The New Polarization: Tribalism-Populism

It is now common enough to describe so many social dilemmas as a consequence of polarization, or a sharp division between two groups (e.g. conservative-liberal, Republican-Democrat, authoritarian-permissive).

Tribalism is characterized by a powerful cultural or ethnic identity that separates groups. It is based on strong relations of proximity and imagined kinship, as well as a relations rooted in the mutual survival of both the individual members and the group or tribe.

This tribalism and group identification leads to an authoritarianism that can, of course, be dangerous and violent. But what’s particularly interesting is the gravitational pull of some ideological groups. For example, a couple of decades ago scholars and public intellectuals alike would have described U. S. progress as expanding liberalism, and values focused on democracy, capitalism, and freedom. But if you look around today you will find increased authoritarianism – fortified by the presence of God – as well as more botched democracies.

What’s interesting is the new and expanded role of religion in these tribal and polarized times. From a statistical standpoint, religion is losing ground, and has been losing ground for some time. Church attendance is down and fewer people report membership and identification with religious groups. The actual appeal of religion is diminished.

Populism is not reliant on tribalism but still seeks to appeal to the “average” citizen who feels that his or her needs and values are ignored or disrespected. But right wing populism marries nationalism with populist ideology that places cultural blame on  elites. Right wing populism also relies on charismatic leaders. Consequently, Donald Trump fails by any standard of competency and decency

But religion maintains its hold on many people and continues to be a symbol of power and psychological identity. The religion-secular divide is one of the most prominent. There are of course “holy” wars in Islam which are integrated into Islamic political life. Islamic holy wars are perhaps the most specific example of a religious-secular divide and the power of the motivating force of religion. The divide between the Islamic holy warrior and other tribal groups is the most sharp, and the least likely to be influenced by some moderating influence.

Other cultures have interestingly incorporated religious traditions into justifications consistent with modern authoritarian governments. China skillfully draws on Confucianism aligned with Marxism in order to justify its core social-secular values with religious traditions.

Given the exactitude and “correctness” associated with religion, it is often used to communicate strength and truth. So, violent and politically extreme groups incorporate religious symbols to communicate their seriousness and sense of strength. It is not uncommon to see crosses on helmets or other paraphernalia. The skull and cross bones printed across the back of a leather jacket has little or nothing to do with the ideology of a particular group but much to do with the expression of the group’s sense of itself as serious – as serious as death.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on September 20, 2021, in Communication and Conflict Resolution. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The New Polarization: Tribalism-Populism.

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