Containing our tribal societies

The lessons of Irish unrest demonstrate why America’s political infrastructure must not be undone.

Driving around Minnesota in the run up to last year’s presidential election, you could get a good idea of which candidate would win each area from the signs you saw. In the cities and suburbs the lawn signs were almost exclusively for Joe Biden. In Greater Minnesota, the signs were almost exclusively for Donald Trump. You knew whether you were in blue or red territory.

This reminded me of family holidays to Ireland as a kid, landing in Belfast and driving across Northern Ireland to Donegal. Along the way, you knew if you were in Loyalist or Nationalist territory. In the Loyalist areas, where residents wished to remain in the United Kingdom, the Union flag flew and the kerbstones were painted red, white and blue. In the Nationalist areas, whose residents wanted to join the Republic of Ireland, the Irish tricolor flew and the kerbstones were painted green, white and gold. Tribes — blue or red, orange or green — like to mark their territory.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a tribe as: “A social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.” This is a fair description of Northern Ireland’s tribes. They have their own religions, rarely intermarry, have different historical narratives, and live separately. Indeed, Nationalists, mainly Catholic, alienated from a state controlled by mainly Protestant Loyalists, had their own newspapers, sports clubs, social venues and education system.

But it is also a fair description of America’s two tribes. They too have different religious attitudes and are not likely to date each other — Americans are now more disapproving of cross-partisan relationships than of interracial ones. They have their own news outlets, like different sports and vacation differently. They do not, yet, have their own schools, but after a year where public kindergarten enrollment fell by nine percent in Minnesota while enrollment at private kindergartens rose by 12 percent, that may change.

The dangers of a tribally divided polity are illustrated by Northern Ireland’s his- tory where, historian Marc Mulholland writes, “even liberal democratic institutions and a standard of living enviable in all but the wealthiest countries were no proof against ethnic conflict in the contemporary age.” But it also suggests some solutions, with America well-placed to cope.

Northern Ireland was established in 1922 when mostly Catholic Ireland seceded from the U.K. and the mostly Protestant north of the island seceded from that. But tribal divisions persisted. While the south’s Protestant population was small enough to be powerless (10 percent in 1911) and got smaller (four percent in 1971), Catholics accounted for 33 percent of the north’s population in 1926 and now comprise 40 percent. As a matter of pure democracy, North- ern Ireland’s Protestants permanently ruled its Catholics, but Catholics had the numbers to be powerful. Denied any political outlet, that power found expression in violence from 1968.

The lesson for America is that untrammeled majority rule can lead to resentment in a society where separate tribes make up large enough shares of the population: 36 percent of Americans describe themselves as conservative and 24 percent as liberal. To end the violence in Northern Ireland, untrammeled majority rule had to be curtailed. Here, there are reasons for Americans to be optimistic.

In 1969, Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill, foresaw “regional parliaments all over Britain having a federal relationship with Westminster.” In the American context this means greater federalism, with blue states doing their thing, red states doing theirs, and a much diminished role for the federal government.

The violence in Northern Ireland was brought to an end by power sharing, making it impossible for one tribe to dominate another. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 established a legislature where legislation required either parallel consent or a weighted majority of 60 percent of voting members to be passed. Again, America already has this political architecture in place with multiple checks and balances and supermajority requirements like the filibuster.

The Founding Fathers wisely warned of the tribal passions party politics would unleash, but here they are. How will we deal with them? Fortunately, America’s political institutions are not the majoritarian ones that stoked de- cades of violence in Northern Ireland. We have federalism. Like Northern Ireland’s assembly, our Senate has a supermajority requirement in the filibuster. A greater appreciation of the importance of these will help America’s two tribes to coexist. Northern Ireland had to build these institutions; America already has them. And it should protect them. A move in the other direction, with, for example, the filibuster abolished and the Supreme Court packed — a move towards the old majoritarian politics of Northern Ireland — would take America’s tribes down a dangerous road.