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Consumer first and citizen last

Fifteen years ago, University of Oregon president Dave Frohnmayer delivered a prescient commencement address on a political and cultural phenomenon called “the New Tribalism.”

“I hear an ancient noise rising in Oregon. … It sounds like the cacophony of a hundred tribes, each speaking their own tongue. It sounds like a hundred calls to battle,” he said to the bright-eyed graduates and their families on that spring day in 1999. “It is the emergence of what I call the New Tribalism, … the growth of a politics based upon narrow concerns, rooted in the exploitation of divisions of class, cash, gender, region, religion, ethnicity, morality and ideology, a give-no-quarter and take-no-prisoners activism that demands satisfaction and accepts no compromise.”

Perhaps to the surprise of the assembled, Frohnmayer went on catalogue the pernicious elements driving this new tribalism and “eroding the civility of public discourse” in America. He started with some themes—economic insecurity, religious fundamentalism, the end of the Cold War—and then moved on to the enablers, namely a media focused on sensationalism and profit and a burgeoning online realm where vitriol and deception are the two faces of the coin. 

A former Oregon attorney general, two-term representative, and one-time candidate for governor, Frohnmayer is a savvy politician and keen observer of contemporary culture. He made no bones that day about whom he believes is to blame for this new tribalism: small groups of like-minded people who zealously support narrowly focused political issues in the pursuit of expanding their own wealth and interests.

The new tribalism is a cancer that must he stopped, he said, noting that “once it becomes impossible to talk to the other side, to find points of agreement and compromise, the stage is set for social disintegration.”

While Frohnmayer did offer some possibilities for redemption that day, his speech to a group of grads about to make their way in the world was foreboding to say the least. Yet it’s clear that Frohnmayer—like many of us—has had enough of the status quo.

And while I’m not a huge fan of the term new tribalism, mainly because it too casually bears the colonial standard, I think the concept is good starting point for considering the root causes of political gridlock and partisan divisiveness in America today. 

But I would go even further than Frohnmayer and say that after years of exploitation and division of “class, cash, gender, region, religion, ethnicity, morality, and ideology” many Americans are retreating into increasingly smaller tribes. In some ways, we’ve so refined the new tribalism as to enter an era where confirmation bias has supplanted reason and thoughtful opinion—at least in the digital realm.

Imagine this: You turn on the news or go online to try to make sense of the latest instance of war, hunger, poverty, racial injustice, income inequality, and environmental degradation and find yourself surrounded by images and stories (and, increasingly, products!) all designed to confirm what you already know to be true: I was right all along

Digital media like satellite radio, RSS feeds, blogs, social media, discussion threads, and so forth provide consumers the calibration tools to connect only with those who look and think exactly as we do—and block from our view those who do not. In addition, every online search we do and page we click add to a composite profile marketers use to pitch the products and headlines designed to grab your attention. In the quest for offering limitless choice, digital marketers and programmers have enabled our retreat into a tribe of one, a singular profile to which all messages can be specifically tailored. I cheekily call this phenomenon mybalism.

The mybalist is consumer first and citizen last, free to place their own needs, desires, values, and beliefs above all others, even those considered to be part of their own tribe, by framing their selfish pursuit as an exercise of individual rights. 

Sometimes, mybalists arrive at this place by accident, finding themselves prisoners of the barriers around beliefs, values, and activities they have erected in the attempt to create a sense of security in an uncertain world. Other times, the mybalist’s behavior is calculated, and executed with the knowledge that individual rights are sacrosanct in America. 

The effects of mybalism are deleterious to civilization, because civilization requires some level of sublimation of your own needs and desires to work. Civilization asks us to show up—in person, not under a pseudonym—and actively participate in discussing, thinking, and finding ways to connect with others who are very different than we are. 

Civic participation can be awkward and uncomfortable, but it is a core value of our work at the Academy, and we strive to feature a wide variety of ideas and viewpoints in the pages of this magazine. In work of this kind there are lots of opportunities for embarrassment and criticism. But when is the last time you did something—bowl, sing karaoke, write a poem, get a new job, make a birdhouse, talk to a stranger—perfectly the first time around? Never. And you won’t do it perfectly the second time, either.

Democracy is an ongoing experiment, the result of which is always in the making. Stand up, raise your hand, and then say something. As long as we are reasonably informed and compassionate, our thoughts and comments should receive at least as much bandwidth as someone who has nothing to lose but their own self-interest.


From 2008 to 2021 Jason A. Smith was the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of its quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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