Understanding Tribal Politics in Europe

Instead of a “Populist Zeitgeist” in the West we often talk about, we should better talk about a “Tribalist Zeitgeist”. “Populism” is a weak term for many reasons. Voters of populist parties (especially if their parties are on power) often do not show the typical attributes of populism. They are neither people-centric, nor anti-elitist. They show authoritarian tendencies instead – combined with a Manichean worldview and a strong anti-pluralism.

We can observe the emergence of a more ancient, more crude form of politics, in which tribal identities triumph over democratic norms. Tribalism is beyond populism: while the term “populism” requires some democratic minimum, tribalism is essentially anti-democratic. Political tribalism is a mentality which can be characterized by three features: rallying around the leader of the tribe, suppressing any dissent in own tribe and defeating the other tribe with every tool possible. Tribalism has a deep impact. For example, it can lead to double standards on corruption: voters of tribalist parties do not care how corrupt are their beloved politicians because they think this is collecting resources for a tribal war. Also, tribal mindset leads to support to transgression of democratic norms to winning tribal political wars – as we can observe in Poland and Hungary - but to a smaller extent in Austria, Italy and the US and UK as well. And last but not least: tribalism increases receptivity to fake news and conspiracy theories, as these tribal myths can help defeat the other tribe.

During my Europe’s Futures fellowship with the Institute for Human Sciences and ERSTE Foundation, I would like to elaborate my thoughts on the causes and cures of tribalism in a book, using an interdisciplinary framework combining political science, evolutionary psychology, and intergroup relations, using case studies from both in Eastern and Western Europe.

Peter Kreko

Peter Kreko, PhD. is a social psychologist and political scientist. He is a think-tanker and an academic. He serves as the director of Political Capital Institute in Budapest, a non-resident fellow at JHU SAIS Bologna Institute for Policy Research, and senior lecturer at the Social Psychology Department of the Eotvos Lorand University of Sciences in Budapest. He was a Fulbright Visiting Professor at Indiana University in Bloomington in 2016-2017. His interests include conspiracy theories and fake news, the institutional influence of the Kremlin in Europe, and political populism and tribalism in Europe. He is author of two books. The Hungarian Far Right was published at Ibidem Verlag at 2017 and distributed by Columbia University Press. His other book on fake news and conspiracy theories was published in Hungarian in 2018 and became a social science best-seller. He is a team member of the project Closing space in Civil society, ran by the Washington-based think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).