On the Many Connotations of ‘Tribalism’

Joshua Roberts / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
A classic book on tribalism.

A few hours ago I posted an item arguing that today’s GOP leaders, notably Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Paul Ryan in the House, had essentially abdicated their constitutional responsibilities and were behaving in a “tribal” sense. By that I meant: whatever was good for their group, was Good, and whatever was bad for their group, was Bad—to the exclusion of any abstract standards of the good or bad of the polity as a whole.

“Tribalism” in this sense is a word I use frequently, to mean an in-group loyalty that I distinguish from the E pluribus unum American ideal. Every time I use the term, I at least half-think of  a wonderful book called Idols of the Tribe, by Harold Isaacs, which was about the power of group identity (and its good and bad ramifications).

A reader in the American West writes in to complain about my use of the term:

I wanted to talk to you about the use of ‘tribal’ as a term to mean thoughtlessly following the pack.

I am a newly retired school teacher in [the Southwest], where I have taught for many years primarily Native American students, Pueblo, Navajo etc. The use of tribal in the political white sense does not go over very well among Native folks for obvious reasons. It feels like a putdown of one of the last cultural distinctions that exemplifies tribal sovereignty.

I’m sure this is not your intention nor is it President Obama’s intention but I can tell you the vocabulary while hip is not appreciated among many of the hundreds of thousands Native Americans in New Mexico and Arizona and it does not help the young respect their own culture. If you want to secure those votes I would stop using the word tribal in a negative sense.

I wrote back to the reader thus:

Thanks for reading, I do understand your point.

But, seriously: what word would you suggest I use? "Clannish" is similar, but has too heavy-handed a Klan-type connotation.There's a whole literature on the significance of what I'm calling “tribal” loyalties, with nothing to do with Native American nations or  tribes. For instance, the classic by Harold Isaacs, Idols of the Tribe.

Non-catty and non-hostile question: what word would you use, in normal English parlance, for this concept?

She replied:

Just off the cuff: club, inbred, pact, lineal, exclusive, narrow minded, unaware, provincial, cult

I guess I feel like a priority should be placed on being respectful for populations who have not always been afforded that, even if it means using a word like klan, which Republicans have a lot more in common with than Native American tribes, in my view. Respecting Native American culture is a huge healing issue.

I understand the reader’s point. But  I don’t think any of these other terms conveys the meaning that “tribalism” does in standard English, entirely apart from any Native American connotations.

Who has a better idea? Suggestions welcomed. For now, I think tribal does a job for which no other word quite suffices.