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.