Everyone belongs to a tribe they're prepared to defend, whether aware of it or not.The recent shenanigans over the formation of a new government in Ireland has gotten the talking classes quite vexed: "why can't Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael just form a government together?" Or "what's the big deal, sure aren't they really just the same: Tweedledum and Tweedledee?" And "isn't it time to forget Civil War politics?"
Being from the North I don't have much emotional investment in either party myself. Still, many people do. Sure, to the outsider the differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael may indeed seem 'trivial': the narcissism of small differences and all that. But here's the thing, we are all tribal about the things that matter to us.
And if you don't believe me then tell me how you feel about the suggestion that:
RTÉ & TV3
or The Irish Times & Irish Independent
or Leinster & Munster rugby clubs
or Kerry & Dublin football clubs
or Manchester United & Manchester City
should "just together 'cause there's no real difference between them any more and sure what's the big deal anyway?"
Discovered your inner tribalism yet?
Tribalism has a bad press: it's an 'ism' after all. But tribalism explains more of what we see across the political landscape than even the classic Left-Right political spectrum (or Public Choice Theory reducing politics to the actions of atomised, utility maximising voters at the ballot box).
Scott Alexander recently explored the nature of tribes (even admitting to belonging to one himself), though he wonders if tribes have a future:
Some vital aspects of modern society – freedom of speech, freedom of criticism, access to multiple viewpoints, the existence of entryist tribes with explicit goals of invading and destroying competing tribes as problematic, and the overwhelming pressure to dissolve into the Generic Identity Of Modern Secular Consumerism – make maintaining tribal identities really hard these days. I think some of the most interesting sociological questions revolve around whether there are any ways around the practical and moral difficulties with tribalism, what social phenomena are explicable as the struggle of tribes to maintain themselves in the face of pressure, and whether tribalism continues to be a worthwhile or even a possible project at all.But I think he misses the point. He thinks people join tribes as a way of rallying around a particular purpose or cause. I think it's simpler than that: people join and belong to tribes (often more than one, and often without deliberately 'joining') because we are all cognitive misers. As someone put it to me recently, "it's easier when we're all wearing the same jersey: you know whose with you and whose against you". Especially in conditions of scarcity: the less 'stuff' there is to go round, the more important your tribe becomes.
That is why most political commentators (and even a few economic ones) keep getting it wrong. They view everything through the prism of rational, individual choice (possibly because that's how they view things), whereas they would gain much more insight (if they're not just interested in signalling) by focusing on the tribal dynamic. That applies to Brexit, to Trump and to the prospect of a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition.
Which is also why there isn't going to be one: the tribe comes first.