After last week’s blog, Kamala Harris arises amid the COVID-19 Election Scenarios, my friend, Carlos Hee Houng, mostly with respect to elections in the Caribbean, queried whether too much emphasis was being placed on race in politics and too little on the role of tribalism. His observation provided the impetus for this week's blog. It caused me to roam the literature and commentaries resulting in these preliminary thoughts which must be more fully explored.
Early Attachments to Race, Class and the Plural Society
The analysis of race in plural societies is not new to me. My earliest venture into this field include my first book, Race vs Politics in Guyana (1974) and another with Selwyn Ryan, The Confused Electorate: A Study of Political Attitudes and Opinion in Trinidad and Tobago (1981), both based on survey methodologies. Those earlier studies and others that touched on race, class and gender and mass movements by a wide range of scholars over the past 40 odd years, have only marginally looked beyond the impact of the traditional concepts on social and political mobilization. Our generation of scholars were mainly concerned with the notions of the plural society in which different cultural groups while forced to relate to the same national political unit, practiced very different systems of compulsory or basic institutions. We noted that what held the culturally defined entities together was the force of the dominant minority group. What emerged in the transition from colonialism to independence status was the overlap between race and class with various classes more or less color coded by labels such as Afro Saxon, Euro-Creole and regarded as a buffer class. The stricter analysis of class focused on social stratification, and political organization shaped by social class in relation to peoples location in the economic class structure. Later the cold war era created a polarization in scholarly approaches. Hence a series of studies emerged with a full range of commitments to liberal and socialist ideals. These class differentials have become far more important in the era of globalization with inequities compounded by the rapid explosion of technological advances. However, it is mainly due to journalists and columnists that in more recent times the role of tribalism in politics is being highlighted. Yet the notion of tribalism is neither novel nor new.
Tribalism refers to the behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one's own social group or 'tribe'. Politics in any kind of democracy is about building coalitions to secure a majority. It requires appealing to much more than tribalism. Political scientists have put forward a very in-depth contextual definition of the term, political tribalism. They refer to it as a type of politics known to the ancient Greeks and Romans that was hierarchical. Over time, it has evolved in an identification of a grouping that is not necessarily based on ethnicity, but on rules and rituals of the group for which disobedience and/or dissent lead to marginalization. Tribalism is the anthesis of constitutional democracy. George Orwell, in an essay compares tribalism to “narrow or negative nationalism” such as Zionism, Anti-semitism, Trotskyism. In this sense, it does not mean loyalty to a government or a country but to ideals like Islam, Christendom, the Proletariat and the White race which engender passionate nationalistic feelings. Among the interesting characteristics of this version of tribalism are:
Some applications of Tribalism
These characteristics are currently dramatically accelerated and intensified in the USA under President Trump, where it appears that everything in American politics today entrenches tribalism. This is illustrated by extreme gerrymandering and attempted voter suppression in Republican controlled states, and more recently in the 2018 midterms; the Republican stonewalling of Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court Judge in 2016; Republican leaders’ refusal to acknowledge Russian interference in the 2018 and 2020 Presidential elections; and the final takeover of the Republican Party by Trump. But it is important to note that both Republicans and Democrats contribute to hyper partisanship displayed in both the House of Representatives and Senate. A December 2019 Georgetown University Battleground Poll found that the average American believes that the nation is two-thirds of the way to the edge of civil war.
In Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, according to many empirical studies, race is identified as a critical component of political alignment. In both countries, the compounding factor is tribalism which is central to intensifying suspicions and tensions and increasing bad blood and lasting rancor. In his book, Tarron Khemraj Politics and Underdevelopment: The Case of Guyana (2019) focused on unmasking the state. He wrote, “Pro-ethnic voting by the two dominant groups is jointly determined by external factors rooted in history, geography, production structure, and foreign price shocks.” What is said about Guyana is equally true for Trinidad and Tobago. Tribalism is perpetuated because even when there is a third force (and in Guyana there were 12 parties contesting the 2020 elections) when considering voting for a ‘third force’, the members of the two dominant ethnic groups tend to vote to break the tribal hegemony. The fact of the matter is the winner generally emerges from the party which maintains more of its traditional supporters. There is also the overall perception that economic interests would be harmed if the other side were to win the elections. There was no better illustration than in Guyana where the prospects of an oil economy with projected exponential economic growth propelled the worst excesses of tribalism during and after the 2020 elections.
The University of Guyana and UWI in the respective countries should coordinate fora to brain storm on electoral and constitutional reform intended to circumvent the persistence of racial cleavages and reduce tribalism in the political mobilization, election outcomes and sustaining democracy.
Power sharing has been mooted in Guyana for over 30 years with little buy in from the major political parties. But inherent problems require concerted action. Herein lies the opportunity for special interests, the Diaspora, voices of youth and civil society. Their interventions must be constructive, nonpartisan, based on research findings and best practices and geared toward mobilizing/refashioning public opinion. A formidable accompanying media strategy is also essential. All this requires the political will and magnanimity of the political leadership.
In Jamaica, Ambassador Curtis Ward in a blog, Ending Jamaica’s Tribal Politics (January 2017) makes us aware that political tribalism must not be confused with fervent party support. Then the Report of the National Committee on Political Tribalism in Jamaica chaired by Justice James Kerr (1997) states that tribalism is manifested in political garrison states, a virtual fortress led by 'Dons' or gang leaders which were institutionalized factions of political parties. The most dominant consequential effect was the hyper-polarization of party support that heightened in the 1970s when two distinctive ideologies -- democratic socialism and capitalism, were the overlay of the People National Party led by Michael Manley and the Jamaica Labour Party led by Edward Seaga, respectively. The causes of political tribalism identified by Justice Kerr included high levels of patronage and poverty, scarce benefits, management and awards of contract. Among the consequential costs are reflected high levels of violence and persistent fear pervading the society which in recent times have significantly reduced. But the social scars of divisiveness remain.
Tribalism like sectarianism destroys a nation and demeans its people. Tribalism does not unite but splits a country into factions. This is more so the case when tribes are competing for power over the state, and the media and public opinion become a verbal battleground. When politics becomes a perpetual tribal war, ends justify almost any means and individuals are absolved from the constraints of normal decency. It is therefore incumbent on power centers like bar associations, chambers of commerce and Christian and Evangelic Councils and interest groups not to allow the articulation for civil liberties, equality, economic advancement to be compromised by tribalism. They must support transparency systems with vigilance in preventing awards of contracts to friends of government; marginalizing talented academics, professionals and entrepreneurs. They must create a culture of Trust. All these are aspirational goals that should lead to replacing tribalism with meritocracy.
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.