Not All Political Tribalism Is Created Equal

RNC Oregon Sign - Political TribalismI head Sam Harris say something in a video from some time ago. Basically, it was this, “There is no reason why a person’s position on guns should correlate with their position on global warming.” And he went on to discuss political tribalism. It’s not surprising that I share the same concern that he does. There are a lot of thing I agree with Harris about. Just the same, as usual, I think Harris’ thinking is simplistic. And his example is bad.

For one thing, in the US, the liberal position about guns is that they should be regulated. I’m sure that Sam Harris — who is very pro-gun — is nonetheless on the “liberal” side of this. Of course, what he writes is very clearly designed to appeal to gun fanatics. But if you press him, he’s for the same kinds of gun control measures that Barack Obama is. So in that regard, he would be in the same liberal tribe.[1]

Political Tribalism Is a Given

But the broader observation is worth talking about. People are tribal in their political beliefs. This is hardly surprising given that humans are social animals. If we weren’t, we certainly would have gone extinct by now. But from a political standpoint, it is troubling. I’ve seen people transition from both liberal to conservative and conservative to liberal. And it is usually a single issue that does it. I am right now watching a liberal friend turn into a conservative because of transgender rights. And it won’t surprise me at all if she’s wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat the next time I see her.

The problem is that there are good reasons for correlations that Harris mentioned. For example, there is an evidence base for reducing access to guns and for doing something about global warming. That’s true to a very large extent on the left in this country. Now that may be because the left in this country is really just the center in a global sense. We have, of course, heard that liberals who believe in evolution and global warming insist that vaccines cause autism. But it turns out that it is actually conservatives who are most likely to believe this hokum — by a large amount.

Partisan Differences

I’m really skeptical because I am a liberal (in a general sense), but it certainly seems that tribalism on this side of the isle is based on a general belief in science. And my personal experience is that more politically involved liberals will grudgingly accept unpleasant evidence — eventually working it into their world views.

On the right, we see far more tribalism. And on this we have some evidence. John Dean lays it out in Conservatives without Conscience. In that book, he documents that roughly half of the Republican Party is made up of authoritarian followers. So it is hardly surprising that conservatives would be tribal. In the US, conservatism is almost the definition of authoritarian.

Still, on the left, we are tribal. In some ways, I wish we were more so. I’ve often been bothered by how quickly we are to cast aside public figures who allegedly act inappropriately. Conservatives are more likely to stick by such people until the evidence is overwhelming. And I have a fair amount of respect for that. Think of Shirley Sherrod and ACORN. But I don’t think that’s so much about tribalism as it is cowardice. As a Democrat, I can say with much justification that this is something we really need to work on.

Levels of Tribalism

But there are different levels of tribalism. In its most pure form, you will never disagree with what your group believes. But there are more moderate forms of it too. Most liberals I know do have a knee-jerk reaction to things (I very much include myself in this). If the Cato Institute announces that they have a new healthcare bill, we are ready to pounce. But in general, we are open to being wrong.

It’s not like tribal beliefs are random. In the United States, the main thing that doesn’t make sense is the Republican Party. When I talk to conservative people, I usually find that their beliefs are far more coherent. But the party itself is effectively a con: a party dedicated to the interests of the rich, which advertises itself as the opposite. That’s where the authoritarians come in. The Democrats couldn’t get away with such a bait and switch.

It’s Not All Bad

But it clearly is tribalism that causes someone to start with “I don’t want boys peeing in girls’ bathrooms” to “The estate tax is a communist plot!” But going from “Now I see that we need a mandated a living wage” to “Women should have the right to control their own bodies” doesn’t strike me as necessarily tribalism (given that having a baby is one of the biggest economic decisions you’ll ever make). So I don’t think that all tribalism is created equal.

Just the same, tribalism does bother me — especially when I see it in an extreme form on the left (or even worse, in myself). But in general, people bind together because they already agree with each other. There are liberal ways of looking at the world and conservative ways. There are also authoritarian ways of looking at the world. That’s the most dangerous kind of tribalism. And that’s roughly a quarter of our population — and overwhelmingly on one side of the political spectrum.

Afterword: Libertarians

Libertarians love to flatter themselves that they break the mold and just believe in “liberty.” I don’t want to get into it. But libertarians are just as tribal as anyone else. Look at how libertarians are anti-union almost to a person. There’s no reason for this. In fact, “right to work” laws are explicitly limiting the rights of employers and employees to make contracts, yet libertarians usually love them. I think it’s fair to say that libertarians are just following the herd on this. If not, I’ll have to lower my opinion of them even more.


[1] After the Sandy Hook massacre, Harris wrote The Riddle of the Gun. Note this amazing bit of false equivalence:

Fantasists and zealots can be found on both sides of the debate over guns in America. On the one hand, many gun-rights advocates reject even the most sensible restrictions on the sale of weapons to the public. On the other, proponents of stricter gun laws often seem unable to understand why a good person would ever want ready access to a loaded firearm.

So on one hand you have those who think mentally ill people should be allowed to roam the streets with machine-guns. And on the other, you have people who can’t get inside the heads of gun enthusiasts. This is particularly stupid when you consider that there are people who would like guns to be completely illegal.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

13 thoughts on “Not All Political Tribalism Is Created Equal

  1. Harris’ false equivalence also seems to be false false equivalence. There don’t seem to be that many people who exhibit literally no understanding of why someone would want a gun, or literally no understanding of more moderate pro-gun positions. This is true, even for people who want very strict gun controls.

    I could be wrong, of course. But I haven’t seen a lot (if any) arguments for gun control that simply assume pro-gun people are all just weird and have no points whatever in favour of their position. As usual, the fraction of zealots appears to be much higher on one side.

    • I agree. The liberal who Hates Hunters and wants to Take All Guns away is largely a myth. There are such people, of course, but they’re usually extreme animal rights activists. Eliminating duck/deer hunting will never, ever be a Democratic Party position.

  2. Libertarians on unions:

    As much as I am critical of all right-libertarian positions, I think it is unfair to say that there cannot be a coherent anti-union libertarian position. Where unions are effective, they usually have rights and privileges (rightly according to me) that go beyond their role as an agent of collective bargaining.

    But back to the topic, the practical world of tribalism. A consistent libertarian would also be i) against the Iraq War from the beginning, ii) deeply against the corrupt system of military contractors in the U.S.A., iii) totally pro-gay marriage and iv) more generally, more critical of the Republican Party than the Democratic. Similar examples are easy to generate; notable individuals who actually occupy this political space are thin on the ground – I can’t name one.

    • If there are any consistent libertarians like you mention, they’re probably out in the woods somewhere and completely off the grid. The ones I’ve run into online are just far-right conservatives without the religious fundamentalism. So they won’t necessarily be for restoring anti-sodomy laws … but they won’t support any legal protections against discrimination.

      On military and economic matters, they love everything Republicans love — they just think Republicans don’t go tar enough. (And many Republican politicians want libertarian policy, they’re just afraid of the political costs.

      The main difference I see between the two is mainstream Republicans are illogical (giving assistance to poor people is bad for them) while far-right libertarians are fascists (the poor deserve to be slaves or die). So while it’s sometimes possible to find areas of common ground with Republicans, it’s impossible with libertarians.

      And every true fascist thinks they “know more” than anyone else in the room.

      • Mr. Fillmore, I think you need to listen with more sympathy to political positions you oppose. Frank and others have done much to show that in the real world of political tribalism, American libertarianism is a dishonest adjunct to the Republican Party. Nonetheless, there are non-crazy motivations for some of these views, not just the libertarian ones.

        ‘Public assistance is bad for the poor.”: Long experience has shown this not to be the case. But it is not necessarily illogical. The narrative is this: real economic grown, the good things in life, the stuff that leads to technological and social progress, comes from individual entrepreneurship and not government handouts. See, when you give money to the poor, the taxes required to pay for it make people worse-off in the aggregate. Because those tax moneys could have been used for economic activities that would make people better off.

        Not all groups of Internet libertarians exhibit this hateful attitude to the poor – there are even a few poor Randians out there; I’m met them (even more boring than Harris, I can assure you). Perhaps poor people die, libertarians might say, if denied public aid. But if we go minimalist state, we will have such a super-efficient economy that there will permanently be high-paying work for everyone. Sure, it’s a fantasy, but not necessarily illogical or ‘fascist’.

        Careful about those accusations of intellectual arrogance – experience shows a large contingent of submissive followers, not necessarily convinced of their own high intelligence, among fascists.

        There are groups of libertarians who want to end the drug war and cut military spending. Sociologically, as studied by Frank and others, they tend to change their tune real fast when a taste of real political power looms. Nonetheless, they’re not all out in the woods somewhere.

        I’m not suggesting for a minute you should argue with libertarians, and I will continue to ignore any libertarian who posts here (except possibly as a specimen for discussion). Keep in mind though that most people don’t have a formed, worked-out political philosophy, and just about every philosophy sounds really cool at first when you bring out the highlights early. As Frank has pointed out more than once, libertarianism often seems to be a person’s first exposure to a sort of political philosophy in which judgments can be drawn from premises (that’s a good thing).

        Note that I am certainly not setting myself up as some kind of expert here; when I do my elections volunteering, it’s always back office and never outreach. I’m not a good talker myself. But if you are going to talk to the persuadable, you need to understand that some of these views have real traction and are not always motivated by hatred or callousness. We can do better than rejecting libertarianism and conservativism; we can give accounts, both foundational and practical, of how our ideas are better. As in, promoting the general welfare and expressing the decency that people usually apply in everyday life.

        • For sure — talking with understanding to others is the key. But there are things which make me so angry I can no longer find common ground. It’s a weakness on my part. I imagine everyone has buttons that are easy to push.

          • Don’t bother trying to find common ground with conservatives or with libertarians. Try to defeat them, try to hurt them, and even play dirty a little. I want to be clear that I am not talking about engagement with the other side, which I think is just not possible in English-speaking polities of 2017.

            Do try to find common ground with plain-Jane Americans who have heard rhetoric form all sides, heard ideas that sound promising and worthwhile from all sides. Don’t tell them that they should reject libertarianism because libertarians are bad people (even though, to zeroith order, it’s true). Admit that conservativism and libertarianism do express some salutatory values, but tell them that you have a much better way to express those values.

            In Canada, U.S.A., and the U.K., anyone who could persuade a decent fraction of non-voters would win every election. We leftists need to advertise our differences from the other side – we’re not just another tribe with equally arbitrary preferences. We are the bearers of freedom and justice that our citizens have been promised, again and again and again.

            Some of what I say could be interpreted as trying to tell you what to do; in one sense, this is true, but this is directed to you because you have expressed a desire for a more left-wing polity. There’s a large crowd of people fed up with electoral politics who, I believe, could be persuaded if offered a real alternative. Again, I am not claiming to have any particular talent for implementing the rhetorical shifts I see as necessary.

            • No, I didn’t take it as you being pushy or telling me what to do. I think we can all benefit from ideas that have worked for others.

              One certainly isn’t going to win over anybody who has a default political view on everything (often no more than “if liberals support it, I hate it, and if liberals hate it, I like it.” My little rant about libertarians was basically just frustration at someone who’d been very condescending and rude. Certainly there are people with vaguely libertarian views like, “I don’t want government telling me what to do,” who are not rabid political True Believers, and don’t consider themselves superior to everybody else.

              I’m with you on talking to the Plain Janes. And I try to do this, when they’re open for a polite discussion. I don’t think I’ve ever changed anyone’s mind on any issue, but I’ve managed to at least express the leftist point of view in a way that acknowledges I hear where they’re coming from, too. I hope those interactions are positive. Maybe the don’t change anything, only combat the stereotype of “liberals are knee-jerk elitist snobs.” Sorta like if you talk with a nice Satanist. It won’t make you join up, it merely makes “the other” more human.

  3. When you mention how ACORN and Shirley Sherrod were sold out at the first opening salvo of Fox Nation, it wasn’t liberals, at large, who did this or wanted it. It was the Obama/Clinton/DLC leadership who made that choice. One of many choices they made that led to where we are.

    • Right. Those were not issues which mattered to most liberal voters. They were purely political calculations. And it’s possible they were incorrect — giving the impression Democrats were on the defensive.

    • Neither Clinton or the DLC had anything to do with those decisions. Say what you will about the Clintons but at least they show loyalty to their people even when they erupted into scandal. Obama on the other hand was “off you go!” It did result in zero convictions so maybe he had a point?

      • They dumped Jocelyn Elders like a hot rock. Don’t get me wrong — I think the Clintons and Obamas are good, honorable people at heart. But politics is a tough racket, especially at that level. Probably even nice President Carter had to lower the axe once or twice.

        It’s kinda like sports. If a team stinks for three straight years, the manager or coach will probably be fired. And it’s usually not their fault! There are some bad coaches/managers, but basically a team wins if it has the best players. Getting the best players is really difficult (and not the coach/manager’s job).

        The fans are restless. Heads gotta roll! The front office isn’t going to fire itself, so — you fire the coach/manager. The fans’ bloodlust is temporarily sated.

        In most cases, unless the coach/manager is a Trumpian headcase, they realize this is all theatrics. They know it’s not personal. (And they get hired quickly by other teams.) Merely that somebody had to take the fall.

        I’m sure most of these canned individuals land on their feet — often assisted by the ones who fired them.

  4. I wonder how boring Harris is as a party guest. He seems like the kind of loudmouth who never lets anyone else control a conversation. The ones you warn your date about beforehand, and say “if you see me stuck in conversation with Sam, come over and ask if I can help you find the phone you dropped in the car.”

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