Tribalism makes life simple. It’s two imperatives, it’s us against them and follow the leader unconditionally and in all things, lay out a clear and unambiguous path. And tribalism’s payoff, its promise, is in its way cosmically reassuring: Nothing will change, life will always be as it was meant to be.
Tribalism is easiest to sell to people who literally haven’t been anywhere, haven’t seen anything beyond their tribal environment. The ones who have no idea what they’re missing, listening just to the elders and the wind.
Neo-tribalism, the politics of Brexit, Trump’s wall and trade war, the nativist shit-stirring in Europe, Wilders, LePen, Puigdemont, Salvini share the tribal commandments: it’s always us against them and “Shut up, and listen to me!”
But their audience knows too well what they’re missing, the satisfactions of economic power, social status, and confident optimism about the future. Personal downward mobility is hard enough to deal with, but when you lose hope for tomorrow, for yourself or your children, your self-esteem disappears.
Neo-tribalism offers an instant cure, the old-time tribal concept of “them,” people held in even lower esteem than oneself. And the politicians pressing the neo-tribal buttons do tend to be of the authoritarian, “I know best” school of governance.
And they know what makes tribalism work: isolation. As tribal elders in Afghanistan have learned, let a kid connect by smartphone or computer to anyplace beyond the tribe’s reach and he or she’s going to be trouble. Walls, both physical and legal, are built to break connections, to isolate those inside from those without. The justification for the wall, the threat of attack or penetration from the outsiders, is almost always exaggerated, to stir unwarranted fear and hatred.
2015 was a record-breaking year for global migration. More people than ever before were in motion from one place to somewhere they thought might be better. Millions of them were refugees fleeing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and many of them were eligible for asylum status. Again, millions of these Mideastern and West Asian refugees hoped to resettle in Europe, especially in Austria, Germany and Sweden, which required them to move across Europe from Greece and Italy through the Balkans or the Alps.
Especially in the transit countries, the refugees got an unfriendly reception, and in their target countries, a new generation of politicians built careers crying “enough is enough,” about immigrants, and proposing ways to keep “them” out in the future.
One way is to shut down humanitarian rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea. This joint project of Malta and the new nativist government in Italy, of which Matteo Salvini is the enthusiastic Interior Minister has had 3 effects: the numbers of migrants arriving in Italy is way down, the number dying at sea trying to get to Europe is way up, and the trend in migration has shifted to Spain. I’m betting Salvini thinks all 3 effects are good ones.
But there are two other human migration stories happening in the world. One you probably know about is the flight of more than a million Muslim Rohingyas from murder and oppression in Myanmar to Bangladesh. Political issues are not absent in Cox’s Bazaar, but for the 700,000 refugees living there and the people trying to help them, the issue is survival.
Then, there’s the third migration…again of that plural millions of people…leaving Venezuela and spreading mostly across Latin America. You may not have heard much about this, in part because American news coverage shows little interest in going South, but in part because it has, so far, not been a humanitarian or political disaster. And why is that? One reason is that Latinos tend to see themselves less as tribes than as a community.
Demetrios G. Papademetriou is Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a Washington-based think tank dedicated exclusively to the study of international migration. He is also President of Migration Policy Institute Europe, a nonprofit, independent research institute in Brussels that aims to promote a better understanding of migration trends and effects within Europe.
Dr. Papademetriou co-founded Metropolis: An International Forum for Research and Policy on Migration and Cities and has served as Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Migration (2009-11); Chair of the Advisory Board of the Open Society Foundations’ International Migration Initiative (2010-15); Chair of the Migration Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD); Director for Immigration Policy and Research at the U.S. Department of Labor and Chair of the Secretary of Labor’s Immigration Policy Task Force; and Executive Editor of the International Migration Review.