Guest Commentary

Jack Danforth: Americans cannot give in to political tribalism

John C. Danforth
John C. Danforth

John C. Danforth delivered these remarks at the Truman Library in Independence as he accepted the Alexander W. Doniphan Community Service Award on Tuesday.

There’s a word that’s recently gained a lot of currency in America. The word is “tribal.” You see it all the time. David Brooks has featured it in newspaper columns. Law professor Amy Chua has written about it in a new book called Political Tribes. Here in a nutshell is her point.

Everyone in America today feels threatened. African Americans fear that their children will be shot by police. Mexicans are threatened with deportation. Muslims are told their religion should be barred from the country. Women are abused by workplace predators. Poor whites feel left behind by a country that calls them “trash.” Religious conservatives are threatened by popular culture. Chua notes that when people feel threatened they retreat into tribalism, a hostile world of us against them.

We think of divisive tribalism as a new phenomenon in America, and it has certainly been exacerbated by current rhetoric, both political and academic. But the life and times of Alexander Doniphan tell us that tribalism in America has a long history, bloodier than what we have today.

Doniphan gained fame in 1838 during a largely forgotten crisis in northwest Missouri known as the Mormon War. Mormons were greatly feared at that time for their growing political and economic power, and it became politically popular to persecute them. They were expelled from Jackson County, and they moved from one county to another in search of safety. Governor Lilburn Boggs ordered their removal from the state or extermination.

Fighting broke out between Mormons and the state militia, and 22 people were killed. Joseph Smith and other Mormons were captured, tried by a kangaroo court, and convicted of treason. Alexander Doniphan, a brigadier general, was ordered by his military superior to execute the Mormons. He flatly refused to do so, saying that their execution would amount to “cold blooded murder.” Doniphan subsequently defended the Mormons at their trial in Liberty.

As Chua has said, when people feel threatened, they resort to tribalism. That’s what happened in these parts 180 years ago. Non-Mormons were afraid that their farms would be taken from them, that they would lose political power, so they turned against the Mormons to the point of bloodshed.

And those in power, the politicians, the governor, the state militia pandered to the fear and sided with the mob.

That was then. This is now. It’s an age old political tactic to play to tribal instincts, to turn us against them, and it persists today.

But at our best, we Americans have known that it cannot be us against them. It must be we the people. We must be one nation indivisible. And it’s our duty as Americans to stand against all who would divide us and to hold ourselves together.

So when politicians encourage tribalism, when they say we should act against Muslims or Mexicans or any other group, it’s up to us to follow the example of Alexander Doniphan when he refused the order to execute the Mormons—to insist that we’re not going to do that, we’re not going to be like that.

We come from many different lands, and we are of different races and religions, and we are all Americans. That’s what makes us great, and that’s what makes us proud.

John C. Danforth was a Republican U.S. senator from Missouri from 1976 to 1995.