🔮 Populism research demands more nuance: enter tribalism

Tribalism has emerged as a key term in political discussions — often used, but not clearly defined. Ilana Hartikainen and Zea Szebeni propose reconceptualising ‘tribalism’ to differentiate forms of political mobilisation. Tribalism, they argue, forms exclusive groups around shared values — and it’s gone global

Populism’s old, tribalism’s bold

Populism is everywhere these days — or at least the term is. It's thrown around so much in political conversation that it's starting to lose its punch. Overreliance on the term has led to its dilution, as Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti highlight in their inaugural blog post in this series. In this context, the concept of tribalism offers a fresh and more precise perspective that goes beyond the broad strokes of populism. Here, we explore what tribalism entails, and discuss why it is a critical tool for analysing current political environments, along with some that may seem less political.

How are populism and tribalism different?

Firstly, we approach populism as a form of rhetoric that divides society into two groups: 'the people', and 'the Other'. Since we’re defining it as form rather than content, movements at any point on the political spectrum can be populist. Populist movements, however, tend to share the aim of winning (and holding onto) power in a democratic setting. Defining ‘the Other’ is crucial for populist mobilisation. However, it also involves convincing as many potential voters as possible that they, too, belong to ‘the people’. Populist movements therefore have a universal quality, in that the demands they pose could, in theory, speak to anyone.

Tribalist groups are apathetic towards democracy and don’t aim to win democratically

But what about groups that don’t aim to speak for all? Tribalism, like populism, is a form of rhetoric that divides society into a people and an Other. However, we argue that where populism is universal, tribalism is exclusive. ‘The people’ in a tribalist movement coalesce around a set of shared values. Those who don’t subscribe to these ideas are excluded. While tribalist groups do exist within democratic settings, they are apathetic towards democracy, and don’t aim to win democratically.

Tribalism or nationalism?

At this point, it might appear that we are just rebranding nationalism. However, our research argues that tribalism functions differently from that, too. Nationalism builds its idea of 'the people' around a specific territory, ethnic group, and the (sometimes made up) traditions that the group practices. Conversely, tribalism has the potential to be both more and less exclusive than nationalism.

Tribalism may entangle with nationalist claims if it addresses the subset of the nation that holds the given set of shared values which forms the core of the tribe. On the other hand, it may reach beyond nations, linking transnational groups that share similar values but do not share a nation. For those interested in a comprehensive comparison between populism, nationalism and tribalism, see this detailed table in our recent East European Politics and Societies article.

Decoding tribalism in action on the Slovak right wing

Our research aimed to differentiate tribalism from populism and nationalism. To do so, we analysed Facebook posts by Slovak party leaders from 2021—22. We chose Slovakia for its sheer number of parties at different points on the ideological spectrum (albeit more on the right), all described as ‘populist’.

Slovakia also has a politically active Hungarian minority ethnic group. We included the Hungarian Alliance party, too, thinking it could present an ideal opportunity to see how a political leader might refer to divisions within a single nation. Perhaps surprisingly, in our analysis, the Hungarian minority party leader did not appear at all tribalist. We did, however, find one excellent example of tribalism: Marian Kotleba and his far-right neo-Nazi party, People's Party Our Slovakia (L'SNS).

Marian Kotleba employed violent rhetoric, a manifestation of his disregard for democracy

Kotleba did make references to the Slovak people, but his definition of 'the people' did not include all Slovaks, only those who shared certain beliefs. These beliefs included how the government behaved like a nanny state during the pandemic, the sanctity of Christianity, and the oppressiveness of the EU and other international bodies. On the other hand, Kotleba also extended his notion of 'the people' abroad. He commended a far-right Czech political party on its protest that mirrored L’SNS’ values. Kotleba's disregard for democracy also manifested as violent rhetoric.

Tribalism tomorrow: shaping future political landscapes

Tribalism does not operate only within national contexts; indeed, it can have strong international character. The June 2023 White Boy Summer Fest in Finland is a prime example. This gathering, which attracted neo-Nazis from around the world, illustrates tribalism’s focus on distinct, shared values. Populism generally strives to appeal widely to 'the people'. Instead, the White Boy Summer Fest revealed an exclusive us-versus-them mindset. It highlighted how internationally diverse groups can be united by similar value systems. The event thus emphasised the global collaboration and international scope of tribalism in action.

Tribalism fosters unique coalitions based on common values or beliefs rather than national identities

Tribalism can also lead to temporary and fleeting alliances or 'tribes', a phenomenon that cropped up during the Covid-19 pandemic. During lockdown, unlikely alliances formed between far-right groups and yoga teachers, united by shared scepticism towards mainstream medicine and health policies. These alliances transcend traditional political and social boundaries. They show how tribalism fosters unique coalitions that are not divided along ideological lines but based on common values or beliefs. This reflects tribalism’s ability to create new, often unexpected group dynamics in response to contemporary issues.

A dynamic perspective

The rise of tribalism presents new challenges and opportunities for understanding political landscapes. It is a call to rethink how we analyse and engage with evolving political identities and alliances. But this is not merely a theoretical exercise. Conceptualising tribalism reflects the tangible, real-world shifts that manifest in diverse ways. Tribalism offers a dynamic perspective, inviting us to stay alert and adaptive as we navigate the ever-changing terrains of global politics. We should accept that not everything is populism. Bringing tribalism into our analytical repertoire will help uncover deeper truths and connections in our increasingly interconnected world.

No.68 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the ðŸ”® to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Ilana Hartikainen Ilana Hartikainen PhD Candidate, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki More by this author
photograph of Zea Szebeni Zea Szebeni Doctoral Researcher, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki More by this author

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