Tribal politics


Shankar Vedantam argues that partisanship is the new racism.

When partisanship is seen as a form of social identity—I’m a Democrat because people like me are Democrats, or I’m a Republican because people like me are Republicans—we can understand why so many blue-collar Kansans are Republicans and why so many Silicon Valley billionaires are Democrats, even though each group’s rational interests might be better served by the other party. Partisanship as social identity helps explain why, if you’re a black man in America, it’s reallyreally difficult to be a Republican. Same goes if you are a white, male, evangelical Christian in rural Texas who supports Barack Obama. Social identities are not deterministic—there will always be some black Republicans and some born-again Christians who are liberals—but most of us stick with our social tribes. Any liberal who supported George W. Bush’s adventure in Iraq would have been ostracized by his friends. A conservative who feels Barack Obama is a cool president will be made to feel like a traitor at church.


Tribal politics

  1. Aaron, thanks for the post, interesting food for thought. Certainly a similarity to racism is the way that hard-core partisans will automatically agree with, and defend, any idea, argument or program proposed by their "team", and automatically disagree with, and attack, any idea, argument or program proposed by the other team. It's reminiscent of Martin Luther King's statement about not judging a person by the colour of their skin but rather by the nature of their character. Instead of considering an idea or proposal on its own merits, all that partisans do is consider who is proposing it.

    We see this phenomenon on these very comment boards all the time.

  2. Does Emily have an explanation for why the Conservatives have gotten the most votes nationally in the past 2 elections? Is she just ASSuming that people of refinement and taste like herself want Canada to be a kind of northern Zimbabwe, mismanaged into the ground by Iggy, Layton and Duceppe?

  3. That's a Con pretending to be me. Ignore him.

  4. Happening above and below you as we speak.

  5. "Any liberal who supported George W. Bush's adventure in Iraq would have been ostracized by his friends. A conservative who feels Barack Obama is a cool president will be made to feel like a traitor at church."

    The two examples aren't analagous at all. In the first there is an issue that would be very difficult to agree with as a liberal, and in the other you have a leader who is identified as more liberal but does some things that are liberal and others that are conservative. (as did George Bush)

    The equivalent would be a conservative agreeing with a policy that is actually a red flag issue, not just having an opinion about the leader. Hard to find something Obama is doing that would be as difficult to swallow for conservatives as a fabricated war was for liberals.

  6. I'm not so sure that the "tribal" thing applies to Canada as much as it might to the US. My friends and family members are all over the map in terms of political views, and I think we need to be wary of importing stereotypes from the United States.

  7. Con's are evil!

  8. I think Shankar is right although i'm not sure at all about the new racism bit [ did i just disagree then?] Tribalism of this nature has been around politics a very long time. [ maybe since its inception]
    The UK is/was a classic example. Traditionally you were labour or Tory from cradle to grave – union guys over here, toffs over there – middle class torn between their wallets and their guilty consciences in the middle. I imagine the goal posts have moved somewhat, but it's still likely the same old playing field. Not new at all.
    Haven't there been some experiments in human nature run along the lines of putting a group of people in a controlled environment, giving them an issue to sort out and observing how long it took them to form two distinct groups?
    I sometimes think God left some important component out of our basic wiring and has been trying one way or the other to get it put back in ever since.

  9. What kind of passive-aggressive wanker has to use other people's identity?

  10. I would guess that this phenomenon has lessened since the days when political parties sought to align themselves with specific religions.

  11. Quelle surprise. Depressing, ain't it?

  12. Instead of considering an idea or proposal on its own merits, all that partisans do is consider who is proposing it.
    We see this phenomenon on these very comment boards all the time.

    Absolutely. For example, the other day I linked to Canada's impressive job recovery numbers. Good news, right? Not according to the partisan denunciations I received in response. Turns out one of the "teams" has a vested interest in downplaying good news on the economic front.

    Andrew Coyne likes to say that partisanship is a disease, and there's no denying that it interferes with cognitive functioning. Neuroscientists have reported that for partisans, political thinking is predominantly emotional and unconscious. Partisans' brains actually reward them for supplanting reason with emotion: there are flares of activity in the brain's pleasure centers when unwelcome information is being rejected.

  13. "Hard to find something Obama is doing that would be as difficult to swallow for conservatives as a fabricated war was for liberals."

    "Obamacare" (universal health coverage…or some approximation thereof) seems to be pretty abhorrent to orthodox conservatives.

  14. I agree, and that difference between the two systems is, I think, evident in the relatively diverse (multi-party) political markertplace in which Canadians can search for a "retailer" with whom they are comfortable…not like the two massive wholesalers (Democratic and Republican) in the U.S.

  15. I would think people's attitudes are also expressed differently online than face-to-face. I see about 1/10,000th of the partisan bickering offline that I do online…

  16. "Partisans' brains actually reward them for supplanting reason with emotion."

    You're not making any sense. You're a Conservative apologist of the worst kind.

    OHHHHhhhh yeah. There's the payoff.

  17. In Canada, I think identifying which tribe someone belongs to would identify a political orientation but not neccasarily a party affilitaion which is stronger in the US.
    I would also note how that your family memebers being aranged across the political spectrum may just mean, though family, your tribal allegancies may reside elsewhere, particularly those traits you essentialize. Skin tone, race, gender, region, are just a few possible tribal identifiers, but the identiy trait you hold most dear will probably be the one to indentify your tribe.
    Me, I run with the young male agnostic pothead tribe. We're a pretty liberatarian multi racial bunch.

  18. Yup.

  19. LOL. Those endorphins feel pretty good, eh?

  20. Then again, some people see 'teams' and 'partisanship' when none exist.

    Never occurs to you that it's your own partisanship speaking.

  21. I think the phenomena of political choice being determined by tribal association has actually increased, but so have the tribes, and the loss of tribal-party affiliation (at least in Canada). The Tory-Protestant tribe vs the Lib-Catholic tribe is gone, giving way to the two brokerage parties trying to collect smaller tribes into a coherent tent. But (and I am two lazy to link to the studies) it has been shown that while voter participation and party membership is down, people are practicing politics eleswhere, and they are bringing their tribes with them.

  22. Agree with you there. It's amazing how many people take a hard aggressive view of some thing or other, but when you point out you don't see it that way they either dissemble, back off, move the goal posts or simply try to see your point of view. Most people don't like real confrontation or conflict in person – always the exceptions of course. I once questioned the tenents of socialism to a guy at a protest in Victoria and had to decide pretty quick whether i had enough invested in the argument to dance the partisan's walz with him – i didn't.

  23. You hate Cons, bash Dippers, and repeat Liberal talking points but you are not a partisan. What colour is the falling sky in your world?

  24. Mind your own business, conbot.


  25. I bash Libs too….you're just not paying attention.

    I'm an Independent….as hard as that seems to be for some people to cope with.

  26. Let me try a hit of that:

    "Tony Clement was right to ditch the long-form census because having reliable data isn't as important as eliminating coercion."

    WOOOOOO YEAH! This is better than drugs! My pleasure centres were working overtime processing that gem of cognitive dissonance.

  27. Clever how you slipped that ALL CAPS thing in, sneaking in a personal insult. And then some partisan stuff about 'Iggy' , two other guys' last names and 'Northern Zimbabwe'. Plus a helpful reminding boost for 'The Team'. Well done!

  28. Hey me too!

    There's absolutely, postively no precedent or rational evidence on the face of this earth or any other possible earth like planet, for the proposition that CIT's create jobs in any way at all, ever. Amen

    Oh God i think i've over done it. I'm having a partisan orgasm!!!

  29. That's an intersting argument. Are ther any credible sources for the distinction: Tories as protestants vs Libs as Catholic – seems too pat to me?

  30. Partisanship is the new racism… Or, when Political Science and Sociology collide.

    Fascinating stuff, thanks for posting.

  31. A related phenomenon that I've noticed, and which irritates me to no end, is the extent to which uber-partisans, during a dicussion of any issue, will never CONCEDE ANYthing, no matter what. It's the exact opposite of what I remember being taught in composition and rhetoric courses in university, i.e., that in order to gain the respect and trust of an audience, you should concede obvious points of weakness in your position. It's called the rhetorical technique of concession. Interestingly, too, this refusal to ever concede anything or to ever admit that you (or your side) is wrong about anything is also a characteristic of certain mental illnesses and personality disorders, e.g., borderline personality disorder. And psychologists usually explain this by saying the underlying cause is deep insecurity (i.e., "If I admit I'm wrong about anything, I'll be seen as weak.").

  32. The wholesalers' thing is apt. However, one might suggest that a certain toxic partisanship has accelerated here at home, much of it acquired from outlet malls across the border.



    And I'm The Easter Bunny!

  34. People tend to preach to the choir as well. Everyone naturally tends to surround themselves with people they share a common value system with.

    Hence why public internet forums are more belligerent. There is a mix of people that spans a full spectrum of ideology.

    But I'm sure Emily will disagree.

  35. Yes! This one drives me up the wall because we also can't ever, ever apologize for anything. It also means there is no such thing as nuanced or balanced positions–either you are at the edge of the teeter-totter one way, or you are at the edge the other way.

  36. Good analogy, guys!

  37. I completely agree with Orson, but Jenn_ you're out to lunch :)

  38. Have you considered she may have gone so off the wall that she's actually created her own alter personality, and perhaps just hasn't realized it yet?

  39. Hold on a second here! I thought I was the only Young Male Agnostic Pothead! We have a tribe? Where do I join?

  40. Ready for a cigarette now?

  41. Maybe we could call it Political Scientology? Seems apt…

  42. Maybe if it was forced universal government coverage, but it it`s actually a free market policy with some minor regulation. Try again.

  43. Sorry, I don't understand our misunderstanding (??)

    You asked for examples of Obama's policies that would be "as difficult to swallow for conservatives as a fabricated war was for liberals". I offered his health care legislation, which has been roundly denounced and misconstrued by Republicans and has been the source of much conservative discontent (not to mention Tea Party mischief).

    IMO, the Republicans' almost hysterical reaction to Obama's version of "universal health care" has been much more "robust" than the Dem's opposition to Bush's manufactured war.

    You don't agree?

  44. Nah, we just need to be wary of importing stereotypes from anywhere…

  45. Considering the lines you've been adopting lately I'm pretty sure the situation was not as clear cut as you describe it. Becoming Taber's muse has really gone to your head.

  46. I haven't experienced the family derived political tribe myself. My dad criticized everything but especially fiscal policies that increased debt, but I think he preferred the Liberals, or it just happened that the Liberals enacted better fiscal policies.

    On my wife's side they voted for friends, not political parties. So when Réginald Bélair was out, she asked me who she should vote for.

    I couldn't do that to her, tell her to vote for someone who may or may not represent her the way she wants to be represented.

  47. What?!!

    Libs are Catholics and Tories are protestants….why wasn't I informed, d@mn, I've been backing the wrong side for decades! ;-)

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