Can’t we do away with ‘political tribalism’?

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J. Soedradjad Djiwandono

IO – One of the more widely discussed new writings in recent times has been Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations (2018), a book written by Yale Law Professor Amy Chua. While she may be a professor of Law, her books have triggered debates and stirred people’s thinking widely, beyond her other publications on legal issues. He books touching on social issues include her 2002 work World on Fire, How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mothers, published in 2011. These two volumes touch on related trends and in my opinion are relevant to issues that have been recently developing in Indonesia; that is what I would like to discuss in this essay.

The main message of the writer in the latest book is outlined in her New York Times (NYT) article of February 20, entitled ‘The Destructive Dynamic of Political Tribalism’. She argues that what has been unfolding in UNITED STATES politics since President Trump started campaigning shows the emergence of what can be termed ‘political tribalism’. In this, the coexistence of markets and democracy experience a deep tension in such a manner that democracy becomes not a vehicle for e pluribus unum but a zero-sum tribalist contest.  This is not the dynamic of a system that works to unite through pluralism, but rather one where gains or benefits of one party necessarily entail losses of others.

It is interesting to note that according to Professor Chua American politics today have as much in common with those of the developing world as with European tradition. I happen to agree with this observation. In fact, I have pointed out that ‘tribalism’ can be regarded as a symptom of social ills, one which flared up when Indonesia was subject to the financial crisis of 1997/98.  I raised this issue in a presentation I made in a panel on ‘Race, Riots and Money: The Role of the Bretton Woods Institutions in the Indonesian Financial Crisis’ during the Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law (ASIL) in Washington DC, in March 1999. At that time, I met Professor Amy Chua, who was also participating as a member of the panel.

Interpreting what ‘political tribalism’ signifies
Let’s be clear about what the ‘tribalism’ and ‘political tribalism’ I am discussing here signify. I must however commence by stating that I am not a Sociologist or Anthropologist, nor am I a student of Political Science. I am simply a humble Monetary and International Economist and a student of International Political Economy. I will thus claim no expertise nor originality in elaborating on these terms and what they mean. I will simply state that this is how I myself interpret them to mean.

According to Professor Chua, despite the generally-held belief of the American electorate that democracy and free markets go hand in hand, naturally working together to generate prosperity and protect freedom, the fact is that by their very nature the market and the democratic process coexist in a deep tension. Capitalism, as manifested through the operation of free markets, eventually creates a small number of very wealthy people, while democracy potentially empowers a poor majority of citizens who are not unnaturally resentful of such concentrated wealth. When conditions deteriorate, tension can set in motion a chain of intensely destructive political events. This could potentially arise from the presence of a market-dominant minority, controlling a vastly disproportionate amount of a nation’s wealth, perceived by the majority of the population as ‘outsiders’.

It is argued by Professor Chua that such a market-dominant minority could originate from a variety of differences: racial, ethnic, cultural or religious. In the developing world, we observe this phenomenon in the plight of the Chinese minority in Indonesia, the Sunni minority in Iraq during the reign of Saddam Hussein, and others. Introducing free-market democracy in such circumstances could lead to a situation where resentful majorities see themselves as the nation’s rightful owners and demand to have ‘their’ country back.

She argued further that the UNITED STATES today is undergoing a great change that two hundred years of the past was economically and politically dominated by a white majority, existing in a stable condition, has now shifted into one where racial tensions have split America’s poor and class has split open America’s white majority. As this development accelerates there arises a market-dominant minority, dubbed the ‘coastal elites’, who control and reap profits from key sectors of the economy, including Wall Street, the media, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Dissatisfaction with this condition enabled a populist movement to put Mr. Trump into the U.S. Presidency with a call for ‘real’ Americans to ‘take back our country’.

Why we must discard political tribalism
What has transpired in the United States as stated above is tragic; but what to do? My concern is more about developments in Indonesia, referred to above in Professor Chua’s essay, as an example of a country suffering from political tribalism. This is because I happen to agree with her observation.

I wrote a paper based on the pointers elaborated in the ASIL Conference I mentioned above, analyzing the social aspects of the 1997/98 Indonesian financial crisis; this was published, together with other of my papers on the Indonesian experience of dealing with the crisis and its implications, in a 2001 collection entitled Bergulat Dengan Krisis dan Pemulihan Ekonomi Indonesia (‘Managing the Crisis and Recovery of the Indonesian Economy’).

In this paper I raised the issue of tribalism as a social aspect that emanated from our public as a result of rampant social problems stemming from the financial crisis of 1997/98. I borrowed the idea from a paper written by an old friend Dr. Arief Budiman, ‘Capitalism, Tribalism and Religion’ (1999). He argued that racialism is a variant of tribalism, which he described as an attitude or instinct to treat anyone outside his/her own race as sub-human or inhuman.

I observed that in normally prosperous times differences, including those of status or economic welfare, do not tend to trigger social conflict, even when citizens are aware of them. However, in times of crisis, such as what the masses experienced during the catastrophic events of 1997/98, any issue based on tribal instinct could trigger a dark reaction. I was attempting to speculate on the reasons behinds the abominable acts which took place during the May riots of 1998. Certainly, nobody in their right mind could excuse or defend the burning of houses and commercial properties, the rapes and other criminal acts which occurred during these riots. In any case, nobody would entertain any doubt that what took place was inhuman, to say the least.

I went further in this line of thinking, firstly to expand the meaning of ‘race’ or ‘tribe’ to encompass any type of group, including unique ethnicity, race, religion, family, profession and others. This is how Professor Chua defined the matter, it seemed to me. Secondly, to interpret the meaning of how others might be treated inhumanly also indicates that a certain portion of the citizenry believes that anything emerging from those not part of their tribe/group must be considered erroneous, cannot be correct, or even if it is clearly right it will not be acceptable. By the same token anything coming from one’s own tribe must be correct, cannot be wrong, or even if it is clearly in error they will still accept it. I observed this phenomenon as very common during the crisis. And that was in my view partly the explanation of how such inexcusable and abominable crimes were perpetrated in our society during the May 1998 riots.

It is most unfortunate that a tribal instinct of treating anyone and anything associated with people who do not belong to one’s own ‘tribe’ as wrong or incorrect, or even if it is right it will not be accepted. However, anyone and anything belonging to your own tribe must be right, cannot be wrong, or even if it is wrong it will be acceptable.

Sadly, I would argue that such phenomena routinely take place in our society of today. The medium is the message: any statement or action by someone you support must be right; it doesn’t matter if it is patently ridiculous. But, anything your opponent states cannot be right, must be wrong, or even if it is proven right I will refuse to accept it. Discussions in this kind of environment are useless; compromise can never be reached, since there is no possibility of ‘give and take’, ‘you win some – you lose some’, a stance required for meaningful negotiation to be concluded.

‘The medium is the message’ is a phrase coined by communications expert Marshall McLuhan in the mid-1960s, signifying that the form of a medium embeds itself in any message it would transmit or convey, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences the way the message is perceived.

In a state of tribalism, it is no longer that the medium itself determines how other parties understand or perceive a message, but it is rather the message itself. And it becomes a ‘fault line’, dividing ‘us’ and ‘them’ to a point of animosity. As Prof Chua argued, it is not simply to denote the boundaries of a group, but also to exclude others as not belonging. And, as Professor Arief Budiman wrote, in tribalism one can treat anyone outside his or her tribe as a sub-human or non-human. It is ‘either you are with me or you are my enemy’ type of attitude.

Final notes
We need to belong to groups. We crave bonds and attachments, which is why we love clubs, teams, fraternities, or family, as Professor Amy Chua wrote in her introduction to Political Tribes. However, she started off with a short sentence which I think is a reminder or a wake-up call to all of us, by stating that ‘Humans are tribal’.  That should be a reminder to all of us, especially if we accept the explanation that it is associated with ‘tribal instinct’ as I alluded above.

A close friend some time ago accepted an invitation to become a member of a committee to stand watch over potential corruption. However, ever since that time she has been criticised viciously by her own (former) friends for making the decision to accept the invitation. Certainly, the criticism is not due to her involvement in the noble idea of fighting corruption, since she was involved in a similar movement before, when everybody praised her for it. The criticism could only be explained by the fact that the current team is part of an institution not belonging to her critics. In other words, in a tribalist sense she is carrying out the same activity but is now an enemy of these former friends. This is a pity but a fact that must be faced. There are many cases I could list, but I am sure we could all do the same. This is one sample of action that I would consider a tribal instinct, one which I fervently hope we will banish.

We can begin by behaving with more civility. Recently I developed a new habit, that when I have to express disagreement with or exclude myself from ‘others’ I would do so in a non-tribal way. Several times during my presentation in a seminar I mentioned to my audience that, as an Indonesian citizen, President Joko Widodo is my President, while I did not vote for him.