One day, 1,000 years from now, when they dig up this era, archaeologists will surely ask how was it that a great power called America set out to make the Middle East more like itself — embracing pluralism and the rule of law — and ended up instead becoming more like the Middle East — mimicking its worst tribal mores and introducing a whole new level of lawlessness into its national politics?
Middle Easterners may call their big tribes "Shiites" and "Sunnis" and Americans may call theirs "Democrats" and "Republicans," but they each seem to operate increasingly with a conformist, us-vs.-them mindset, albeit at different intensity levels. Extreme Republican tribalism vastly accelerated as the GOP tribe became dominated by a base of largely white Christians, who feared that their long-held primacy in America's power structure was being eroded by rapidly changing social norms, expanded immigration and globalization, leaving them feeling no longer "at home" in their own country.
To signal that, they latched on to Donald Trump, who enthusiastically gave voice to their darkest fears and raw tribal muscle that escalated the right's pursuit of minority rule. That is, not just pushing the usual gerrymandering but also propagating conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, passing ever-harsher voter suppression laws and replacing neutral state voting regulators with tribal hacks ready to break the rules. And because this Trump faction came to dominate the base, even once-principled Republicans mostly went along for the ride, embracing the core philosophy that dominates tribal politics in Afghanistan and the Arab world: The "other" is the enemy, not a fellow citizen, and the only two choices are "rule or die." Either we rule or we delegitimize the results.
Mind you, the archaeologists will also note that Democrats exhibited their own kind of tribal mania, such as the strident groupthink of progressives at 21st-century American universities. In particular, there was evidence of professors, administrators and students being "canceled" — either silenced or thrown off campus for expressing even mildly nonconformist or conservative views on politics, race, gender or sexual identity. An epidemic of tribal political correctness from the left served only to energize the tribal solidarity on the right.
But what triggered the turn from traditional pluralism to ferocious tribalism in the U.S. and many other democracies? My short answer: It's become a lot harder to maintain democracy today, with social networks constantly polarizing people, and with globalization, climate change, a war on terrorism, widening income gaps and rapid job-shifting technology innovations constantly stressing them. And then a pandemic.
More than a few democratically elected leaders around the world now find it much easier to build support with tribal appeals focused on identity than do the hard work of coalition-building and compromise in pluralistic societies at a complex time.
When that happens, everything gets turned into a tribal identity marker — mask-wearing in the pandemic, COVID-19 vaccinations, gender pronouns, climate change. Your position on each point doubles as a challenge to others: Are you in my tribe or not? So there is less focus on the common good, and ultimately no common ground to pivot off to do big hard things. We once put a man on the moon together. Today, we can barely agree on fixing broken bridges.
Ironically, there is no institution in American life that has worked harder to inoculate America from this virus of tribalism, while enriching and exemplifying an ethic of pluralism, than the military — the very people who were most intimately exposed to the Middle East variant for over 20 years. It's not that some service members didn't commit their own excesses in that war or were not traumatized by the excesses of their enemies. Both happened. But they did not let it change their core identity and the kind of military they wanted to be.
I saw this time and again on trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. The level of diversity in any American military unit you came across just jumped out at you.
On a 2005 trip to Iraq, I wrote a column about spending a night on the USS Chosin, which commanded the U.S. Navy task force off the coast of Iraq. There I interviewed Mustapha Ahansal, a Moroccan American sailor who acted as the Chosin's Arabic translator when it stopped ships suspected of carrying pirates or other hostile actors.
"The first time I boarded a boat," he told me, "we had six or seven people — one Hispanic, one Black person, a white person, maybe a woman in our unit. Their sailors said to me, 'I thought all Americans were white.' Then one of them asked me, 'Are you in the military?' It shocks them actually." Ahansal told me that an Iraqi Coast Guard officer once expressed astonishment to him that people from so many different religions and races could produce such a strong navy, while "here we are fighting north and south, and we are all cousins and brothers."
Leadership matters: The American population has diversity similar to the U.S. military's, but the ethic of pluralism and teamwork shown by many of our men and women in uniform reduces the tribal divisions within the armed forces. It's not perfect but it is real. Ethical leadership based on principled pluralism matters. That is why our military is our last great carrier of pluralism at a time when more and more civilian politicians are opting for cheap tribalism.
What is most frightening to me is how much this virus of tribalism is now infecting some of the most vibrant multisectarian democracies in the world — like India and Israel, as well as Brazil, Hungary and Poland.
India is a particularly sad story for me because, after 9/11, I offered up Indian pluralism as the most important example of why Islam per se was not responsible for motivating terrorists from al-Qaida. Everything depended, I argued, on the political, social and cultural context within which Islam, or any other faith, was embedded — and where Islam is embedded in a pluralistic, democratic society, it thrives like any other religion. Although India had a large Hindu majority, it had had Muslim presidents and a Muslim woman on its Supreme Court. Muslims, including women, had been governors of many Indian states, and Muslims were among the country's most successful entrepreneurs.
Unfortunately, today, Indian nationalism based on pluralism is being weakened by Hindu supremacists in the ruling BJP party, who seem hellbent on converting a secular India into a "Hindu Pakistan," as eminent Indian historian Ramachandra Guha once put it.
That democracies all over the world are being infected by this tribalism virus could not be happening at a worse time — a time when every community, company and country is going to have to adapt to the accelerations in technological change, globalization and climate change. And that can only be done effectively within and between countries by higher degrees of collaboration among business, labor, educators, social entrepreneurs and governments — not rule or die, not my way or the highway.
We need to find the antidote to this tribalism fast — otherwise the future is grim for democracies everywhere.