In a lengthy article in The American Conservative, Matt Purple, managing editor, discusses innocuous tribalism and puzzles over why it can’t coexist with liberalism. When rooting for the New England Patriots or defending America to skeptical foreigners, Matt Purple admits that he is indulging his own inner tribalism in that he is irrationally siding with groups into which he was born.
In reflecting on tribalism, he uses national identity as an example:
The country in which one is raised, the language one is schooled to speak, the historical figures one learns to venerate, the customs that order one’s life. Intensify this pride too much and shades of World War II appear, but in smaller doses—cheering on Team USA in the World Cup, for example—it is surely benign and even healthy.
It isn’t clear why this innocuous tribalism can’t coexist with liberalism. In fact, it seems to me that the grievance of most populist voters isn’t against liberal rights; it’s that liberalism has become a misnomer for a mutant ideology that seeks to erase those borders, shred those flags, silence those anthems, block (or at least reroute) those harmless conduits of tribalism.
Certainly the European Union wants this; its leaders have said so outright. As classical liberalism is concerned, this is more a matter of geography than substance.
People want to live freely, but to be governed from home and by their fellow countrymen.
In addition to being tribalist, man is also communal, desiring a social order in which he has a comfortable place, in need of institutions warmer and more intimate than the faceless state.
Moving on to Erich Fromm, Mr. Purple writes about Fromm’s 1941 book, Escape From Freedom, in which Fromm psychoanalyzes Germany under Nazi rule. Fromm worried that freedom had the negative effect of making man “isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless.”
For Fromm, capitalism, though it freed man to pursue his ambitions, removed him from the structured security that was provided by the guilds and stable small economies of the Middle Ages. This left him feeling alienated and increasingly separated from the products of his own hands (a concern that’s haunted philosophers from Marx to Deneen). It also created economic entities that dwarfed him—jobs where management is distant, large department stores that make shopping impersonal, national political parties that don’t speak to his problems. This loneliness and smallness makes him long for a warm place in a more visceral hierarchy—enter the National Socialists.
The trends that vexed Fromm have only accelerated today, as Christmas presents are purchased from gigantic retailers at the click of a mouse and corporate buyouts darken the skies above small businesses. Such consolidation is not the whole story of American capitalism, but it is a consequence of a globalized world where multinationals sprawl across borders. Both the Trump revolt and the Left’s identity politics can be understood in part as structures of resistance against these behemoth institutions.
(A)nyone who’s ever lived in Washington knows that “tribal” is a good way to describe federal workers who are more likely to pursue their own interests than set about implementing anyone’s conception of the common good.
Still, these two realities—the harmlessness (even healthfulness) of some tribal nationalism and the impersonality of today’s mammoth institutions—are too easily dismissed by elites, which is one reason the populist wave continues to deluge capitals. That populism, whatever you think of it, is responding to something real and malignant, something that could be attributed to the excesses of globalist, capitalist liberalism.
Read more from Matt Purple here.