For Alexis de Tocqueville, bottom-up cooperation in pursuit of political and non-political ends was necessary to sustain the life of a free, democratic society. “[If men living in democratic countries] never acquired the habit of forming associations in ordinary life,” he wrote, “civilization itself would be endangered.”
Yet, could it be that an important part of our problem today is that people tend to cooperate too much? Namely, that it has become easier than ever to form communities that filter communication, suppress internal dissent, and consider their own standards above any outside criticism? According to the economic historian Timur Kuran, such “intolerant communities lay the foundations for tyranny by creating constituencies prepared to suspend the rule of law for some higher purpose.”
If it is indeed underway, such a balkanization of the public space into intolerant communities vying for power might count among the most important threat facing free societies at this time. Its consequences go far beyond the question of who the White House’s current occupant is, or what immigration and trade policies Western democracies ought to pursue. What is at stake is our ability to live in self-governing societies and to sort out political and social problems through civil association and democratic competition.
The problem of too much cooperation is not a new one. Whereas social scientists tend to be concerned about instances when cooperation breaks down in miscellaneous prisoner dilemma situations, the founder of economic profession, Adam Smith, wrote eloquently about the propensity of groups to cooperate too much, to the detriment of broader society. To overcome the resulting problem of factions, Smith argued, individuals needed to learn to weaken their in-group bonds and extend sympathy those outside of the cooperating group.
Incidentally, recent (as well as earlier) research shows that dense networks of civic associations were related to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. In the face of weak political institutions of the Weimar Republic, personal, face-to-face networks fostered the spread of the radical new movement. In Prussia, where rule of law and democratic politics were more robust than in the rest of Germany, the link between higher levels of social capital and the spread of membership in the Nazi Party was much weaker than elsewhere.
Fast forward to the present, Twitter and Facebook have replaced face-to-face interactions and Nazism has been superseded by other ideologies. Yet the proliferation of intolerant, tribalist communities is proceeding apace. According to Kuran, such communities have a number of distinguishing traits. First and foremost, they give their leaders wide discretion in deciding what answers to political and social questions are the rights ones. They also selectively limit the flow of information, suppress internal dissent and label those who openly disagree as enemies or traitors.
Second, intolerant communities will rarely characterize themselves as such. Most typically, they can only be identified in opposition to other intolerant communities, especially those intolerant of them. Intolerance coming from different sides thus becomes mutually reinforcing, suffocating other forms of civic engagement, debate, and cooperation. The Tocquevillian ecosystem of civil society thus turns into a tribalist conflict or, if one faction achieves domination, into an authoritarian political regime.
Islamist movements in Muslim-majority societies are prime examples of such intolerant communities. They were initially devised as responses to the grievances related to Western colonization and to authoritarianism of secular regimes that oftentimes looked to the West for help or inspiration. Such movements merged the political and the personal: through the revival of Islamic dress codes, gender segregation, dietary restrictions, Islamic banking, or the communal provision of various public services where local regimes lacked the interest or capacity. One side effect of such dynamic was to reduce the opportunities, and increase the costs, of interacting with outsiders, thus fostering in-group discipline.
The endgame includes the global jihadi-salafi movement which is behind much of the international terrorism that has shaken European societies in recent years, as well the theocratic regimes in places such as Iran and increasingly in Turkey.
As of late, the Western world has come to harbor two of its own specimens of intolerant communities: the radical nationalist Right and the identitarian Left. Neither is a fully coherent, unified movement (nor is political Islamism). Rather, they are coalitions of different ideologies and interests, adapted to local conditions. For the nationalist Right, the overarching ambition is to return ethnic homogeneity to Western societies and to reverse the decline of relative status enjoyed by the white working class. The goal of the identitarian Left, in turn, is to rectify the injustice caused by the historic domination of white heterosexual men over Western societies.
Whether the two movements represent an equally important threat to liberal democracy is beside the point. It is also largely immaterial what specific arguments they propose. In both cases one could find modicums of truths. Rightwing radicals, for example, are not wrong to be upset by the social and health crisis that has afflicted white working-class males in America—as well as the fact that the crisis had long gone unnoticed precisely because it afflicted white men. Likewise, the identitarian Left is correct to argue that systemic injustice exists in Western societies, that ethnic and sexual minorities oftentimes have a very different experience with the criminal justice system compared to the rest of the population, and that they face prejudice and discrimination.
What makes both groups dangerous is not so much the content of what they propose—even though their practical policy prescription are oftentimes asinine—but rather their uncompromising, absolutist style. Rightwing radicals in Budapest, Warsaw, and Washington tend to see legal constraints on political power, independent judiciary, and free media as undesirable hurdles in advancing the interests of those who gave them their political mandate. Those on the identitarian Left sometimes argue that Western-style liberal democracies are founded, as political systems, on white supremacy and patriarchy and that standard political institutions exist with the purpose of protecting the privileges of white, heterosexual males.
Although by standards of truly tribalist societies the West still has a long way to go, growing polarization has gone hand in hand with a fraying of the boundaries between the political and the personal. It is well-known that in the late 1950s, only a small fraction of Democrats and Republicans would want their daughters to marry a member of the same party, according to a Gallup poll. By 2016, those numbers reached north of 60 percent. It has been equally well-documented, by Charles Murray and Tyler Cowen for example, how various forms of self-segregation in the United States, along social, educational, and, to some extent, ethnic lines has become easier over the past decades, including through the use of new technologies that allow us to filter content we do not wish to see. As a result, looking at the world through the lenses of those who do not share our cultural outlook, experience, or political views has become more difficult than before.
The two intolerant communities are feeding off each other. In fact, the radical Right across the West also received a boost from jihadi terrorism perpetrated on European soil, in Paris, Nice, and Brussels. But in the United States in particular, the alt-Right, with its promise of law and order, thrives on the excesses of political correctness and the immaturity and violence of campus activists. And, vice versa, the identitarian Left draws its strength from President Trump’s divisive tweets and his subtle and not-so-subtle winks at America’s white nationalists.
The resulting balkanization threatens the survival of democracy, which rests on a degree of moral like-mindedness of its citizens, who might disagree vehemently over the content of policies that they would like to see implemented but who are committed to shared political institutions. To the extent to which tribalism is driven by real, material factors, such as technologies and business models facilitating sorting and matching, it is not clear that it can be reversed easily. Still, it might be worth investing in the “mushy middle” where policy ideas can be debated and compromises reached, without the name calling and anger such exchanges normally generate in highly factionalized settings.
With friends and colleagues at AEI and at the left-leaning Center of American Progress, we are trying to do exactly that, and have recently launched an initiative that seeks to promote dialogue among scholars and policy practitioners of different political persuasions on how democracy, market economy, and the Western-led international order can be revitalized. Perhaps this effort will amount little more than platitudes. But if you have better ideas for how the spirit of Tocqueville could be revived in today’s Washington, I would love to hear them.