Tribalism Isn’t Working, so There Needs to be a Better Way

A commentary on our present state of democracy.

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The province where I live is presently immersed in an election to determine who will govern  for the next four years. As I educate myself and watch the campaigning, I am alarmed.  Why you ask? The Edmonton Journal’s article, Controversies hound numerous MLA hopefuls ahead of Tuesday’s election, outlines numerous candidates, most from one political party, who have posted homophobic, Islamophobic, and white supremacist comments on social media. There are other controversies as well, such as one of the parties being under RCMP investigation for voter fraud and a “kamikaze’ scheme during the leadership race, yet people continue to support this party. I don’t understand why.

More and more, it feels like elections and politics are becoming increasingly divisive and polarized. Politicians show no shame in provoking anger, attacking one another, bolstering fear, and pitting people against each other. This certainly is true for the provincial election happening right now. I see it in our Federal politics as well, with the current Prime Minister and his government attacking the opposition leader and his party and visa versa. Threats of lawsuits for defamation of character are taunted. Then there is the United States, the most polarized country with its president constantly attacking someone and most definitely displaying these polarized views.

I’ve gone through numerous elections before, so I’m trying to understand what is happening in this one. I don’t recall them being so divisive before. It could be my memory, but I don’t believe so. We seem to be living in turbulent times. Recently, someone helped me understand what is happening. He said—not  in these exact words—’our democratic system is based on tribalism’. What is he talking about?

The Oxford Dictionary defines tribalism​ as “the state or fact of being organized in a tribe or tribes,” and “the behaviour and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group.” Yes, this is what is happening in our politics. We have tribes—political parties with specific philosophies on how to govern—with members loyal to the tribe, that is, political party, and its tribe members refuse to consider philosophies different from the one they align themselves with.

From Debate.org

I see two main philosophies; conservatism and liberalism, or some may say the progressives. The Oxford Dictionary defines conservatism as “commitment to traditional values and ideas with opposition to change or innovation,” and “the holding of political views that favour free enterprise, private ownership, and socially conservative ideas.” It defines Liberalism as, “willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas,” and “favourable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms.” That same dictionary defines progressives as “an idea favouring social reform,” and “favouring change or innovation.”

That appears to be it. Both philosophies are found in most democratic countries,  and its people are aligned with one or the other. In Canada, some of our political parties even have these words in their names. Federally, we have the Conservative Party of Canada and the Liberal Party of Canada. In my province, we have a Liberal Party and the United Conservative Party (UCP). In the U.S. there are the Democrats—the tribe that follows liberal/progressive philosophy—and the Republicans—a conservative philosophy. Even churches like the Catholic church is divided into conservatives and liberals. I’ll be honest about which tribe I align with. It’s the Liberal tribe as we have to be open to new ideas, since many of the old ways are not working.

From my point of view, political tribalism is failing us. As I mentioned earlier, it stokes anger, promotes attacks on one another, bolsters fear, and pits people against each other. I’ve read many of the comments on political stories involving the provincial election, and people are nasty, and insults are written to those who oppose their views. Conservatism is strong in rural areas of my province, and my experience has been most are unwilling to listen to other points of view. They dig into their positions and refuse to listen to counter arguments. This is NOT healthy!

The New York Times has an opinion article called, The Destructive Dynamics of Political Tribalism, which outlines the many ways tribal politics is detrimental to our societies. Canada’s Maclean’s Magazine has an article titled, Tribalism is tearing Canada apart. The title needs no explanation.

There must be a better way; a gentler, kinder, and more cooperative way. I’ve pondered this and the only system that makes sense to me is a system of governance involving consensus, which means a general agreement must occur in decision-making.

Wikipedia explains consensus decision-making as,

a group decision-making process in which group members develop, and agree to support a decision in the best interest of the whole group or common goal. Consensus may be defined professionally as an acceptable resolution, one that can be supported, even if not the ‘favourite’ of everyone.”

Wikipedia says consensus decision-making aims to be:

  1. Agreement Seeking: A consensus decision-making process attempts to generate as much agreement as possible.
  2. Collaborative: Participants contribute to a shared proposal and shape it into a decision that meets the concerns of all group members .
  3. Cooperative: Participants in an effective consensus process strive to reach the best possible decision for the group and all its members, rather than competing for personal preferences.
  4. Egalitarian: All members of a consensus decision-making body are afforded, as much as possible, equal input into the process. All members could present, and amend proposals.
  5. Inclusive: As many stakeholders as possible should be involved in the consensus decision-making process.
  6. Participatory: The consensus process should actively solicit the input and participation of all decision-makers.
The Legislative Building of the NWT.

Does consensus decision-making exist in governance today? Absolutely. Consensus democracy government is alive and well in Canada as it is used in two of Canada’s three territories; Northwest Territories and Nunavut. These Legislatures are designed so politicians sit in a circle, symbolizing a unity of purpose.  In Provincial Legislatures, opposing parties sit across from each other, symbolizing opposing views. It’s interesting to note that the population of these territorial jurisdictions are a majority of Indigenous people.

Consensus democracy government stems from the Indigenous culture. I’ve always maintained that the traditional Indigenous people have always done things right, and this is but another example. A blog by Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. called What does traditional consensus decision making mean? explains some of the roots of this form of governance. I know many of you are thinking “no way consensus democracy would work because it is impossible to get everyone to agree.” This blog explains,

Consensus is not the same as unanimity. Consensus means a group or community arrives at a consensus by listening to the opinions and concerns of others – they work towards a suitable decision. Not everyone is necessarily pleased with the outcome but they realize it is the best decision for the community. Unanimity requires that everyone involved agrees.

This is how governments should work, and need to work. Perhaps it is time for democratic countries to seriously look at alternatives, such as consensus democracy. Just because tribal politics has been our the way till now, doesn’t mean we can’t make a change for the better.