My friend and colleague Art Farnsley teaches in the Religious Studies Department at IUPUI; he also writes sporadic Op-Eds that have appeared in such publications as the Washington Post and Religion News Service.
Students in my college classes start out thinking religious identity and behavior are primarily about ideas. When I ask them about differences between Catholics and Methodists, they respond with differences in beliefs: the pope, contraception and transubstantiation.
These theological differences are real, of course, but I learned long ago that ideas do not create religious identity: They follow from it. My students imagine we pick from a large menu of ideological options and then make decisions about which membership best fits our own ideas.
It does not take long to convince them this “decision” model is badly incomplete. We never start from a neutral position. Our thinking is shaped by where we are born, who raised us and the tribes we call our own.
A number of social scientists are beginning to recognize that “who we are”–what “tribes” shape our identities–explains much more about all of us, and about our human cognitive processes, than we have hitherto been willing to concede. Tribalism doesn’t just operate in the religious realm. As Farnsley notes,
It’s time to acknowledge that political identity and behavior operate more like religion than many of us care to admit.
This may sound obvious to some, but I learned it the hard way. I have spent too much of my adult life pretending the opposite, that politics is about ideas and we develop our positions through reason, logic and formal argumentation. It’s time I accept the truth: Who we are comes first in politics too.
I just finished reading a recent book by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, that reaches the same conclusion–in their case, via lengthy review of overwhelming amounts of scholarly research. They argue–with copious evidence– that political identity and behavior operate more like religion than many of us want to admit. They also demonstrate that voters adjust their policy views and even their understanding of what is and is not fact to match their tribal identities.
Achen and Bartels include political parties among the tribal loyalties that motivate us. Our choice of partisan affiliation originally depends significantly on affinity, on the belief that “people like me” share more characteristics with one or another political party, but then the partisan affiliation itself becomes an important part of “who we are.”
Assuming the accuracy of these descriptions of political identity–and assuming the country and world survive the Presidency of an unstable and wildly unfit buffoon–Americans will need to think long and hard about the implications of “democratic realism” for the design of our democratic institutions. As Achen and Bartels confirm, there is much of value in our Constitutional system; we need to protect what is valuable, but we cannot do that unless we jettison what they call the “folk theory” of how democratic institutions actually work.
As Art Farnsley notes,
Political operatives of both parties have known for decades that voting behavior is about emotion, intuition and tribal affiliation. It’s about whose status goes up or down. The operatives know who we are.