Why David Brooks Should Stop Using the Word 'Tribe' - Pacific Standard

The History of the World According to David Brooks

Brooks depends on a lazy and ignorant story about tribalism to bolster a specific myth about American exceptionalism.
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David Brooks Road to Character

Whether New York Times columnist David Brooks is writing about conflicts, identities, the American creed, or even economic policies, he thinks the way we construct them is broken, and in a common fashion. Instead of uniting around shared concepts, we are divided into tribes and animated by tribal animosities. In tribalism, Brooks locates the problem with the way we live today. President Donald Trump's MAGA fanboys are tribal, Brooks says, but so are the social justice radicals, both groups refusing to settle in the reasonable middle. But considering that it's perhaps the central concept in his current writing, Brooks' constant invocation of tribes and tribal organization is surprisingly unrigorous, even lazy. What he ends up with is a whole pattern of thought that rests on a sand foundation of ignorance and falsehood.

In his first column of this year ("The Retreat to Tribalism"), Brooks complains about various tribal binaries, including "oppressor/oppressed," "us/them," and "in-group/out-group." Since then, he's used "tribal" to describe reactive "emotions" and "mentalities" in a column about Steven Pinker; as a negative characterization of the radical wings of the Democrats and Republicans in a column about congressman Conor Lamb; as the kind of politics we should move beyond in a column about the Parkland shootings; and as a category of identity in a column on Millennial "amphibians" (don't ask). This is only a partial list. Brooks complains about tribalism and tribal thinking so often that the white-supremacist site V-Dare felt compelled to remind him that he's Jewish.

Despite the volume and persistence of his commentary, Brooks hasn't presented a unified definition of what the word "tribal" means to him, though it's clear he's not talking about the actual histories of tribally organized peoples. Still, it's possible to cobble together an understanding based on his columns over the years. Brooks uses the term most often to refer to binary thinking and group identity. In another derided column from this year ("Understanding Student Mobbists"), Brooks sees Millennials as the products of a "tribe-versus-tribe" style in public life, for example. Yet he frequently finds himself separating people into binarily opposed tribal and non-tribal camps. In a revealing column from 2008, Brooks bifurcates the world into individualist and collectivist societies and cultures, the latter of which draw on "tribal philosophies" for their values, rather than drawing on the heroic traditions of ancient Greece. Perhaps, he writes in one of his just-so stories, collectivist societies "tend to pop up in parts of the world, especially around the equator, with plenty of disease-causing microbes." Here "tribalism" stands in for a sort of melanin-rich meta-culture.

For all his disavowals, Brooks himself sees the world as fundamentally composed of "tribes." Charles Murray's 2012 book Coming Apart earned four articles in the Times, but only Brooks took the marketing genius and inveterate racialist's line at face value. Murray's thesis takes a structural division and turns it into a question of breeding. In his column, Brooks regurgitated Murray's frame about behavioral differences between the top 20 percent of American earners and the bottom 30: "The word 'class' doesn't even capture the divide," Brooks writes. "You might say the country has bifurcated into different social tribes, with a tenuous common culture linking them." The rich tribe is more responsible and productive, and Brooks doesn't think they should have to apologize for that. Of course, Murray is persistently citing Brooks himself, the two of them circulating conjecture into fact.

By framing inequality as a "tribal" issue of the "social divide" rather than as the exploitation of one class by another, Brooks can maintain his self-conception as a universalist, ending with a call for the lower to join with the upper in one national tribe. Something tells me he would be unlikely to make a similar call with respect to abolishing class division.


In his columns, Brooks evinces no interest in the serious historical or anthropological study of tribally organized peoples. Even worse, he evinces no interest in scholars who have any interest in the serious historical or anthropological study of tribally organized peoples. Information scientists have a saying, "Junk in, junk out," and Brooks is on an intellectual junk-food diet. In 2016, for example, Brooks applauded reporter Sebastian Junger's "excellent" book Tribe—in which Junger argues that Americans have lost our willingness to sacrifice for each other—while all three New York Times reviewers complained that Junger didn't seem to know what a tribe was. Brooks bought the claim from Guns, Germs, and Steel author (and non-anthropologist) Jared Diamond that tribal societies lived and live in a state of "constant war," while actual anthropologists published responses like "Why Jared Diamond Is Completely Wrong," "Why Does Jared Diamond Make Anthropologists So Mad?," and (in an academic journal editorial) "F**k Jared Diamond."

Other lodestones for Brooks—including Murray, Pinker, and, most recentlyJonah Goldberg—are united in their high sales and lack of scholarly merit. Their work isn't just simple, it's simplistic; less food for thought, more fortune cookie. For diligent thinkers, those guys make for easy targets, material for aggressive book reviews, as when David A. Bell and Samuel Moyn kicked around Pinker's latest. These authors are all-stars in the constellation of pop social science mediocrity, and it's a galaxy we could well name after Brooks.

By tracking his use of "tribal" and the social theorists he finds compelling, we can sketch a rough history of the world according to David Brooks. First, in an environmental-determinist fable, geographical group differences arise—perhaps the microbes around the equator made people comparatively hostile to outsiders; whatever. Then those differences ossified (whether biologically or culturally, depending on how coy we're being about a fundamentally racist story), creating distinct peoples that we can divide along the collectivist/individualist axis. The world-historical conflict between the two is also between the West and the rest; Brooks sides definitively with the former and its principle values of reason and property. (A believer in "Western civilization"—especially its art and epistemological pretension—Brooks has applauded Trump's use of the phrase.) Thanks to the superiority of its system, the West conquered tribalism throughout the world, internationally if not always intra-nationally. We've all been better off since.

But no matter how far we've come as a species or global society, our reason remains in tension with our biology. Human evolution hasn't yet caught up to the Enlightenment, and everywhere our natural tribal instincts threaten to overwhelm the fragile dikes of liberalism and flood us with arbitrary factionalism. On the political and cultural margins are the tribalists, who represent, exploit, and are themselves overcome by "primordial biases." Brooks understands the dual appeal of exclusion and belonging, and he doesn't think it can be suppressed altogether, but it can be redirected. Unlike the other Western nations with their ancient cultures, America is reason all the way down. Everything is up for debate except for whether or not everything is up for debate—and private property. What America offers to its members is the tribe of liberalism, the exclusion of exclusion.

For Brooks, the American project appears as the solution to the inevitable contest of human nature versus human potential: the patriotism of reason, the nationalism of diversity. Western civilization is great because it can accommodate difference. "This is a tribal story," Brooks writes of Trump's proposed border wall, in contrast to the ecumenicism that supposedly makes America great; "The tribe needs a strong warrior in a hostile world. We need to build walls to keep out illegals, erect barriers to hold off foreign threats, wage endless war on the globalist elites." Of course, it wasn't tribally organized people who built major walls around their land to exclude others—that was the work of empires and nations—and America itself taught the world how to exclude based on race, but Brooks doesn't let historical facts get in the way of his meta-narrative.

In the zero-sum choice between American patriotism and critical thought, Brooks is always happy to take the former. "This [American] dream is a secular faith that has unified people across every known divide," he lectures, in a column that begins "Dear Ta-Nehisi Coates." Brooks is a zealot of that secular faith; a moderate on principle, he followed logical Obama pragmatism all the way to a vote for Mitt Romney. In 2007, Brooks figured that "the U.S. is about to see a generation that is practical, anti-ideological, modest and centrist (maybe to a fault)." His wishful thinking clearly didn't pan out, but Brooks wasn't hired for his predictive ability, intellectual rigor, or prose style. His job is to tell a fairytale about human history that starts with the evolution of our species and ends with the American project, ever perfecting itself asymptotically into the future. All this present-day "tribalism" must be mere "social" or "cultural" turbulence, because by its existence the United States has already solved the big puzzle.

As long as Americans need to deal with the cognitive dissonance that any basic education in our national history must induce, I figure Brooks will find buyers. His line is easier to sell in column-length close-ups, but if you zoom out, the Brooks story adds up to less than its parts. When you filter the errors and contradictions, the quoted charlatans and missed predictions, what you're left with is the kind of 20th-century picture book that we hide from children lest they confuse what's inside with the truth.