Tribalism and the 2008 Presidential Election
I have a friend that fits the
profile of the typical McCain voter: A lifelong Republican
from the Midwest who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004,
a vocabulary that is rich with faith and religion,
a patriotic American with a “support the troops” sticker on
her car, sons-in-law who did tours in Iraq, a white,
middle class suburban life in a new tract home. This
life and this culture define her tribe— her cultural
identity and values. Her government job, serving people
who are struggling for security, and the challenges
of family members not finding an easy path to the American
dream weigh on her big, compassionate heart.
What psychological factors would
cause her to make a huge step away from her traditional
behavior, step away from the comfort zone of her
past, and vote for Obama for president? Does she
fit the image of a voter open to such a dramatic
change from the familiar — away
from candidate McCain who appeals to her tribal identity?
How many voters in America choose candidates based
on objective analysis of issues and true self interest,
versus those who treat political behavior as an exercise
in tribal loyalty?
Tribal feelings are not just
vestiges of primitive peoples. They exist even in
the major, multi-cultural, industrialized nations — in
people far removed from homogenous, pre-agricultural
and agricultural societies. The cultural and protective
function of a “tribe” is to differentiate
between those who belong and those who threaten.
So many people face their world through the filters
of their insecurities that it seems natural to have
tribal groups to sustain one’s own identity
and values. Differences of race, religion, language
and culture in themselves are not threatening, its
just that people are reluctant to take risks and
move away from the certainties of the familiar to
embrace the unfamiliar.
The game of political power has not
changed much from this primitive stage of social development.
It is largely based on the manipulation of tribal
mentalities. Nationalism, still a major force in
world politics, is based on a “big tribe” concept,
but in reality nations are made of many tribes. We
see the big tribes competing in the Olympic games,
with their costumes, flags, national pride and anthems.
At the same time, many of these national “tribes” are
committing violations of human rights relating to
ethnic minorities in their territories.
On the other hand, human civilization
is manifesting another tribal consciousness, the
global tribe, to which all human beings may belong.
This consciousness is evolving due to the common threats
to our survival.
In this tribe it is one’s common humanity and
shared concerns for the common welfare of the planet
that is a greater unifier than one’s nationality
or ethnicity. The viability of our planet to support
life both biologically and socially is at stake.
The 2008 presidential election in the United States
is a microcosm of the global crossroads stimulating
this shifting consciousness. The campaigns of Barack
Obama and John McCain symbolize this crossroads in
message and in tactics. One path is the path towards
working together regardless of nationality or ethnicity
to make the social transformations necessary to solve
the problems of warfare, injustice, environmental threats,
and economic crises. The other path is the one that
tries to use fear, stimulate old tribal consciousness,
and cling to a self-serving nationalistic past.
If Americans choose Obama, a candidate with a foreign
name and a minority race to be their leader, they will
have crossed a threshold of consciousness that will
demonstrate a break with old tribal identifications.
This will in fact and in symbol show a new standard
of leadership to the world, which could promote the
healing of ethnic and religious causes of injustice
If McCain becomes president,
Americans will have reaffirmed the importance of
tribal identity. Some have criticized the McCain
narrative that Obama is “not one of
us,” but perhaps for the current national test
it is important to have this message overtly on the
Therefore, this election explicitly reminds Americans
that the difference between candidates is the difference
between old tribal identification and a new way of
thinking about America and the world. It is a choice
between our traditional way of political influence
and power, and a new way of solving the problems we
face. The results will dramatically demonstrate the
current quality of American identity. Whichever way
the election goes will provide a clear graphic of American
It is significant that McCain’s
campaign is appealing to tribal identities of race,
religion, education, economic status, regionalism and
nationalistic patriotism. He is not just trying to “brand” Obama,
but he is calling the American people out, drawing
a line in the sand, and daring them to leave the old
tribal identity for a new one. In a way McCain is challenging
Americans more than Obama, because he is saying that
if you vote for Obama you will be rejecting the old
values, fears and leadership that made America a strong
nation. If Obama does win, the victory will not have
been solely that of a single candidate of the Democratic
Party, but it will be the victory of a new psychology
over an old.
Richard V. Sidy