What Happens When Democracy Never Outgrows Tribalism?
As we watch the spectacle — ordeal, perhaps — of the Kavanaugh confirmation unfold, a thought keeps striking me. There’s no more perfect symbol of American collapse than Brett Kavanaugh. It isn’t just that he’s a force of regress at a time when America desperately needs the opposite — a point I’ll come back to. It’s that he symbolizes, in many ways, the strange and terrible victory of the forces that have led America to a grim turning point where it is collapsing as a society — perhaps irreversibly.
Trump is the consummate outsider. But Kavanaugh is the insider — the prep school boy, the Ivy Leaguer, the DC partisan functionary. Now note the strange thing here. We might have expected all these things to have civilized him — but no such thing happened whatsoever. None of these institutions — the prep school, the university, the political party, government — socialized him to believe in the basic tenets of democracy in any way at all. Instead, they seem to have socialized Kavanaugh into being a predator, to have masked and hidden his abuse, and to have given the enraged, preening entitlement to it, the sense that because he is atop American hierarchy, he has a license to abuse, demean, harm, and violate. Do you think I exaggerate? Isn’t all that just what we saw on open display, flaunted? Isn’t that precisely the logic of his defenders?
To me, that’s a stunning set of failures: just the production of a Brett Kavanaugh and his defenders points to systemic, shattering institutional breakdowns. Of every kind imaginable, really. Of schools, universities, political parties, ideas, norms, values. These are civilizing mechanisms — or they should be — teaching, inculcating, cultivating what it is to be a decent, civilized person. Only in America, these civilizing mechanisms are not civilizing at all. Prep schools may say they are producing fine little citizens, and Ivy League universities “future leaders” — but the truth is they seem to be unleashing predators, bringing out the worst in their charges, not the best. We can see that repeatedly, and we don’t have to look very hard. What is a Brett Kavanaugh really teaching us, then? That American institutions have failed, and failed badly, at producing the basic democratic goods of justice, equality, and freedom. And the more interesting question is: how did all this come about?
Think about what an Ivy League student actually learns, for a moment. They are taught, essentially, the following things — different fields, economics, politics, sociology, psychology, and so on, use different terms, but the underlying philosophy is precisely the same. Self-interest is all there is — if we are all as aggressively self-interested as possible, everyone will be better off. Therefore, the best thing we can do is to be nakedly, relentlessly aggressive. A person that has not attained or maximized their self-interest, therefore, is not a good one, because only one who is virtuous. So we must compete in bruising ways for dominance over others. Only the strong survive — and the weak should rightly perish. The world is only as great as my desires and appetites — and as long as I have fulfilled them, even if it harms people — that doesn’t matter, because it proves they are weak, and they couldn’t maximize their self-interest — I have done everyone a great service, morally and ethically.
But this is also tribal logic. I’m competing for status in a little hierarchy this way — and it’s OK if the price is anything from a lie to an assault. In other words, American institutions teach Americans that democracy is being a dominant member of the tribe. Call it the patriarchy, call it the elite, it’s all these things, and more. But it does not teach them that they should have freedom from the tribe — and it never has. Do you see how weird that is, when you think about it? The result is that Americans have for too long learned a perverse and backward set of values, and that is why America is a perverse and backwards country now. They are taught that cruelty, selfishness, aggression, egotism, are good, not just for them, but best for everyone. There is to be nothing — not a shred of real support, perhaps a little performative pity — given to the weak, the vulnerable, those unable to defend themselves against predation — they are outcasts, liabilities, burdens. So when the strong rise above the weak, everyone is better off. The tribe wins when each individual exercises as much self-interested aggression as they can, and that is the only end of life at all.
But who will rise to the top? The most abusive, of course. So this moral philosophy — we could call it a kind of absolutist Nietzscheanism — is utterly incompatible with genuine democracy because it cannot produce the basic democratic goods of freedom, justice, and equality. I really want you to see that, because I think most Americans, maybe even you, still don’t really understand any of this very well — the tribe, the conditioning, the logic, the inescapable outcome. These ideas — self-interest, cruelty, superiority, dominance — cut so deep that Americans who think they are above them still enact them every single day. This is, of course, the criticism people make of “white feminism” or “Vox liberalism” and so on.
Sadly, it is precisely the social institutions whose job it was not to teach this backwards tribal logic that did, and the “best” of them, the worst — schools, universities, fraternities, societies, political parties, and so on. These institutions should have been teaching a diametrically opposed lesson — that democracy relies on us to produce three basic goods, freedom, justice, and equality, and to leave behind the logic of the tribe, contesting superiority with predation. Instead, we, you and me, each of us, must produce the basic democratic goods of us — in our tiniest actions, habits, and circumstances. And if one day we are fortunate enough to be granted power, our responsibility to produce these basic democratic goods of freedom, justice, and equality is all that much larger.
But this awareness, this understanding, this attitude — that democracy is more than just tribalism, belonging to the tribe, a quest for superiority, through cruelty and abuse and dominance — never came to be in America, at all, really — and so quite naturally, tribalism won. And that is what we see in the Kavanaugh hearings, which is what repels and disgusts us so, at least if we’re civilized people.
Why? America had just a few short decades in which it attempted to become something like a real democracy — from 1970 to 2010, or thereabouts. For example, “interracial marriage” was illegal until the 1970s — so how could Americans really engage with the great task of producing the goods of freedom, equality, and justice? They were too taught for too long democracy is tribalism. The residue of centuries of slavery and supremacy made it almost impossible for Americans to really develop a genuinely democratic attitude to one another — must less enact it. And so the basic democratic goods never really grew much in America at all. But what happens when a society runs short of them? It tends to implode into authoritarianism, as people try to take what they can, for themselves, by force.
In those years, finally, Americans were beginning to understand that their primary task — before work, before partisanship, before capitalism, was to produce these fundamental democratic goods. But by 2010, it was becoming increasingly clear that America had failed at all this. People were tuned out of politics, the trust had collapsed in institutions, civic participation had plummeted, and so forth. Capitalism hadn’t left Americans time to produce democracy’s goods, freedom, justice, and equality — it was too busy exploiting them harder every year, paying them just the same amount, while charging them more for the very things they produced, until at last just having a child cost 50% of median income. How could people do the work of democracy when they could barely afford to subsist?
Bang! American began to collapse. Society began to run ruinously short of these three basic democratic goods — freedom, justice, and equality. The middle class shrank, 80% of American lived paycheck to paycheck, 70% couldn’t raise $1000 for an emergency, sick people had crowdfunded basic medicines like insulin, severely ill people chose between chemotherapy and keeping a roof over their kids’ heads. Those statistics are complicated ways to say that American was operating at a democratic deficit now — freedom, justice, and equality were not being produced nearly enough.
What was being produced? Instead of producing freedom, justice, and equality, a collapsing America was producing inequality, injustice, and exploitation. Exactly what we’d expect to see a tribal society producing. Inequality — that’s the easiest one to see, skyrocketing away as the rich grew mega-richer. But injustice, too — the average American’s income didn’t rise for decades, but corporate profits soared. And “unfreedom”, that curious word Americans use because they have no language for subjugation — a thing better-called abuse, harm, traumatization, and oppression. Stories began to be told of how badly women were abused, how terribly minorities were treated, and so on.
So. I’ve told a subtle and perhaps overcomplicated story. Let me recap it, more simply. American institutions, American thought, American values, had never fully or truly taught people the idea that democracy is made of basic democratic goods, freedom, justice, equality — in any real way. Instead, it taught that a kind of thinly veiled tribalism — self-interest, position, superiority, cruelty, dominance, predation — was democracy. The American’s job was to rise to the top of the hierarchy — or be seen as worthless, weak, nobody — not to be a democratic equal. This was the residue of a society built atop supremacy — people were taught to want to be on top, not by one another’s sides.
But unrestrained hierarchies structurate through what civilized people call abuse — the one who can threaten the most violence, implicit or explicit, rises to the top. Democracy is there to free us from just such a thing. Think about it in terms of a little tribe of apes, if you have to. What happened? Society never grew rich in the basic democratic goods of freedom, justice, and equality. It produced their very opposites, in fact — inequality, injustice, exploitation. As people grew resentful, frustrated, desperate — people who were taught to want to be on top to begin with, not democratically equal, really — it was all too easy, predictable, even, for tribal power structures, authoritarian and fascist ones, to rise, and democracy to fall.
(In a functioning democracy, the whole purpose of institutions is to defeat such tribal power structures — to unravel and undo them. Remember, democracy is there to provide us all the basic goods of justice, equality, and freedom — and these power structures want just a few us to have such things, and most of to serve those few. So from an early age, in working democracies, institutions undertake a challenging and complex task of civilizing people — which is precisely how such tribal power structures are undone. But in America, precisely the opposite happened. Not enough freedom, justice, and equality were ever produced, really, to go around — for everyone to have enough of them to live a decent life. Bang! People lost faith in the system. Now, as democracy is collapsing, democratic institutions — courts, branches of government, universities, and so on — are becoming mere expressions of such tribal power structures. The rule of the most brutal, violent, and cruel is being established.)
American institutions never really developed or matured very much beyond the point of being tribal power structures, ways of thinking, sets of ideas — they didn’t become genuinely democratic ones, nor did they really teach people enough to want to be anything more than the most powerful members of the tribe. They taught that democracy was just tribalism. America had a few short decades in which all that was the challenge, and the opportunity — but Americans never really understood this enough, or very much, or fought for it hard enough. The tribe never let go of power, and Americans were conditioned to want to join the tribe — not to be really free of it — bang! Democracy collapsed into authoritarianism. The tribe won — America lost.
We think, as Americans, that “democracy” simply means the will of the people. But that is not what it means at all — a tribe has a will, too, but while it might agree on one, we wouldn’t call it democratic. Why not? Democracy is a system whereby people consent, through self-governance, to the expression of shared ideals such as freedom, equality, and justice. This is a republican conception of democracy, it’s true — but to say that democracy is just majoritarianism is sophomoric. And yet none of these institutions seemed to have produced in the Brett Kavanaughs that rule America that basic and fundamental understanding of democracy whatsoever. Instead, for the Brett Kavanaughs of the world, democracy is tribalism. The power to punish and control and dominate. And that power is what the strong are entitled to — they deserve nothing less — and we are all best off that way. Yet that bizarre illogic, that democracy is tribalism, is what American thinking has always taught Americans — not that democracy is greater equality, justice, and freedom — and Kavanaugh is just the latest, ugliest expression.
Yet only a fool, my friends, would call any of this democracy. To make the point clear, in Europe, living standards are higher because democracy has matured — people enjoy more sophisticated notions of equality, freedom, and justice, like rights to healthcare, retirement, education, and so on. That is because in Europe, after the war, at least, democracy fundamentally opposed tribalism — whereas in America, democracy was and is still equated to tribalism. But if democracy is just tribalism — soon enough, you will have the loudest, most violent apes in charge. Hence, globally, America is leading the backwards charge among rich countries to make “democracy” devolve to people trying to, in little predatory tribes, take away one another’s rights — and worse, elites leading them proudly to that purpose. This is, properly said, the self-destruction, the suicide, of democracy — not the exercise of it.