Tag Archives: tribes

Our Tribes, Ourselves

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.

His most recent one deserves to be widely read. It begins

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.

 

Are You a Member of My Tribe?

There’s a lot of research confirming the human tendency to sort other humans into tribes–to distinguish between those who are “us” and those who are “them.” Historically, those categories have primarily–albeit not exclusively–been based on race and religion.

Now, evidently, many of us are basing our tribal identities on partisan affiliation. According to a recent article at Vox,

In 1960, Americans were asked whether they would be pleased, displeased, or unmoved if their son or daughter married a member of the other political party.

Respondents reacted with a shrug. Only 5 percent of Republicans, and only 4 percent of Democrats, said they would be upset by the cross-party union. On the list of things you might care about in child’s partner — are they kind, smart, successful, supportive? — which political party they voted for just didn’t rate.

Fast forward to 2008. The polling firm YouGov asked Democrats and Republicans the same question — and got very different results. This time, 27 percent of Republicans, and 20 percent of Democrats, said they would be upset if their son or daughter married a member of the opposite party. In 2010, YouGov asked the question again; this time, 49 percent of Republicans, and 33 percent of Democrats, professed concern at interparty marriage.

What makes this partisan tribalism puzzling is the fact that public opinion on the various issues that confront us are not particularly polarized; opinion surveys show most Americans remaining firmly centrist (depending upon how one defines that term) when asked their positions on  specific issues.  And yet, party affiliation has become a form of personal identity that divides “us” from “them.”

[P]arty affiliation wasn’t simply an expression of our disagreements; it was also becoming the cause of them. If Democrats thought of other Democrats as their tribe and of Republicans as a hostile tribe, and vice versa, then the consequences would stretch far beyond politics — into things like, say, marriage.

And the data was everywhere. Polls looking at the difference between how Republicans viewed Democrats and how Democrats viewed Republicans now showed that partisans were less accepting of each other than white people were of black people or than black people were of white people.

The Vox article describes several experiments that confirmed this partisan bias, some in ways that were deeply troubling. (People awarded jobs or scholarships to less-qualified applicants who shared their partisan affiliation, for example.)

What is driving this phenomenon? Obviously, there is no single cause, but the article does note the role of media:

There are no major cable channels devoted to making people of other races look bad. But there are cable channels that seem devoted to making members of the other party look bad. “The media has become tribal leaders,” he says. “They’re telling the tribe how to identify and behave, and we’re following along.”

Evidently, most of us have a need to despise some “other,” and if the culture frowns upon using race or religion as the operative distinction, some number of us will substitute party.

Others, of course (Trump, Cruz, Pence, et al) will stick with the old standbys of race, religion and national origin.

Evidently, we humans aren’t hard-wired to see other people simply as individuals.