James Fallows and Me on ‘Tribal’

November 9, 2017

Back on October 31, James Fallows of The Atlantic published a piece titled The Broken Check and Balance.  The header for it said “It’s up to Congress to police the executive—but so far, its Republican leaders are placing tribal loyalty ahead of their constitutional responsibility.”

He was getting at something important about Republicans in the Congress today, but the word “tribal” rankled some readers.  One wrote, “The use of tribal in the political white sense does not go over very well among Native folks for obvious reasons. It feels like a putdown of one of the last cultural distinctions that exemplifies tribal sovereignty.” Fallows asked fro suggestions from readers.  He got quite a few, and published them on his blog in several tranches:  first, second, third, and fourth.  And then, today, a fifth, in which something I had sent him appeared as the last item.  Here’s what I wrote:

I think you’re trying to do too much with a single word.

You are looking for a word to capture a relentless preference for me and my kind: what’s good for us is what’s right.

One issue in this what to call ‘our kind’ or ‘us.’  “Tribe” may be the right word, but why not race or nation or clique or faction?  Is there some general word we can use for ‘my kind?’  Whatever word we chose, we’re likely to give that word a pejorative cast, and some may take exception because they want to use that same word for “us” in a more positive way – like ‘nation’ or ‘tribe.’

Another issue here is what we make of the claim of rightness in the preference for me and my kind.  This is a question of justice, not terminology, and it’s far the more important issue.


In The Republic, Thrasymachus argues that ‘justice is the interest of the strong.’  There is, he asserts, no deeper or transcendent sense of justice.  This is precisely the proposition that you want to hold us to scorn.  A preference for me and my kind is also an undisguised claim that we (me and my kind) are the strong, and that we will prevail.

Socrates/Plato didn’t think much of Thrasymachus’s understanding of justice, and you and I don’t either.  It’s pernicious, and yet it is a very common weed in human understanding.

You’re looking for a way to capture that growing acceptance in the United States of justice as the interest of the strong – that belief that any talk of justice having a higher moral foundation is just foolishness.

Trump embodies that Thrasymachus-ian understanding of justice.  He didn’t give birth to it in modern American politics; he simply has found a way to gather a following — including a disturbing number of Republican leaders – around that conception.  (It’s all the more remarkable that this ugly conception of justice is often dolled up in Christian evangelical terms.)

I don’t know a single word that captures this.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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