‘The Parable of the Tribes’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
From the 1990s, and still relevant

Yesterday I argued that certain Republican congressional leaders were behaving in a “tribal” (as opposed to constitutional) manner, in declining to apply normal standards of scrutiny to Donald Trump. Then a reader who had worked with Navajo and Pueblo tribes wrote in to complain about the pejorative use of the term. I mentioned in that dispatch Harold Isaacs’s classic Idols of the Tribe. Another book that has stayed with me and that I meant to mention is Andrew Bard Schmookler’s The Parable of the Tribes.

I woke up this morning to find dozens of messages from readers suggesting other ways to get across the “tribal” idea. An initial sampling:

Faction. A reader recommends the classic Founders-era term:

I believe the word you are looking for is "faction".  James Madison uses it Federalist Paper No. 10, where he defines it succinctly:

“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”

Madison's analysis of the problem of faction—and why the U.S. constitutional system should reduce it—assumes that the most common factional impulse is interest.  The constitutional system currently ill-serves us because factions today are principally of the passion-driven sort.  

I admire Madison greatly, but every leg of his claim that the Constitution solves the problem of faction has been shown deficient by the rise of Trump: Democracy as majority rule did not prevent his election, nor has the diversity of interests in the country ameliorated the disease, and, as your prior article argued, neither does the system of institutional checks and balances.

By the way, the push-back you received—a hyper-sensitivity to the term “tribe,” merely because it is sometimes associated with Native Americans—is also a sign of faction based on passion. Although I perceive factional feeling to be less intense on the left, it is clearly there as well, albeit exacerbated by Trump's rhetoric.

I spent enough time reading and writing about Federalist 10 in college to recognize the mot juste nature of “faction.” The main argument against using it is that it’s unfamiliar to most modern readers. Many people might think it was just a typo for “fraction.” Another reader notes the plus and minus of the term:

Despite having largely fallen into desuetude, "factional" has the advantage of resonating with founders' fears.

No kidding, desuetude is a word I’ve been trying to work into a web post for quite a while. (So is apposite, which you’ll find below.)

Similarly on factions:

Re: "tribal" and what to use in its place, Hamilton uses "factious" pretty frequently in the Federalist Papers. Lifting language from the ultimate defense of the Constitution in an effort to describe people abducting their constitutional duties would resonate, I think.

Sectarian and other possibilities. A range of suggestions:

I suggest "sectarian" vs. "ecumenical."  No better place than religion, after all, to seek the core vocabulary of both destructive divisiveness and blessed reconciliation.

… and clique

One possibility is "clique," which has both lovely high-school in-group overtones, as well as a long-standing tradition in social network analysis to talk about an island of individuals with little to no outward edges.

… and a dive into jargon

I am not a sociologist, but I'm pretty sure the academic term of art for the phenomenon you describe is "ingroup favoritism."

That is academic jargon and not plain English like you asked for, but I don't think it's particularly difficult to comprehend or offputting in the way jargon can often be. And the usage is common enough that this non-sociologist is familiar with it.

… and if we’re talking jargon

I share your puzzlement about what a better word is, although I do take the point from your reader from the southwest.

At least going back to the latin, maybe something like cogitare-coetus. Or maybe Omasnomizo Doesn't exactly role off the tongue.

For what it’s worth, I have no idea what these terms mean.

And we have pack

Obviously, you could sacrifice a tiny bit of cultural consensus for cultural sensitivity by replacing ‘tribal' with ‘pack', attaching ‘mentality’ for extra clarity.

.. and cabal

The word is Cabal

I think it is more accurate than tribe, the way you mean it.

… also gangs

There IS a better noun: Gangs

.. and finally in this vein, see for yourself:

"Klan" is over the top, but seems better to me.

And a more extended version of the case for Klan:

If the idea here is to use a negative sense of "tribal identities," why be afraid that clan may be mistaken for THE Klan? The intent is to say we are all a part of a better, higher, more idealistic group than the many clans we're a part of - and that loyalty to that idea, to that republic, should be stronger than loyalty to the clan.

In this day, in this moment, where a group called "Black Lives Matter" is willing to take a lot of heat for the rights of a wronged minority, I've no problem with being oversensitive to another wronged minority of Americans whose Tribal community makes them sovereign and culturally distinct.

In short, I'd rather make folks uncomfortable by inadvertently associating them with the Klan or making the old Scottish clan system seem dated and obsolete than make them uncomfortable by associating them with tribes in a way that makes American Indians uncomfortable and feel obsolete.

To wrap up for now, two arguments for the word partisan:

I can’t believe that neither you nor the reader who complained suggested what I believe to be the better word: partisan.

I actually think that’s what you intend to communicate. It avoids the potentially offensive connotations which she pointed out. It also avoids the added semantic implications of “tribal“ which I’m pretty sure you don’t mean; there are really no culturally or socioeconomically significant connections between Donald Trump and Paul Ryan, not in the sense of “tribal.”

And the ties that are – unfortunately – binding timid establishment Republican office holders to the Trump base certainly seem to me to be more partisan than tribal.

I didn’t volunteer partisan because its connotations in modern usage don’t seem quite as fervid as the behavior we’re talking about. Like faction, to me it seems the right word at slightly the wrong time. But I recognize that technically it is an apposite term. Another reader makes a more extended case:

The word 'partisan' didn't occur to you?

You ask me, it carries the general derogatory connotation of "an in-group loyalty [distinguished] from the E pluribus unum American ideal" even better than "tribalism" does, and seems particularly more accurate in the context of "The Broken Check and Balance."

In a more generic context, you could use "factionalism." But I do find it surprising that you're trying to pack that specific contrast into a word at all--as if it's enough of an obvious distinction that we can all just accept it as given. I find it difficult to accept such a contrast. I think some of our most respected founders and civic heroes would have readily admitted greater loyalty to God than to country, and we so readily recognized the political insurmountability of our religious differences that we enshrined our freedom to those differences in the first amendment.

On a more human level, I'd say practically everyone has some group to which they are more loyal than they are to America, more likely friends and family than any particular organization. E pluribus unim does not connote that our many ultimate loyalties cede to America; rather, I think our motto is bragging about our unity given our many ongoing ultimate loyalties. I agree that our ability to maintain that unity seems strained at the moment;  I think plenty of folks across the political spectrum would agree with that. I even agree that Republicans in congress could and should be doing more.  But I've seen enough of the left wing of this country argue, legislate and adjudicate as if we should subsume our "tribal" identities to our American identity that I understand why so many folks push back against their vision of unity.  We're many tribes, one country. That's always been the ideal. We need to make our country work with our diverse loyalties, maybe despite them, but I wouldn't expect much inter-tribe support for working against them.

Thanks to all; more ahead.