew from firsthand experience.

As Appiah explained in his opening remarks, “tribes” and “tribalism” are ordinary terms with common usage in Ghanaian English, unlike their pejorative—and frequently racist—meanings in American English. To invoke “tribal” identity is to signal an investment in cultural and historical affiliations that preceded modern Ghana, with language, region, and other facets defining what counts as tribal. Appiah went further to describe how his father, Joe Appiah, during the 1950s promoted a national Ghanaian identity over ethnic ones—in his case, an Asante heritage—in the buildup to and aftermath of Ghana’s independence. Though this principle of national over tribal identity was never entirely fulfilled, it remained an ideal, even when pride was taken in ethnic affiliation, as Anthony Appiah readily admitted to embracing. Put simply, tribal identity still matters.

But there is a difference between “tribe” and “tribalism.” The problem isn’t with tribe itself; the problem is when it is mobilized into the charged, confrontational and self-interested practice of tribalism. It is this antagonism that his father struggled against, and it is through this distinction that Appiah called upon the audience to do better in the present, to draw upon, in his words, “the better angels of our identities.”

Appiah, it can be said, has never been part of a tradition of radical thought. His consistent emphasis throughout a number of books on individual choice in matters of identity and moral philosophy can be faulted for not taking full account of systemic hierarchies that inform civic identities and limit political agency. In this sense, his case against tribalism, when taken too narrowly, neglects the ways in which such practices have been institutionalized over time. Mahmood Mamdani has argued that ethnic conflict in postcolonial Africa can partly be attributed to the enduring structural legacies of indirect rule. John Lonsdale has similarly contended that political tribalism in Kenyan politics and elsewhere must be understood as separate from an internally meaningful “moral ethnicity”—a distinction that approximates the one made by Appiah between tribalism and tribal identity, but with greater attention to the social, rather than individual, outcomes of such differences.

And what of the American case? Parallel to the common framing of the US as an empire, which, for good reason, has preoccupied discussions on the left for almost two decades now, the US as a colony and postcolony should also be readdressed. The legacies of what might be called the “political kinfolk” of indirect rule can be identified. The Three-Fifths Compromise (1787), the Indian Removal Act (1830), the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), Jim Crow, and other formal and informal measures designed to govern, but not represent, have instituted racialized conceptions of US citizenship and political participation that have lasted to the present. The Electoral College, an antebellum body intended to blunt direct democracy in presidential elections, persists despite its long outdated 18th-century origins. Indeed, analogous to colonial Natal’s Shepstone system, which served as a 19th-century prototype for 20th-century British indirect rule, American politics continue to be shadowed by ideas, laws and institutions that were either founded or nurtured during the 1800s. In short, American tribalism isn’t a recent phenomenon of atavistic political regression as Pinker, Brooks and Chua would have it. Rather, it is an intrinsic part of American political culture with deep origins in the structures and attitudes established through slavery and the violence of settler colonialism. An American political tribalism based on race, class, gender, and religion was present at the start.

Peter Ekeh, the Nigerian sociologist, wrote over four decades ago of the two publics that emerged under colonial rule in Africa: the first being a “primordial public” that fostered moral values in the private realm, and the second being a “civic public” that was amoral (if not immoral) and reflected society at large. These two publics contrasted with the one public that existed in western societies. This single public also consisted of public and private realms, but these were bound together by a shared moral foundation. Ekeh’s consequent argument was that the creation of these two publics in Africa and their subsequent rivalry helped explain the animosity and corrosive effects of postcolonial tribalism; these competing publics with colonial roots and ethnic orientations restricted the possibilities of a shared moral order and political culture to flourish.

It is safe to say that the two publics model also applies to the US, whether this difference is observed between online and offline worlds, red states versus blue states, or some familiar variation. The existence and possibilities of a shared moral ground appear increasingly remote, though it is hard to argue that there ever was one to begin with. The conclusion here, however, isn’t to accept this status quo and retreat from civic life to our respective private moral realms. The recurrent violence of ethno-nationalism in Kenya and Rwanda, to offer two examples, is enough warning about the dangers of inaction. Rather, a recognition and understanding of the endurance of colonial effects—that tribalism in Ghana, Nigeria, and the US have features in common—can open new forms of political citizenship and moral belonging, without abandoning identities that carry meaning. Indeed, this approach may be the only way.

In Appiah’s concluding words, “for better or worse, it is only through identities that ideas can change the world.”

Further Reading