Various writers’ ponderings on the wave of global anger and the demise of liberal rationalism may have missed the common cause: tribalism, prompting the following observations.
We are not fundamentally rational animals; therefore, there’s no point looking for purely rational explanations of why there is so much anger and resentment. Yes, there are identifiable sources of unhappiness and unease – unemployment, income inequality, rising costs, stagnant wages, richer rich people, corporations and the super-rich not paying their fair share of taxes, declining public services, nobody being held to account for the 2007/8 financial collapse, a sense of not being heard, listened to or cared about by governments.
But, there’s no clear rational path from the resentment caused by those factors to people voting for billionaires and snake-oil merchants peddling ideas and so-called solutions that are actually going to materially disadvantage the disgruntled.
Which is why I believe that tribalism, an expression of emotional and psychological needs deeply rooted in our evolution, may well be to blame.
Globalisation is anti-tribe: people don’t feel a part of something they can identify with when that something is a global economic model.
Material benefits of globalisation aren’t enough, either in quantity or more importantly in quality, to provide a sense of tribal belonging, which involves cultural and spiritual belonging.
The only tribes people can see in the global economic culture are ones of super-rich plutocrats, a club most can never join, bonded by common interests of preserving and expanding their wealth.
Voters have lost faith in mainstream political parties because they have become too inextricably linked to the creed of a global/materialist/corporate culture. They are no longer parties or leaders that voters can believe in and identify with emotionally. Hence the disenchantment with “experts”, ie those who purport to represent the voters’ best interests by making the right decisions on their behalf.
Which is why we see voters “irrationally” and seemingly against their own interests vote for outsiders, leaders and causes that appeal to the emotional desire to belong to an identifiable cultural tribe. That is precisely the appeal of Brexit/Trump/right wing leaders in Europe, all touting nationalism to tap into people’s desire to belong to a group they feel comfortable about, (mostly white like themselves) and to reject or blame “others’’, immigrants/Mexicans/Syrians/Eastern Europeans for all their ills.
That was what Hillary Clinton was lacking. She didn’t represent or conjure up a tribal identity that people related to emotionally, unless you subscribed to the cause of voting for a woman as president. But for many that wasn’t a compelling tribal call to arms. Instead, Trump was able to demonise Clinton and turn her into a ritualised figure of hate.
The surge in anti-immigration sentiment is a clear manifestation of this tribalism as well as a negative response to multi-culturalism as a global culture.
None of this should come as any surprise when you think that for more than 90% of the time our species, Homo sapiens has been around, we lived in extended family groups and tribes of around 50 or so individuals. Tribes have been at the heart of our survival and our success.
City states emerged through the development of agriculture just 10,000 years ago, while nation states are a very recent phenomenon (the past 200 or so years) and are often founded in or capitalise on tribalism to maintain coherence. No surprise that sport is such a global aphrodisiac and that political leaders like to be associated with sporting heroes and national teams – sport is all about tribal allegiance and tribal icons.
However, global trans-national societies forged through trade and international agreements and whose credo expresses abstract philosophies of internationalism fail to offer that tribal identity many people want. For those living it tough, trapped in an endless cycle of consumerism and debt, there’s little or nothing to satisfy their need to belong to a tribe with which they can identify, that reflects how they look and feel, and for a strong tribal leader who tells them they are right to want to believe in how they see themselves.
Such a leader doesn’t have to be a good person, a person of moral probity, a person of reason or indeed a reasonable person. They have to resonate emotionally with people’s feelings for pride in tribal identity. And that of course is our species’ Achilles heel. Populist leaders deliberately pitch their views and so-called policies at feelings not reason. The danger with populism is that feelings can triumph over reason, making people blind to falsehood and deception and vulnerable to manipulation.
Perhaps we are wrongly named. Instead of Homo sapiens, we should be Homo sentiens.