Calling bullshit on tribalism as the source of our political woes

Marc Merlin
4 min readAug 29, 2018


I’d like to call bullshit on laying the troubles this country is enduring on some faceless monster called “tribalism.” Which is not say that we haven’t divided ourselves into political tribes, but to emphasize that it is the difference in principles to which those tribes adhere that is the source of the conflict and not some abstract sociopolitical boogeyman.

Take for instance John McCain’s touching — but I feel inadequate — farewell letter to the nation. In it, the late senator throws significant shade in the direction of Donald Trump, but cannot bring himself to mention the president by name. (While I appreciate that there is a prohibition about the living speaking ill of the dead, I don’t recall there being a prohibition that restricts the dead from speaking ill of the living.) As far as I’m concerned, McCain’s final statement was yet another missed opportunity to call on his fellow party members to reject Donald Trump and his dangerous and corrupt administration.

Instead, the take-home message in McCain’s last words is the observation that “we weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries.” To be honest, I’m not sure what one could possibly do in response to this vague remonstration. March in the streets with a sign that says “Stamp Out Tribal Rivalries?” How does this abstract prodding point the country McCain loved toward a path out of our dark political night?

And, what is worse, this casting our national crisis as a systemic problem, a burden is to be shared across the political spectrum, plays into hands of all the equivocators in the Republican Party, including the equivocator-in-chief, Donald Trump. For me, such equivocation rings like a sickening echo of Trump’s declaration the left and the right were both responsible for the violence that was hatched by American neo-Nazis in Charlottesville last year.

The big problem with relying on this analysis of the American political moment is that it downplays the substantive differences in values and policy that give rise to our tribal divide. It’s as though the conflict between the Axis Powers and the Allies in World War II were reduced to the claim that the mortal enemies were unable to work toward a compromise.

For concreteness, let me share with you some elements of my own tribal creed, in no particular order and by no means complete:

- I believe that climate change is caused by people and represents a dire threat to human civilization on this planet.
- I believe that black lives matter and that we need to work harder as a nation to come to terms with our history of racism and racial injustice.
- I believe in a system of taxation that fairly redistributes wealth in the interest of the common good.
- I believe in quality, low-cost or free healthcare for all.
- I believe that those who identify as lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender or queer should enjoy full civil liberties and should be protected by law from discrimination.
- I believe in clean air for people to breath and clean water for people to drink.
- I believe that immigrants and those seeking political refuge should be welcomed here with open arms, consistent with available resources.
- I believe that the young people of this country should be afforded the best education possible, including options for secondary education at university or vocational training, at a cost that doesn’t saddle them aching debt.
- I believe that our natural resources, including our national parks and the myriad of threatened or endangered species we harbor within our borders, merit our care and protection.
- I believe that the fine arts and the performing arts are central to what makes us great as a nation and should be supported accordingly.
- I believe that women should have the right to make decisions about the disposition of their own bodies and that they should have the greatest range of reproductive healthcare options to choose from.
- I believe that the true strength of this country comes not from force of arms but from values embodied in compassionate diplomacy guided by a commitment to universal progress and human rights.
- I believe that the solutions to many of the problems that confront us lie with the expertise of fine minds trained in the sciences and other disciplines who are able to provide our political leaders with the highest quality nonpartisan input for their decision-making.
- I believe that women should be able to navigate the streets, schools, and workplaces of this country without becoming victims of sexual harassment or predation.
- I believe in a free and unfettered press that can call out abuses of power at the highest level without fear of retribution.
- I believe in a electoral process that is fair, transparent, and secure and works to encourage the participation of all citizens regardless of their age, race, ethnicity, national origin or party affiliation.

That’s my tribe in a nutshell. I make no apology whatsoever for being a member of it.

As I said at the outset, to lay the blame for our current national political nightmare at the door of tribalism is nonsense. It’s no more than a intellectually lazy way to blame everybody at once without blaming anyone at all. Our political differences are real, and there’s no running away from that fact. I am proud to embrace my tribal beliefs and to fight for them.



Marc Merlin

My interests include science, politics, philosophy, and film. I am the former Executive Director of the Atlanta Science Tavern a grassroots science forum.