October 9, 2020

Elitism, Wokeness, and Tribal War

Anti-elitism in our politics today reflects a pitched battle between tribalists and woke people.


One of the recurring themes of politics today is the powerful backlash against elitism. Tune into right wing media and you’ll find self-styled populists raging against “elites.” Why doesn’t the audience care that these populists are often rich, powerful, and highly educated?

Populist personalities identify elites by their opinions, not their power, wealth, or status. People with the “wrong” opinions are labeled as elitist and people with the “right” opinions are credited with being “for the people.” This is precisely the in-group / out-group dynamic of the tribal lens. Anti-elitism is tribalism by another name. 

There are limits. Populists can’t just “other” anything they want. If a populist tries to label people who eat ice cream elitist, it won’t stick, because too many people like ice cream. But pick an issue where you can find a wide consensus (e.g. should abortion be legal) and anybody who parts from that tribal consensus is, other, not part of the tribe, and not to be trusted. 

Right wing populists rally supporters by telling them that “there is another tribe, the elites, who hate us and intend to dominate us.” This works, because the opinions that define elites are almost a perfect match for what we see from people with a woke perspective.

People who see the world through a woke lens tend to want a lot of reform. They favor all kinds of policies that are intended to humble the powerful and uplift the downtrodden. An inclusive social-justice approach is what defines the woke lens.

Tribalists see the woke opinions as utter nonsense. When your worldview is based on winning power for your own group, then sharing power and resources with disadvantaged groups literally makes no sense. To them, demands for equality and justice from the woke people just sound like a cynical grab for power.

The mistrust between tribalists and woke people is mutual. As tribalists resist woke’s heartfelt and well-intentioned activism, the woke group sees the tribalists as selfish, foolish, and bigoted. This leads the tribalists to feel like they’re being looked down on, fueling even more mistrust and dislike between the groups.

There is a vast and sad rift between right wing tribalists and left wing woke people. Two warring tribes would at least be able to agree on the basic contours of reality (what is normal and what is crazy), but these groups live in substantially different realities. One group lives in a world of group struggle for power, and the other group lives in a world of widespread injustice that needs correcting. 

The way out requires both sides to de-escalate. For the tribalists, this hinges on expanding the boundaries of the tribe to include all Americans, with an emphasis on key issues that we all agree on. This is nationalism, and it would be a step forward from the brutal internal tribal conflict we’re facing right now. 

For the elites, de-escalation requires empathy for the tribal perspective. Group identity is a powerful and important part of being a human. If people feel their tribe is threatened, they will fight like the devil to protect it. Elites who recognize this situation will find ways to dial back the conflict, signal respect, and de-other themselves by highlighting areas where they agree with the tribalists.

The Politics of 2020 America

Three different perspectives explain much of what we see.

October 5, 2020
10 MIN