Ideology and Tribalism

Ideology and Tribalism

People identify with either the Republican tribe or the Democratic tribe and shape their views accordingly.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker offers an explanation for why so much of the United States has become divided fairly clearly and consistently into red and blue states—into regions that lean decidedly toward Republicans or toward Democrats. Borrowing ideas from other scholars, including historian David Fischer and psychologist Richard Nisbett, he suggests it is largely a legacy of the patterns of settlement in colonial America. The North was settled mostly by English farmers; the inland South mostly by Scots and Irish herders. Anthropologists tell us that herders, whose wealth is mobile and can easily be stolen, develop a “culture of honor” with an emphasis on using self-reliance and one's own guns, rather than depending on government, to avoid being victimized by rustlers. And from that one can implicitly draw various positions that are associated with the present-day political Right. Farmers do not have the same set of vulnerabilities and thus developed a different culture. As time passed and each culture moved with the frontier westward, the political traditions persisted.

It is an intriguing hypothesis and probably has some validity. There are many other aspects of current American attitudes that are strongly rooted in American history, even going back to colonial times. But before getting to the regional question, Pinker addresses why the views on disparate political issues tend to correlate at all into a Republican clump and a Democratic clump. Why, for example, does knowing someone's view on gay marriage help us to predict the same person's view on military spending? Pinker adduces an explanation—which he appears to accept as valid, even if it does not explain as much as the anthropological hypothesis about settlement patterns—that is based on contending views about human nature. The Right, according to this explanation, has a “Tragic Vision” of people being “permanently limited in morality, knowledge and reason.” This leads to views ranging from the need for guns and a large military for protection against unreasonable people, to respect for customs of religion, sexuality and the like to avoid a slide into barbarism. The Left is said instead to have a “Utopian Vision” that considers human nature to be malleable and “articulates rational plans for a better society and seeks to implement them through public institutions.”

This explanation is not persuasive, partly because it is blatantly inconsistent with some actual political positions associated with the Right or Left. Consider foreign policy, where one of the biggest and clearest examples of a utopian vision is found in the neoconservative belief in being able to remake foreign societies in America's image. The neoconservatives' biggest project, the Iraq War, was about implementing an ostensibly rational plan for making a better society in the Middle East, administered from above by the Coalition Provisional Authority and based on a belief that malleable Middle Easterners could be made into reasonable practitioners of liberal democracy.

Explanations for political beliefs that are based on something like a supposedly coherent view of human nature give far too much credit to present-day American ideologies for being logically consistent. There isn't really any good, logical reason particular views on gay marriage ought to accompany particular views on military spending; it takes intellectual gymnastics to try to tie the two together.

Such explanations nonetheless continue to be offered, largely for two reasons. One is that the explanations themselves may be part of a political agenda or political slant. Pinker acknowledges “conservative thinkers” to be the source of the concept about Tragic Visions and Utopian Visions. That is not surprising. Utopianism is something one is much more likely to attribute to an opponent than to claim for oneself.

The other reason is the tendency of intellectuals to over-intellectualize—to come up with a nifty logical construct and then to assume this reflects the thinking of others. Another example of this is the lead article in the current International Security, which offers an explanation for the different policies of presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy toward the defense of Western Europe, with the former preferring to rely on self-defense by the Europeans and the latter favoring more of a forward commitment by the United States. The article, by Brendan Green, is based on solid scholarship and explores in admirable detail the perspectives of the two presidents to the challenge of deterring aggression by the Soviet Union. But the author then invokes Isaiah Berlin and his two concepts of liberty and tries to explain strategies for European defense in terms of “negative liberals” and “positive liberals.” That's a stretch.

When looking not at presidential policies but instead at voters' preferences, explanations of this type are not just a stretch; they are simply incorrect. Voters going to the polls next week will not have made their choice after brushing up on their Isaiah Berlin and contemplating the different varieties of liberty. Nor will they have contemplated human nature and deduced, based on that contemplation and on ideas about tragedy and utopia, the best ways of dealing with the human condition.

To the extent that the views of most voters on different issues do tend to be grouped into recognizable clumps, this is not because they are all going through the same coherent thought process—or any coherent thought process. It is because they are taking cues from groups with which they identify. The groups might be organized interest groups or identifiable segments of society or the economy. They might be friends and neighbors—and if so, this would accentuate the regional patterns that Pinker addressed. Most of all, the cues come from political parties. Most voters identify with Republicans or with Democrats, and because of this they tend to adopt most of the views that go with their preferred party. A person's views on some issues might underlie the party identification in the first place, but once identified, the rest of the views in the clump associated with the selected party are usually taken on as well.

Anthropologists could help in understanding this phenomenon. It is essentially a form of tribalism. People identify with either the Republican tribe or the Democratic tribe and shape their views on matters of public policy accordingly.

One indication of how much political views and alignments are at least as much a matter of group affinity as an intellectually cogent approach to formulating an ideology is the role of a very anti-intellectual factor: racial affinity and racial preference. Voters' preferences this year are at least as much divided along racial lines as in any other recent election. This no doubt reflects not only the less malign forms of racial affinity but also differential patterns of racial prejudice between followers of the two political parties.

All of this is yet another regrettable consequence of the evolution of American party politics in the direction of a sharper, harsher party division with little room for intraparty free thinking. The demise of moderate Republicans is the principal manifestation of this evolution. The message implied by much of the party politics of today is that all the right answers exist on one side of the divide or the other. This has made the American electorate more mentally lazy than ever. Its part in the political game is simply to pick a tribe and fall in line.

Image: boris.rasin