The Virtue Of Loyal Political Tribalism

Reading Stephen Fry’s blog post on the UK election the other day, I came across the following line: ”one thing has remained constant in my political affiliations, and that is a deep contempt and fear of tribalism”.

I should not have been surprised, of course. This is a rather popular attitude to take these days, after all, and is a measure of political “sophistication”. The idea of political tribalism is seen as a mark of anti-intellectualism; the very use of the term conjures up negative connotations of a long-gone, more backwards era. If you wish to be taken seriously as a political commentator, defending tribalism is the last thing you would wish to do.

Yet, nevertheless, tribalism is something I actually do wish to defend. In fact, I wish to go beyond merely defending it, or saying that it is necessary: I wish to say that it is, in fact, virtuous.

The most common argument for tribalism is that by sticking together you will achieve more outcomes than if you fight alone; that conceding occasionally is worthwhile for the greater good. According to this line of reasoning, tribalism is a pragmatic course of action.

Whilst certainly accurate, this argument of necessity is not the reason for my endorsement of ‘tribalism’ as a concept. Rather, my support stems from a deeper notion of virtue: one based upon the principle of loyalty.

When we speak of loyalty generally, we primarily refer to it as regarding our friends or family members; that we stick by our friends, through thick and thin. That we defend our kin Yet, upon reflection, loyalty manifests wider than this. Loyalty to a sporting team, or to a country, are both things we readily accept as positive, with little question. Few will doubt that a man who abandons his sporting team because they have lost a season is little more than a cad, nor that life-long nationalist decides suddenly to attack his country simply because of a governmental decision he disagrees with is a man of little moral fibre,(in just the same way as friendship is rooted in the concept that we stick by our friends not only in the good times, but in the bad; not only when they are virtuous, but when they have committed ill-acts). To do otherwise, to be a ‘fair-weather friend’, would render the concept of loyalty meaningless.

Yet for some reason our society’s ‘intellectuals’ seem to think that loyalty should cease to exist when we engage in political activity. That politics is a sphere of action in which virtue and ethics should play no part. That we should boldly go at it alone, and care not for our fellow men-at-arms, or, more importantly, for the banner under which we fight.

Nothing can be further from the truth.

As human beings, we are intrinsically such that we seek community with people; we form societal groups and bond over common principles. Politics is no different. And whether it be to a party, or as a broader ideological movement, loyalty matters.

Human action is about more than simply making the most logical or rational decision in the short term. Making decisions does not make you a good person. Rather, you are a good person because of your character; because you actually hold principles. And this is what loyalty to your political tribe comes down to. Because we define ourselves, we define our character, by our interactions with those around us, and to absent ourselves of this bond to our peers, to say we have no responsibility to the movement we fight for, denigrates a very fundamental part of our humanity. Because our humanity, indeed our identity, depends on our interaction with others. Even the most rabid individualist still defines himself by virtue of his individualism, which in and of itself is a relationship with other people, and the outside world. And as such, our relationship with a political party or movement matters.

Some might retort that it is impossible to have loyalty to a ‘soulless’ entity. But the thing is, political parties do have an inherent nature to them that goes deeper than simply its actions at a given time. They have a history and character that transcends simply its members; we personify them to the degree we speak of their character, their desires, their almost-meta nature. Members of political parties often describe it as their family, and use fraternal terms to describe their co-members. As such, political parties, or even more abstract entities such as political movements, are just as human, and just as deserving, of our loyalty as our closest friends.

Indeed, throughout  history, the greatest examples of loyalty have never been to individuals; they have been to a cause, to a movement. The greatest heroes have been those who submitted themselves to an ideal, a higher authority. Who recognised that they were simply one part of something greater.

Because ultimately, loyalty requires the maturity to recognise the importance of submission and trust to an authority; it is the relationship between an individual and something greater. And that is why loyalty applies in politics.

It is this understanding that interactions between the individual and those around him ought be governed by codes of conduct that separates libertines who foolishly believe in radical individual freedom at all costs, from conservatives and libertarians, who recognise that freedom from government control does not equal absolute license to do whatsoever. True conservatism, or libertarianism, has never been about absolute freedom, rather, freedom from government coercion alone. To the contrary, in opposing government intervention those of us on the right place far greater importance upon communal bonds than the left, and ought recognise the importance of virtue even more acutely than our opponents.

Yet this is not only limited to political parties; as I indicated previously it extends to broader political movements. This is why, even if you disagree with the ‘conservative’ or ‘libertarian’ movement on a point, you do not make a scene about it. There are, after all, enough attacks coming from the opposing side for you to subject your comrades (:-p) to friendly fire.

To accept that there is a time to keep quiet enforces modesty and humility, and for a person to accept their own personal limitation in deference to something far greater than they themselves can be. This is why there is no lower form of life than the apostate who attacks his party or movement, seeking personal credit or recognition for themselves, at the expense of their brothers in arms. Indeed, taking a ‘stance on principle’ is often little more than an excuse for taking the route of cowardice. It is abandoning ethics, virtue, and honour, simply to satisfy an ego-driven craving to ‘be right’, and pander for the approval of the masses.

If we wish to be mature about our politics, we need to recognise the underlying principles of virtue and ethics that underpin all our interactions. We need to recognise the importance of loyalty to not only friends, but political movements. We need to have the humility and inner strength to submit ourselves to that greater authority.

Most importantly, we need to have true character. And when it comes to politics, tribalism and loyalty lie at character’s very core.


3 Responses to “The Virtue Of Loyal Political Tribalism”

  1. Tim Warner Says:

    But of course the danger of tribalism is the decent into cronyism and Tammany Hall type jobbing. NSW Labor has gone through a number of such cycles of triumph and decay. One advantage the non-Labor side has had is the constant re arrangement around that which was best (I speak here non-NSW).

  2. Ben Says:

    I think you have good intentions – but I think there is a dangerous side to loyalty. Some of your points can be carried to extremes. That said, I’d agree that the betrayal is just as dangerous.

    In any case, all of my heroes often put their principles above loyalty to a group or individual. Indeed, history’s pages are filled with countless examples. Martin Luther is just one. %-(

  3. ThatSimple Says:

    “The most common argument for tribalism is that by sticking together you will achieve more outcomes than if you fight alone; that conceding occasionally is worthwhile for the greater good. According to this line of reasoning, tribalism is a pragmatic course of action.”

    That isn’t tribalism. The issue with your whole post is you aren’t addressing tribalism. Tribalism doesn’t mean work together, tribalism means denounce the other group for being the other group, regardless of their actual ideas and practices.
    We would all love to work together, I’m sure, but until people discuss issues instead of labels, that won’t happen because tribalistic simplification is the death of communication.

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