What Matters More, Tribe or Democracy?

By Johann N. Neem


As part of the Kettering Foundation’s ongoing research, our staff and allied organizations gather for monthly Dayton Days research sessions to reflect on the ideas guiding our work and to share new insights. Conceptual thinkers from outside the foundation join us to talk about their work and provoke our thinking.

In October 2020, we invited Johann N. Neem, a history professor at Western Washington University, to join us. He is the author of Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts (2008), Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (2017), and What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform (2019).


Deliberation among citizens is essential in a democracy. Citizens reasonably disagree on everything from taxes to immigration. Bringing people together to deliberate enables people to learn from and with each other, breaks down barriers, and can produce more thoughtful and nuanced opinions. This matters more than ever at a time when the fragmentation and proliferation of social media encourage more of us to enter echo chambers where our pre-deliberative views are reinforced and even radicalized.

To bring people who disagree together around a table and ask them to talk, and even change their minds, however, may depend on their hearts. If we disagree with each other, we can find common ground. If we dislike each other, finding common ground becomes more difficult. If we think of each other as fellow citizens, we can work together. If we think of each other as rivals for scarce resources, working together is more challenging. This question matters because, I fear, we Americans are starting to see ourselves as distinct and opposing tribes in which the members of each distrusts the other with political and cultural power. The danger to our society is that we are polarized not just over policies, but over each other

Scholars and activists alike need to confront the possibility that nation may matter more to people than democracy. It may be the nation, not abstract notions of civic virtue, that enables people to sacrifice their immediate interests for each other. Civic virtues may be the product of national identity, not the other way around. In a hard world, it is difficult enough to give up time and money to provide for others. Without a sense of tribal affiliation, perhaps, it is almost impossible. 

Our domestic affairs are starting to look more like international affairs, where we make temporary treaties to avoid violence, rather than work together to promote a shared common good. In “’I Fear That We Are Witnessing the End of Democracy,’” one of the most insightful columns written before the 2020 presidential election, New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall drew on the work of political scientist Alexandra Filindra to argue that democracy is a second-order good. People prioritize their tribe and its well-being, and then democracy. They share within their community and sustain democratic norms within their community. In other words, democracy is a system that can manage pluralism and conflict within a group, such as a nation, but has a harder time surviving when conflicts are understood as pitting distinct groups against each other. 

The most important work before us then is rebuilding our sense of ourselves as a people. Our social fabric has been torn apart by decades of culture wars, globalization, and economic inequality. People of all backgrounds feel abandoned by the system. The system itself, if Congress is a guide, has ceased working. Since the government shutdown of 1994, it has become harder for members of the opposing parties to compromise to achieve the common good. 
For those of us who believe in democracy and its institutions—free and fair elections, the rule of law, equality, deliberation through the public use of reason—rebuilding the nation may be the most important and effective way to rebuild democracy. We can argue all we want about the need to respect democratic institutions and norms or the need for citizens to put the good of all ahead of their own needs, but that may have little impact if we do not see ourselves as a people. The common good is always bounded by the people we consider part of the commons.

That is why I think we need to promote an integration agenda across the various domains of American society. In public schools, I write elsewhere, this means pushing for integration across racially and economically exclusive school zones and district boundaries, as well as a curriculum that emphasizes a shared sense of us as fellow Americans. We need to challenge gerrymandered districts that slice and dice us into partisan blocs. We need to find a way to reform our media so that we are not polarized into distinct teams who consider our opponents to be our enemies. We need to bridge the gap between the worldviews of those with college degrees and those without. And, perhaps most important, we need to reintegrate the economic interests of globalized elites with the needs of people in the United States for meaningful and productive jobs.

Achieving these goals is no easy task, and how to do so unclear. It is essential that those of us who study democracy join forces—in academia, in philanthropy, in civil society, and in elected office—to propose multiple solutions, from local events that can develop social trust to public policies that respond to people’s needs. Americans are anxious and angry, and justifiably so. We need to discover which levers will allow us to move beyond these emotions to a place where we can work together.

If democracy depends on tribe, then sustaining democracy means investing in the nation as our tribe. The biggest challenge we face today may be restoring the American promise of e pluribus unum