DANIEL VAUGHAN: Tribalism and factions will never go away

One of the recent fads of American political writing is describing the various ills of political tribalism. You can read this everywhere in modern punditry: Ben ShapiroNational Review editorsThe Atlantic, and the New York Times all talk about tribalism in its different aspects. Almost all of it is wrong.

We get current discussions of tribalism from business non-fiction and popular psychology writings from authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin. Gladwell discussed the negative aspects in his books, and Godin talks about the positive aspects in his leadership books.

It’s a way of talking about a very familiar topic while using words to invoke more ancient meanings. The American Founders understood tribalism well and described it in detail. James Madison called it political factionalism in the Federalist Papers.

Tribes aren’t new.

In the 9th Federalist letter, James Madison wrote about the constant threats republican governments faced. “It is impossible to read the history of the petty Republics of Greece and Italy, without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions, by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration,2 between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrasts to the furious storms that are to succeed.”

Where did these agitations emanate? Factions.

Madison classically defines faction, calling it a “number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

How do you deal with factions? “There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: The one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.”

Controlling the effects of factions is impossible. Either everyone is forced to have the same beliefs, eliminating dissident factions. Or one group rules over all, crushing the rights of another. Neither of these options should be desired by anyone living in a Republic.

We can only control effects.

That leaves us with the only alternative, “the causes of faction cannot be removed; and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”

Let’s step back and observe our modern punditry. Endless digital ink gets spilled trying to get everyone to believe the same thing. Persuasive writing is a noble endeavor, but no statesman can remove the causes of faction. That’s impossible. You roll with the cards you have and focus on controlling the effects of factions.

It’s impossible to get everyone on the same tribe in a Republic. It’s impossible. This is the central point everyone from nationalists to democratic-socialists misses: there’s no cohesive whole in a democratic-republic. Nationalists want everyone to rally around the idea of a nation, which could work partially but is no guarantee. And socialists think everyone will awaken to Marxist class status, which will never occur.

Governments need real rules, not “norms.”

And here we come to Madison’s most important point. A government must have structural barriers to prevent factions from ruling haphazardly because nothing else works.

By what means is this object attainable? Evidently by one of two only. Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time, must be prevented; or the majority, having such co-existent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression. If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control.

Note that last part: the American Founders never believed that moral or religious motivations were an effective deterrent against political factions. They understood their history, and knew “norms” never prevented a mob mentality, wannabe tyrant, or folk heroes.

All the writing surrounding tribalism and norms ignores this simple fact. They demand the impossible and expect something that has never existed in history. They read history through rose-tinted glasses to find eras of history where people were magically connected by nationalism, socialism, or something else. But divisions always existed.

Republics are honest about these divisions; other forms of government are not. We will never eliminate tribalism or political factions. As long as there are people with differing opinions, there will be factions. The sooner we refocus on controlling the effects instead of eliminating causes, the better.

The tribalism literature is shockingly ignorant of the fundamental ideas that form the foundation of America. But it’s all right there in the Federalist Papers.