The phenomenon of tribal politics in the United States, while often considered as a term that relates only to Native Americans, is actually a concept that applies to a number of political groups within the country.
At its roots, tribal politics is about the identity of a given group that is based on common ethnic or cultural factors that are thought to coalesce the group into a functioning political unit. While there may be some disagreement within the group, ultimately all those concerned rally behind a common purpose, even if there is some difference of opinion on how to express that common purpose.
The concept is based on the model of Indian tribes, and the way that an Indian tribe would be governed by tribal leaders, even in the setting of a contained society, such as on Indian reservations today. The model goes on to make use of the decision making process that is developed among those on the reservation, what powers are given to central tribal councils, and how order is maintained within the group.
It has been noted that many groups within our wider culture employ a similar model in order to function as a subset of our society. As an example, people of the same religion may form a group in which tribal politics will be employed to give direction and a common sense of purpose to like-minded persons. Individuals will emerge within the group who are empowered to make statements that are considered to represent the entire body. In turn, the group will establish mechanisms that allow for the confirmation of orthodoxy among all group members, as a way to ensure that order is maintained. This will of course require the employment of skills to gain the support of the majority, as well as talents to keep the support once it is given. Thus, tribal politics some into play within this religion-based subgroup.
Factors other than religion can also be the basis for tribal unity and thus employ tribal politics in order to maintain the status quo. Political party affiliations may be used as a means of identifying with a given group, and may demand strong adherence to basic rules and codes of conduct, just as in the religion model. Ethnic background can also be a powerful foundation for the formation of a tribe, with politics providing the motivation to function as a unified front.
While the formation of groups or tribes has many advantages, such as clear communication and the establishment of traditions that are expected to be observed, tribal politics can also have a negative side as well. At times, tribal politics may work well for the subgroup, but act as a barrier between the various subgroups. Without the ability to communicate and learn from one another, a subgroup will continue to grow inward and eventually stagnate. The ideal balance is when tribal politics can allow persons of like mind or background to have a unified voice, but not one that is heard to the exclusion of the voices of other tribes. When the concerns of all can be heard, the opportunity for equality exists, even if it remains a goal rather than a reality.