On the rise of political tribalism in America

By Harold Acemah

The concept, “political tribalism” may come as a surprise to many Ugandans who are familiar with ethnic tribalism. I came across the terminology while reading an interesting book by Yale University Law professor Amy Chua titled, Political Tribes – Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations.

What is political tribalism?
Political tribalism played a major role in Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential elections of USA, a country which is at a dangerous crossroads. According to Chua, for the first time in USA history, “White Americans” are faced with the prospect of becoming a minority in their “own country”. The truth is that White Americans are migrants from Europe and don’t own America.

According to Prof Chua, if USA wants to get its foreign policy right, “if we don’t want to be perpetually caught off guard, fighting unwinnable wars and having to choose between third and fourth-best options, the United States has to come to grips with political tribalism abroad. And if we want to save our nation, we need to come to grips with its growing power at home”.

A study done in 2011 revealed that more than half of White Americans believe that “Whites have replaced Blacks as the primary victims of discrimination”. This laughable belief explains the anxiety and panic felt by White Americans who see Trump as their saviour. No wonder Trump’s slogan “America first” appeals to them and has become a clarion call for White extremists, religious bigots and racists who support Trump’s election pledge to build a wall at the US/Mexico border.
Chua argues that when groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism; close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive and more us versus them.

“In America today, every group feels this way to some extent. Whites and Blacks, Latinos and Asians, men and women, Christians, Jews and Muslims, straight people and gay people, liberals and conservatives – all feel their groups are being attacked, bullied, persecuted, discriminated against,” she writes.

Lessons learnt
Amy Chua’s book begins with a telling observation which rings a bell in my ears. She writes: “Humans are tribal. We need to belong to groups. We crave bonds and attachments, which is why we love clubs, teams, fraternities, family. Almost no one is a hermit. Even monks and friars belong to orders.”

I am sure this statement will remind many readers of similar situations in the Great Lakes region; situations which have caused injustice, feelings of exclusion, gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms; organised plunder of national resources by small tribal elites, internal conflicts and even genocide.

“Some groups are voluntary; some are not. Some tribes are sources of joy and salvation; some are the hideous product of hate mongering by opportunistic power seekers. But once people belong to a group, their identities can become oddly bound with it. They will seek to benefit their group mates even when they personally gain nothing. They will penalize outsiders, seemingly gratuitously. They will sacrifice, and even kill and die for their groups,” writes Chua.

It sounds horrendous and uncivilised. Despite impressive economic, social and scientific achievements made by humankind during the last 200 years, crude, poisonous, primitive and tribal instincts sadly drive the mindset of politicians, not only in Africa, but also in developed and industrialised countries, such as, USA, France, Hungary and Romania.

The challenge which faces political leaders in America, Uganda, Kenya and elsewhere in Africa is to forge national identity and pursue national interests which transcend political tribalism which is tearing many countries apart.

Until the unexpected and regrettable rise of Trump, Americans tended to think of democracy as a unifying force, but that is no longer the case. Democracy in America is today a source of conflict and disunity, as in Uganda, Kenya and many African countries.

On a personal and sad note, today is the 18th anniversary of the passing on of a dear friend and colleague, ambassador Daudi Taliwaku. I thank God for Daudi’s life and for looking after his family since tragedy struck on March 31, 2001. May his soul rest in eternal peace!

Mr Acemah is a political scientist and retired career diplomat.