Elections, tribes and community

posted in: GoingLocal | 6


What to make of the 2016 national election? And what to do about it? It was a tribal affair and one cluster of tribes defeated another.
Humans are hard-wired for tribalism. The idea of collaborating to achieve some larger goal is part of our biological heritage. In the Savannah, tribalism was a success strategy against harsh conditions. Within the tribe there was competition for favored status but the group always united against competitor tribes. Tribes are always focused on survival and that remains true in 2016.

Americans have always found ways to collaborate to improve their communities. Tocqueville marveled at this in the early 1800’s and it is still somewhat true today. But jump beyond the community to larger tribes less focused on place and more focused on ideology –political parties. At this scale the price of admission has become steep—absolute fealty to a religious, moral and/or economic ideology. Our place-based collaborative tribes have given way to abstract ideologically-driven tribes. And at this scale the game has become zero-sum. If my tribe wins yours must lose. There is no compromise. My win must be total to destroy your tribe and prove my tribe’s ideological superiority over yours and to control resources to ensure future longevity.

Given the biological need for tribes, it will be in our best interest to harness this natural tendency into something constructive. We need to move from tribes of exclusive ideology to tribes of inclusive place.

Our experiments in Civic Ecology in urban, rural and suburban communities in Oregon, Georgia and Michigan have shown that representatives of diverse and often antagonistic ideological tribes can collaborate when the projects are specific to their shared geography, are non-ideological and are focused on achieving shared visions based on shared core values.

The Civic Ecology framework helps communities of place use strong democracy to envision a shared future where resource systems like food, water, energy, money, local culture and information are consciously designed and managed at the community scale by active citizens. Physical projects like starting a farmer’s market to ensure access to locally-produced food benefits farmers, citizens, businesses and others within the community. Likewise for community gardens which may be as much about food access as social capital building. More extensive projects like building a main street cooperative to provide opportunities for local businesses to acquire their goods and services from other businesses within and around the community can be a way to keep costs down, enhance the local economic multiplier effect and grow clusters of economic development and jobs. In all of these enterprises there need not be discussion of what divides the community: the size of government, abortion rights, religious purity and so on. Place-based initiatives will always arise from shared intent: a desire for clean, inexpensive food, creation of jobs within the community, local wealth generation and ultimately a great place for families to grow and prosper.

What is the most appropriate scale for shared projects? Local enough so people can collaborate on things that are not abstract but will touch their lives every day. Something tangible enough to offer an expression of shared ownership. National tribes focus on important projects but often in ways that seem abstract to placemakers. Thus it is easy for them to become ideological– they cease to be touchable, someone else is responsible for executing them and all I am doing is contributing money to them. The benefits may trickle down to the local but most often are intended for a larger audience and scale. But when a project is local the give and take of every day interaction breaks down the need for ideological purity. Who cares about the size of government when we need to plant the garden?

The benefits of this approach are many: a deep sense of community through shared experiences of placemaking, the creation of local and enduring wealth, community resilience amid economic, social and climate uncertainty and a shared sense of ownership and responsibility for something larger than one’s home but smaller than a national abstraction. But the biggest benefit may be the opportunity to work with someone who may not be part of your ideological tribe. You may find the discussions over hard work enlightening or maybe even transformative. In doing you will be contributing to making your community a great place and you may be helping to save your country.

In America, focusing on the local has always been and still is how communities, cities and regions have grown and thrived. But today, tribal ideology has gotten in the way. Our biggest challenges are two: the lack of tools to work across tribes toward a common vision that benefits all and the tendency to sort into tribal geographies of identical ideologies. To make America greater, let’s work to shift from tribes of ideology to tribes of place.

So, don’t move away to somewhere where everyone thinks like you. Break out of your tribe, collaborate with the other. Get messy together. Have a few shared wins. Break bread together. Stay away from what divides and instead, focus on the shared. Resist the temptation to react to the election outcome by gloating or sniping. In other words, don’t go low… go local.

6 Responses

  1. Ellen Karas

    This conclusion is fantastic and such an uplifting take on the state of things. I wish for everyone to take on this collaborative state of mind. Maybe then we can move forward and come out of this period of great divide even stronger than ever before.

  2. Dale Allen

    Inspiring! Makes me want to get more involved with the business district on 42nd, the Cully Neighborhood Association, or Rigler School.
    My wife and I went to a volunteer orientation for 350pdx yesterday and I’m excited to lend a hand there, but we didn’t see much diversity – unless you count long hair and strange hats.

  3. TimCE

    Thanks to all who have responded so far.

    Cole, the article is interesting as are Lakoff’s books on the same topic. I wonder what would happen if the same researchers tried to measure motivating factors for community-building projects. Would the strict parent and nurturing parent world view be relevant if the goal was to create a shared community resource like a community garden? Or would there be some other meta-narrative that arose from our deep tribal instincts that would be found to be operational? Like steward of a shared commons? Or barn-raising? Or competition with the neighboring community for some seed money to get the initiative going?

    Tip O’Neill said it right years ago: “All politics is local”. Maybe we have forgotten how to operationalize that.

  4. Doc Hall

    Good commentary. Fits with my experience. Typically, if people can come together on anything, it is community gardens or community clean up, and people that work together get to know other. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen the problem of sustaining enthusiasm. 20% of the people do 80% of the work, and the 20% start to tire of it.

    • TimCE

      Yes, the durable follow up seems always to be an issue. I’ve just posted another blog on 21st Century infrastructure which, in my opinion, is the soft, people-based form of infrastructure. Imagine if there was funding available for soft systems infrastructure development that volunteers could be compensated for their time in some way. Not necessarily paid, although that might be possible, but otherwise compensated either through incentive funding for their community project, recognition, encouragement to become a guru of something that they could offer their expertise as part of a business start-up. We have seen a few ways that encourage people to own their community projects but it always seems to boil down to those who, no matter what else is going on in their lives, will show up to do the community’s work..

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