Democracy needs more tribes to survive

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At age 72, the only quickness about her was the speed of the arthritis overtaking her body. She had to use a walker, but she was determined to participate in two rituals, holding her new grandson and hurrahing with her tribe.

In July 1972, my mother flew from Florida to North Carolina, then rode with us to Grandfather Mountain. If your chest puffs out because Scottish blood flows through your arteries, you know Grandfather Mountain’s highland games lures bonnies from all over.

As my mother on her walker clomped around that dusty mountainside, we snapped a photo of her holding her grandson in front of the Clan MacNeil tent. Clans from smallish Dalziel to large Campbell and Maclean set up tents as social centers for their tribes.

The word “clan” comes from Gaelic “clanna,” meaning children, so Mother was tying it all together, baby and tribe. To the pre-teen me, tribe was a racial designation, meaning Indians riding through the matinee Westerns at the Boone Theater in Columbia, Missouri.

In those pre-teen years, we learned in school that our country was a great “melting pot.” Whoever jumped into the pot (Italian, Jew, Scot, Franco, Swede) came out an American. That all these people were white was no accident. My teachers 70 years ago did not talk about Africans or Asians or aboriginal Americans jumping into the melting pot.

Fast forward to last November.

Paul Gruchow, who wrote “Grass Roots,” a book about growing up Scandinavian in Minnesota, hit me right between the eyes when he suggested that the melting-pot idea was a bad idea. “The suppression of differences among whites,” he wrote, “has had the paradoxical effect of accentuating it in poisonous ways. If we imagine that whites are homogeneous, then we are free to magnify the differences between whites and the rest of humanity.”

Better, Gruchow wrote in 1995, the many ethnic white groups should celebrate their tribes. He didn’t write about Canada, but reading him, my mind immediately looked north. Canada celebrates not a melting pot but a “cultural mosaic.” All 36 million are Canadians, but Canadians aren’t so timid about hyphens as we are. French-Canadian, Ukrainian-Canadian, English-Canadian, Italian-Canadian, Haitian-Canadian.

Their federal government spends a lot to pave both tribal paths: Canadian tribe and hyphenated-Canadian tribe. This year, it added nearly $30 million (all figures U.S.) to multi-cultural programs, to integrate all Canadians more thoroughly and to adapt some programs to the cultures of ethnic groups. It was already spending at least $163 million on multiculturalism, so the $193 million is about $5.40 per Canadian. Hyphenated or no.

Don’t get me wrong. These programs can easily become boondoggles. Measuring their success can be a fool’s errand. How do you measure a shift in ethnic animosity? How do you measure acceptance of other people? But Canadians are trying. Officially, they honor the spirit of U.S. slaves who rode the Underground Railway through Maine to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. They honor the foods of Jamaica, the dances of Slovenia.

Gruchow puts an American angle on a conclusion I reached decades ago. Societies with many ethnic groups are more likely to succeed than those with only a few large groups.

My master’s thesis compared Uganda, with three tribes, each large, and Tanzania, with scores of tribes, each small. I concluded that Uganda would have a harder time moving to democracy because with competition among just three tribal groups, the stakes in each tussle were higher. As always in a zero-sum game, your gain is my loss.

A year later, along came Idi Amin to prove my point. In 1971, he seized control of Uganda in a coup, then doled out patronage mostly to his Kakwa people. During eight years as president, backed by the army, he constantly put his tribe ahead of others.

When my wife and son arrived in Montreal, where we immigrated in 1972, the Dorval Airport was bustling with Asian-Ugandans whom Amin had expelled as being ethnically impure. Canada took in 15,000 Asian-Ugandans and, with them, much of Uganda’s economic infrastructure. Uganda never did recover economically from the expulsions.

Tanzania has had difficulties, but it is still democratic, albeit in an African way. Stakes are smaller in each tussle, and everyone is looking for a smaller piece of the big pie.

After having grown up thinking of tribes only as Indian bands, I didn’t hear the word tribe more than once a year. Then along came Donald Trump. He would divide our nation into two bitter tribes, one of whites and one of everybody else.

It serves his narrow purpose, but it is a losing strategy in the middle and long run. We white folks will soon be a minority. Still the largest tribe, but not a majority. It is already true in two states (Hawaii and California) and may be true in three others (Florida, Texas, Arizona). If we whites remain a single tribe, we lose. New numbers are due in 2020.

Idi Amin was not the first demagogue to play the tribal card. Donald Trump will not be the last. But we have Amin’s example of what can happen when we permit insecure loudmouths to pit one large group against others.

Alexander Hamilton got it just about right in describing what’s happening in America. Only he said this 226 years ago last month:

“The truth unquestionably is that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of (our) country is by flattering the prejudices of the people and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion and bring on civil commotion. Tired at length of anarchy, or want of government, they may take shelter in the arms of monarchy for repose and security.”

Bob Neal celebrates his many tribes. Northern British Isles (73.5 percent), Scandinavian (19.4), Ashkenazi Jewish (1.8), Middle Eastern (3.0), North African (1.2) and Nigerian (1.1). May they live long and prosper.

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