Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
The great paradox of the American Left is that it aspires to collectivism, but can only get it through tribalism. Every Democrat presidential primary is a frantic effort by collectivist candidates to amass enough tribal support from different identity politics groups to secure the collectivist nomination.
Senator Bernie Sanders, the great socialist hope of collectivism, tried to rope in Latinos and black Democrats, succeeded with the former, failed with the latter, and lost South Carolina. And everything.
When lefties switched from class warfare to identity politics, they became hopelessly mired in tribalism. Their old animating principle of an egalitarian society has long since given way to a tribal society in which certain groups will have more power than others because equality can only come about through massive doses of inequality. But even that is considered hopelessly old-fashioned liberalism. The new wave of identity politics doesn’t even justify its demands for special treatment by promising that one day we’ll all be equal. The tribal premise of inherent inequality is the essence of intersectionality.
Collectivists and constitutionalists believe in equality. Tribals believe in inherent inequality.
Collectivism promised to put an end to inequality by remedying the unfairness of a society in which unequal opportunities led to unequal outcomes. In the United States, collectivism attacked the country’s founding principle of constitutionalism, a legal framework which protected individual aspiration, by claiming that social inequality made aspiration impossible without government social controls.
The political strategies of the American Left made collectivism into a bad bargain with tribalism. Even before the modern multiracial coalitions, the Democrats drew power from 19th century urban coalitions of immigrant groups, feeding their rivalries and suspicions to hold on to power in New York and Boston. The Draft Riots of the Civil War were the country’s earliest massive race riots, perpetrated by the Democrat Party’s urban political machines which wanted to bring down President Lincoln by mobilizing immigrant groups to riot against social inequality, while, among other things, burning black orphanages.
Leftist groups pushing for more radical collectivist solutions sought out immigrants, then racial and finally sexual minorities to build their coalitions around. The general class of social solutions gave way to the particularist demands of coalition members leading to a Democrat Party defined by tribal groups that have adopted each other’s most extreme positions even if they are unappetizing to the country.
The Democrats struggle with a message that is both collectivist and tribal, promising equality to all and special treatment to some, collectivist socialist solutions to health care and employment, and tribal allotments for political appointments and benefit programs, as equality and inequality go to war.
But the cultural tensions of combining collectivism and tribalism run deeper than the policy tensions.
Tribalism is defined by the superiority of the tribe to rival tribes. Its honor and shame code demands that other tribes be regularly humiliated to assert its superiority and gain ‘mana’ for its members.
Identity politics is a set of political rituals that acts out these tribal imperatives on college campuses, in urban governments, and in the marketplace of ideas. The civil rights movement long ago degraded into tribal posturing of this sort. Its successor movements play out the assertions of persecution and superiority, humiliating tribal enemies, beginning with white men, and ending with anyone who isn’t a member of the group, and portraying these tawdry tribal rituals as civil rights empowerment.
Tribalism is amoral and actively hostile to principles. Its virtues are tribal and its heroes are those whose posturing humiliates the enemy. Its essential identity dehumanizes outsiders. It cannot think in terms of abstract ideas, it rejects any moral code that supersedes tribalism, and its intellectual life consists of rationalizing the contradictions between tribal behavior, and external moral codes and principles.
Politics is inherently tribal. Collectivists insist that life be based around political activism and their morality inevitably becomes warped around tribalism even in the absence of actual tribes. When collectivist politics, as in America, revolves around tribal coalitions, then tribalism rules everything.
The arguments for collectivism are based around abstractions, ideas, and ideals. These are the very things that tribalism cannot tolerate. As collectivists become tribal, they abandon objectivity and embrace subjectivity. The truth becomes ‘my truth’. Lived experience supersedes expert planning. Every objective idea, from mathematics to the structure of reality, comes under attack by tribalists.
Tribal subjectivism evaluates every idea based on the tribe it came from. A tribal argument is that Newton’s Third Law of Motion is the work of a dead white man. Diversity is just a tribal contention that personal perspectives define ideas and that therefore perspectives matter more than ideas. There is no reality, just a series of subjective impressions filtered through race, gender, and sexual orientation.
The tribal reality is personal and subjective. The science that demands a vast universe governed by unbreakable laws appears cold and alien to a tribal. Tribals don’t believe in science, but in magic. They just call their science, magic, and their magicians, scientists and experts, but their science is not based on reason, but on will, ideology is the incantation that its magicians recite to bring it forth.
Collectivism begins with science, but ends with magic. That is why it always fails. Its experts become false prophets who, like Lysenko, tell the rulers that reality comports with their ideology. Tribalism dispenses with an objective reality, transforming science into the magical reality of the subjective. The end result is even worse than Lysenkoism, but is colorful, apocalyptic, and invariably diverse.
Lysenkoism’s calculated irrationality had nothing on the apocalyptic panoply of global warming.
Collectivism wants a world full of identical factories. Tribalism wants to get back to nature. Collectivist science wants to actually accomplish things. Tribal science seeks the undoing of industrial civilization. The destruction of civilization is the goal that the great movement of global warming is openly aimed at.
The great collectivist vision of governments getting bigger and of a massive infrastructure running everyone’s lives is doomed by the tribal impulse to dominate and destroy those institutions.
Collectivists embrace tribalism to advance their goals, but tribalism destroys collectivism. It does this on the micro scale, as many white liberals who ran afoul of identity politics in urban areas found out, but also on the macro scale, as every dysfunctional institution from major cities to the EU and the UN show.
The European Union is falling to mass tribal migrations and nationalist backlashes. The United Nations stopped functioning as anything except a corrupt clearinghouse once it fell to third world tribalism.
The Democrats who embraced tribalism for the sake of collectivism might profit from these examples.
Constitutionalism was a compromise between the extremes of tribalism and collectivism that neither denied the need for individual and group identities, nor the importance of institutions and ideas defined by reason and the rule of law. Collectivism sought to usurp constitutionalism only to fall into tribalism. Every ideological attack on constitutionalism ends in a descent into the swamps of tawdry tribalism.
The Left’s attack on the Constitution has been destroying the great bargain that made America possible.
Identity politics and big government don’t mix. The unstable compound only holds together as long as there is a common enemy who can serve as a threat to the greed that unites its corrupt factions. When that enemy, Republicans, the primordial white male, ceases to be a factor, then it all falls apart.
The American Left’s old collectivist dream is dead. Its current platform of industrial decimation and identity politics lead not to a world government, but to a fractured landscape of warring tribes.
Collectivism has fallen into tribalism every time it’s been tried. This time will be no different.
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