Nationalism is often criticized because nationalism promotes tribalism.[i] That nationalism promotes tribalism is true. The implication of the criticism, that tribalism creates serious negative consequences, is also true. Given, however, that every approach to governance creates serious negative consequences, simply alleging that nationalism promotes tribalism, which creates negative consequences, is not a serious charge. Serious charges along this line would be: (1) Nations can thrive without tribalism, which creates serious negative consequences, yet nationalism promotes tribalism anyway, and (2) Nationalism, which promotes tribalism, generates more negative consequences than alternative approaches to governance. Let’s sort out why those serious charges are not credible.
According to Merriam-Webster, a tribe is:
1 a: a social group comprising numerous families, clans, or generations together with slaves, dependents, or adopted strangers
b: a political division of the Roman people originally representing one of the three original tribes of ancient Rome
2 : a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest… [Emphasis added.]
According to Merriam-Webster, tribalism is:
1 : tribal consciousness and loyalty
especially: exaltation of the tribe above other groups
2 : strong in-group loyalty
Given what tribalism is, to criticize nationalism because it promotes tribalism implies that there could be viable alternative forms of governance that do not promote allegiance to the ideas, ways, and goals of a nation and loyalty to the perceived virtues of the nation. That is an untenable implication.
Humans are tribal animals. Evidence of that is everywhere. Being proud of (embarrassed by) or promoting or defending one’s family, club, community, city, class, group, movement, political party, school, sports team, society, state, or nation are just some of the ways humans exhibit their tribal nature. An ironic example of tribalism is the large and growing tribe in America that rails against tribalism. They seem to be especially proud of their affiliation with their tribe, consider themselves virtuous for being members of that tribe, praise fellow tribe members, self-approvingly deride, defame, and/or demonize those who oppose or are nonplussed by their tribe (nothing short of admiration will do), and feel so confident of the superiority of their tribe’s values and perceptions of reality that they favor imposing their tribe’s views on everyone else in society—all to the jubilation of their fellow tribe members. Moreover, people who work well within tribes tend to fare better than those who do not, and people who do not fit into tribes tend to live shorter, lonelier, and less flourishing lives[ii].
Consequently, criticizing or railing against tribalism is baying at the moon. No amount of baying will cause humans to shed their tribalism. To be viable, any proposed form of governance must accept and accommodate that human feature/bug.
Nationalism is viable in large part because it works with human nature instead of against it, i.e., it uses human tribalism for the benefit of the tribe (which need not be detrimental to other tribes (nations) and is usually beneficial to other nations[iii]). Note also that even people who condemn tribalism also use tribalism to support their isms. For example, socialists who condemn tribalism in others use the rallying cry, “workers of the world unite” to motivate and increase the size of their tribe. Witness all the flag waving, military marches, and larger than life posters of Nazi Germany, U.S.S.R, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela. Rallying a group of people to a cause can be essential to motivating people to get involved and work for the success of cause—and it is an overt fostering of tribalism. Fight songs and flag bearers are on the battlefields a reason, i.e., they increase the chances of success. Doing that which helps their group succeed is part of the nature of humans.
Sebastian Junger explained how the point made above (tribalism is not dispensable) applies to society extremely well:
“… every society has to, first and foremost, take care of two things. It has to physically defend itself from enemies if there are any; and it has to keep itself together. It has to remain cohesive. If it doesn’t remain cohesive, there’s nothing to defend. And if there’s no defense, no amount of cohesion in the world will save you from an enemy. So, you have to do both things. And if you don’t, nothing else is really worth doing.”
Baying against tribalism is also baying at that which enables tribes (e.g., a nation), and their denizens, to flourish. Humans seek community and meaning in their lives. Tribalism is a means by which people can find community and meaning. People who find a sufficient amount of both tend to flourish. As noted above, people who don’t find enough tend not to fare well.
On a national scale, the more citizens work together as a tribe, all other things being equal,[iv] the more flourishing there will be in their nation over the long run. A nation can and should[v] tolerate a manageable (that is to say, “low”) levels of disagreements among tribe members and, though corrosive and destructive if taken to an extreme, even some number of dissidents fighting to fundamentally transform the tribe’s belief systems is not only survivable, it may be necessary to properly re-examine and improve (or reassert) the tribe’s values and ways. If, however, the manageable quantum of dissidence is exceeded, the social fabric becomes tattered, human flourishing diminishes, and, ultimately, can instigate a civil war. (Winning a civil war is usually almost as disastrous for the winner as it is for the loser.)
So, what is wrong with the critic’s charge, “Nations can thrive without tribalism, which creates serious negative consequences, but nationalism promotes tribalism anyway?” Its premise is incorrect, i.e., nations can neither thrive nor long endure without a sufficient amount of tribalism. In fact, tribalism is a big part of what enables a nation (or any other group) to thrive.
So, what is wrong with the charge, “Nationalism, which promotes tribalism, generates more negative consequences than alternative approaches to governance?” The problem is that there is no counter-factual with which to test the validity of the charge. Because there is no nation that has thrived without tribalism, there is no way to assess the kind and magnitude of negative consequences such a nation would generate. Because, based on the facts available to be studied, tribalism is essential to flourishing, it is fair to assume there will never be a test of the theory that a non-tribalistic would generate fewer negative consequences. However, we should all be open to the possibility that the charge is valid if such a unicorn ever appears.
There are, of course, untested theories to support the idea that a one world government (the ultimate imperialism) would be better. We’ll sort out some things about those theories in future posts.
[i] See “Bill Clinton slams tribalism, nationalism.”
[ii] See “The Lethality of Loneliness.”
[iii] For example, in 2018, customers in the U.S. bought $2.4 trillion of goods and services from foreign companies and individuals, i.e., U.S. imports were $2.4 trillion. Being able to sell to U.S. customers benefited those foreign sellers tremendously. U.S. consumers benefited by being able to obtain their wants and needs at a lower cost than would have been the case if the products had been produced in the U.S. See “US Imports by Year for Top Five Countries.”
[iv] Natural and human-inflicted disasters can prevent flourishing despite the benefits of tribalism.
[v] In order for a nation to improve over time, the ideas and institutions of a nation must be constantly examined to identify and examine the nature of societal/institutional problems, possible solutions to those problems must be proposed, and extensive civil debate must occur to determine what, if any, suspected problem or potential solution would be propitious. This is, at least in part, due to the fact that humans have a prodigious capacity to dream up what they believe to be improvements on the status quo, and will lose faith in a tribe that has little prospect for improvement over time.