Irrational Politics

Human beings join tribes. This instinct is biological. Tribes assume moral superiority over and seek to dominate other tribes. Winning is primary. The price of victory is secondary. These battles produce strong emotions that distort reality.

When tribes join with other tribes into super-tribes, a threat to one tribe is a threat to every tribe. Life becomes more dangerous and irrational. Republicans and Democrats are super-tribes. They focus on winning the next election.

The development of these electoral super-tribes has undermined the ability of legislators to compromise, which is the heart of democracy. Legislators must compromise to address difficult problems, but increased polarization has made it more difficult. Tribalism is pulling the country ever deeper into a downward spiral of bitter gridlock.

Compromise is not always timely. Militant activism can help bring attention to pressing issues and build pressure for stronger improvements. But outside the electoral arena, on the left and the right, doctrinaire, victory-centric tribes have also formed super-tribes. They demonize opponents, resist all compromise, and disregard the consequences of their actions. The result is profound fragmentation.

The time has come for everyone to step back and engage in critical self-evaluation. Learning to overcome arrogant, hyper-competitive, domineering tribalism is essential in order to unite and transform this nation into a compassionate community.

Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity by Lilliana Mason analyzes Republicans and Democrats. Her book applies to other tribes as well.


Mason argues:

A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preference as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood, and favorite grocery store. This is no longer a single social identity. Partisanship can now be thought of as a mega-identity.

Mason calls this dynamic “social polarization.” The convergence of multiple identities into one mega-identity leads to greater stereotyping, prejudice, and emotional volatility -- and makes us “increasingly blind to our commonalities.”

This sorting into homogenous parties contrasts with parties that have “cross-cutting cleavages,” which are

attitudes or identities that are not commonly found in the partisan’s party. If a person is a member of one party and also a member of a social group that is generally associated with the opposing party, the effect of partisanship on bias and action can be dampened.

Guided by leaders focused on the next election, and inflamed by media that profit from heated division, the percentage of the electorate who called themselves strong partisans increased from 22 percent in 1972 to 38 percent in 2012. [It’s probably higher now.]

Mason argues that partisan winning becomes “more important than the good of the population as a whole…. Even if it means we all receive less than we would have won together,…policy results come second.” Strong partisans care less about policy than who wins. As Charlie Sykes commented, “In this binary tribal world, where everything is at stake, everything is in play, there is no room for quibbles about character, or truth, or principles.”

In the week before the 2016 election, 61 percent of Democrats believed the economy was getting better. One week later, after Trump’s election, only 46 percent did -- though economic conditions had not changed. For Republicans, those numbers increased from 16 to 49 percent. Mason includes those data points as one of many examples of how partisanship affects the perception of reality.

Mason writes:

American voters are no longer thinking independently.... They are less open to alternative ideas.... The policy opinions of Americans become a reflexive response to party cues, and deliberation or reasoned disagreement grows increasingly difficult…. Our political behavior is driven by forces that are not rational or fair-minded…. Our political identities are running circles around our policy preferences.

These tendencies undermine the ability to understand opponents and accept compromise. If their own political party “does something undesirable,” tribalists are less likely to push for corrections. “Government has the potential to be too rigid to respond to modern changing conditions.”

Mason reports:

Negative stereotyping has increased by 50% between 1960 and 2010…. Our conflicts are largely over who we think we are rather than over reasoned differences of opinion…. Partisan, ideological, religious, and racial identities have, in recent decades, moved into strong alignment, or have become “sorted.” ...Each party has grown increasingly socially homogeneous…. Once this separation occurs, we are psychologically inclined to evaluate our various groups with an unrealistic view of their relative merits…. Despite clearer partisan boundaries and a more active public, the polarizing effects of social sorting have done more harm than good to American democracy.


Many studies have examined the tendency to divide into angry tribes. Mason opens her book with the classic Robbers Cave State Park study. In 1954 psychologists took two groups of boys camping. The members of each group were nearly identical in all key respects. As soon as they learned about the other group, they wanted to compete. Mason writes:

Having never laid eyes on the other team, the boys on each side immediately began referring to the others as “outsiders,” “intruders,” and “those boys at the other camp.” [They] needed nothing but isolation and competition to almost instantaneously consider the other teams to be “dirty bums.”

Even more revealing is Henri Tajfel’s effort “to find a baseline intergroup relationship in which there were two distinct groups with so little conflict between them that they did not engage in discrimination or bias.” One study was designed so that the subjects had never seen another subject’s face and would not benefit themselves from their actions.

Tajfel did not expect to find intergroup discrimination…. He expected that with no conflict, no value differences, no contact, and no personal utility gained from group cohesiveness,... the common good of the whole [would] be more attractive than turning the teams against each other. He was incorrect.

Even when the experimenters told the subject they had been randomly assigned to their group, bias was strong.

They simply felt psychologically motivated to privilege members of their own imaginary and ephemeral group -- a group of people they had never met and would never meet, and whose existence they had only learned of minutes earlier. People react powerfully when they worry about a group losing status, even when the group is “minimal.”

That amazing fact is grounded in the human body. Numerous studies of physical reactions have found:

Group-based reactions to events and information are not entirely voluntary. A person cannot simply turn off his or her preference for the ingroup…. Ingroup bias is deeply rooted in the physical body…. No person is immune.

As with racial, religious, or class-based conflict, partisan conflict results in

an exaggerated and poorly understood difference between the parties, based in both genuine and imaginary conflicts of interest…. The human brain prefers not to revise erroneous beliefs about opponents.... The tendency toward motivated reasoning, however, remains prominent.


Mason makes a distinction between social and issue dynamics: “American partisans can grow increasingly socially distant from one another even if their policy disagreements are not profound.” Americans largely agree on most issues, but the two parties highlight differences, increase division, and try to prevail by stitching together narrow electoral majorities.

The convergence of multiple identities into a mega-identity “makes it easier to dislike multiple additional outgroups.... Policy preferences, over time, take a back seat to the team loyalty…. They alter their policy opinion according to which party they support.”

One’s ideology theoretically is “a system of values and preferences that constrain policy positions.” But ideology also affects “prejudice, emotion, and collective action.” As a result, identifying as a conservative “does not automatically mean that a person holds more conservative policy positions.” The same applies to liberals.

Due to

the simple power of two or more social identities lining up,… American partisans have become more biased, intolerant, angry, and politically active than their policy disagreements can explain…. They now have more to fight for.

In the 1950s, the parties gave ambiguous clues about their identity and voters “did not treat their fellow citizens as enemies simply because of their party affiliation.” Now, however, each party takes “consistent sides in racial, religious, ideological, and cultural divides.”

As a result, there’s more hostility between those who identify as liberal or conservative, though their position on issues has hardly changed. And these partisans consider their fellow partisans to be people “like them” and the two camps are “very different kinds of people.” In 2000, “Republicans overwhelmingly felt that conservatives were their kind of people. Democrats felt this way about liberals as well, but not to the same degree.”

By 2012, the old Protestant/Catholic, southern/nonsouthern, and union/nonunion divisions between the parties had largely disappeared.… These old divisions had been firmly replaced by much larger ideological, religious, income, and racial differences [that] divided the parties far more powerfully than the divides of the 1950s had…. By far the most powerful social divide...was race.


Loss of trust in institutions and the decline in civic engagement contributed to this sorting. With loosened social ties, people found comfort in more homogeneous, “geographically isolated groups that shared their culture, values, race, and politics.… New affiliations [were] tailored exactly to meet their needs.” With this individualism, “it simply takes less effort to surround yourself with people similar to you.”

Another factor is that the parties, especially the Republicans, began to “provide clearer partisan, ideological, and social cues,… organizing sympathetic social groups.”

The growing diversity of media sources also contributed to sorting. People were “now able to protect themselves from any exposure” to contrary opinions.

Consequently, “we have gone from two parties that are a little bit different in a lot of ways to two parties that are very different in a few powerful ways [with] different types of people.” Party members differ with regard to fertility rate, the age they marry, what they watch on television, the restaurants where they eat, the cars they drive, and the alcohol they drink. Strong partisans prefer to spend time with members of their party.

When the members of each party were less similar, their cross-cutting splits facilitated mutual understanding, communication, and compromise. Now, when the two teams are

so distinct and isolated from each other, the status of the teams themselves grows in importance…. Though the parties are competing for real interests, they are also competing because it just feels good to win.

Each party has an identity to defend -- “at nearly any cost.” Battles are

a way to repair the damaged egos,… hold the team together, and heal the wounds of defeat…. Being part of a group informs each person’s self-image…. People are compelled to think of their groups as better than the other. Without that, they themselves feel inferior…. Prejudice…means that a person prefers their own group to the outgroup, for no reason other than they they are part of the ingroup.

Disagreements about policy do not explain this phenomenon. It is only partly based on

real conflict of “objective” interests between the groups…. Victory hasn’t always been such a powerful motivator…. [Party members] have not always felt as socially distant…. [But as] the number of strongly affiliated partisans has risen...and [become] more socially similar,…[these] effects...are amplified.

When partisanship evokes racial, religious, and other social identities, partisans more easily dehumanize their political opponents. Partisan battles become social and cultural battles that reinforce the partisan divide. Social contact and shared social identities no longer allow individuals to understand each other and tolerate differences in opinion.

George Washington considered partisan loyalty “a frightful despotism.” He feared factionalism would cause citizens to misrepresent the opinions of other citizens and consider them enemies. His fear was prescient.


Bias distorts evaluation of policy.

A large body of literature has found Americans’ understanding of political policy debates to be sorely lacking…. The political fights...are supposed to be about something. An abundance of evidence, however, contradicts this view…. Issue positions [are] highly dependent on group and party cues -- [though] these voters if asked would have provided logical reasons for their change of heart….. As we sort ourselves into socially uniform parties, we lose perspective on what we really believe….. It is a self-defense mechanism that takes hold when our parties take up larger and larger parts of who we think we are…. The American system of democracy, as it grows increasingly socially polarized, will rely less on policy preferences and more on knee-jerk “evaluations” that should rightfully be called prejudice,... an ingrained prejudice that grows out of the increasing alignment between our partisan, ideological, racial, and religious social identities.

Patrick Murray, a pollster, said, “Trump has gotten voters who are so angry that they are willing to put their ideological concerns aside. We have never seen voters do that to this extent. They’re saying, ‘We’re so ticked off that that’s the only message that matters.’” Trump’s campaign did not tear the Republican Party apart because he spoke directly to social groups aligned behind the party that scapegoat the federal government.

If a group feels threatened, the group gets angrier and thinks more highly of themselves, which leads to more enthusiasm. More anger results when hope is frustrated. “Our anger and enthusiasm are fueling each other.”

Anxiety also interferes.

Anxious citizens do in fact search out for more information, but they do so in a biased way, looking especially for threatening information. In any case, while anxious citizens tend to look for new information, angry and enthusiastic citizens do not…. [The result is] relatively thoughtless political action.

In one study of how the same voters changed between 1992 and 1996, anger increased the most with both Republicans who shifted to calling themselves conservative and Democrats who shifted to calling themselves liberal -- that is, their partisan and ideological identities had moved into alignment -- even though their policy attitudes did not change.

Once that happens, compared to partisans with cross-cutting identities, well-sorted partisans become angrier and “it becomes harder to understand opponents as reasonable people and easier to feel threatened and angered by them.” Strong partisans also become more prideful. “Sorting is pushing us into emotional territory that partisanship alone cannot.”

Less angry partisans with cross-cutting identities are disappearing. “The people who have the best chance of remaining calm in the face of political conflict are shrinking as a proportion of the electorate.”

As Americans affiliate more with those who are socially similar, well-sorted voters with negative partisan stereotypes are more likely to be politically active and engage in “the public display of partisan attachments.”

Self-interest is generally not the prime motivation. “Only the strongly identified...takes maintain positive group status, in line with the first imperative of a social identity--be victorious, [which is] a form of automatic behavior.” When people are aligned on multiple identities, such as race, religion, and geographical location, the effect of being well-sorted is even more powerful.

With regard to single-issue activists, Mason has concluded they’re driven more “by the sense that they are supported by like-minded others” than by the intensity of their beliefs. Many agree with John Adams, who believed, “It is the same with communities. They ought to resent and punish.”

We now see more prejudice, bias, and emotional volatility. Mason writes, “Both anger and enthusiasm tend to lead to more optimistic expectations for the future.… [They] are driving people toward action not because they have made a reasoned, utility-based calculation but because they are pushed by their feelings.”

Even with subjects who held the same position on the issues, when exposed to threat-based messages,

experimentally induced levels of anger and enthusiasm…significantly increased respondents’ activism…. This is consistent with other research that has found stronger results in motivating activism via anger than enthusiasm…. Without a threat to a social group, members are less likely to derogate outgroups….

Emotions, particularly positive emotions, lead people to engage in behavior that is not necessarily goal-oriented but, instead, rewarding in and of itself. [These] emotions… guide people toward action because that action feels like the right thing to do…[and] they feel connected to their groups…. They act because it feels good to act. not necessarily a responsible, outcome-based participation…. Misinformation and ill-formed ideas [are common]…. Our political identities -- partisan, ideological, racial, religious -- and the alignment between then move us toward action without necessarily informing us about policy outcomes…. It feels righteous…. We must defend our groups,... not to achieve change but to express support for their team,...possibly even more so when victory is imminent. There is a gleeful joy in participating in your own team’s victory…..

The more we feel partisan, the more we vote, and the more we vote, the more partisan we feel. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle.… While activism is generally a desirable element of a functioning democracy, blind activism is not…. The ones who are most active tend to be those who cannot be convinced to change their minds.


In her summation, Mason laments that our

deep social divisions are allowing opportunities for policy compromise to go unnoticed. A 2015 study found that there are multiple points of agreement across party lines, even on a polarizing topic like abortion. Dozens of other studies have found the same…. Partisans of the two parties are capable of coming to agreement on many issues. But today, they will change their position rather than agree with the other side….

The result is an electorate that is, on average, more angry, excitable, and active…. An electorate that is emotionally engaged and politically active on behalf of prejudice and misunderstanding is not an electorate that produces positive outcomes. The social sorting of American partisans has changed the electorate into a group of voters who are relatively unresponsive to changing information or real national problems…. As long as a social divide is maintained between the parties, the electorate will behave more like a pair of warring tribes than like the people of a single nation, caring for their shared future.

She offers some idea on how we can counter this tribalism and “enjoy our own social-group identities without wishing harm upon others…[and] bring American politics back to a state of civil competition, rather than a state of victory-centric conflict.” One step, as suggested by Eric Groenedyk, is to remind partisans of “civic values and a desire for accuracy.”

The bottom line, she argues, is: “Our emotional relationships with our opponents must be addressed before we can hope to make the important policy compromises that are required for governing.” Calling on studies in “contact theory,” she points out that in general “certain types of social contact can reduce prejudice” and suggests sending “Democrats and Republicans into the same social arenas and ask them to simply see each other with a calm and friendly set of eyes.” Another measure would be to “compel our partisan news media to present opposing partisans in sympathetic ways…[and] add sympathetic partisans of both sides to simple entertainment-based television shows.”

Another step would be “for the parties themselves to establish new norms,” including written policies and directives that discourage specific demonizing words. “If group members believe that other ingroup members are tolerant of the outgroup, this can turn into a more broadly tolerant approach.” Group leaders should “loudly and freely discuss partisan opponents in an unprejudiced way” and address “real differences rather than demonizing, [while] commending compromise and acknowledging the humanity and validity of the opposing team.” Since conflict and incivility so easily “draws attention and votes,” cultivating a new culture is “highly unlikely without some secondary intervention.”

Agreeing on “superordinate goals” can also help “go beyond group boundaries,” include both groups, and “mend rifts.” Since “the sense of national identity is one of the main victims of the social homogenization of the two parties,” strongly affirming American ideals could help establish cohesive superordinate identity.

However, “despite a large number of common goals and essentially American problems, partisans have yet to find a way to unite.” One reason seems to be the “lack of trust in outgroup authorities [that] does appear to be preventing at least some of the potential benefits of the common American identity.” Within the context of intense distrust, promoting a common identity can be seen as an effort to dominate and absorb particular groups. This requires the protection of group boundaries and the acceptance of distinctive multiple identities, “in a cross-cutting pattern.”

Mason envisions that “an economic upturn or change in economic status...could reduce the intensification of outgroup loathing,” and quotes Ervin Staub, who in “Individual and Group Identities in Genocide and Mass Killing” wrote:

It is the frustration of basic needs by instigating conditions that leads group members, whose individual identity is shaken, to turn to the group for identity, to focus more on their social identity, or to “give themselves over” to an identity group. This frustration also leads to scapegoating and the creation of destructive ideologies (which identify enemies), that turns the group against another group.

In line with this thinking, Mason concludes that many in Trump’s base “are suffering from damaged self-esteem, driven by either a lack of economic opportunity, a fear of a culturally changing country, or some combination thereof.” They are afflicted with “self-uncertainty.”

Furthermore, when self-esteem is threatened, people tend to prefer their social groups to be increasingly homogenous…. They “circle the wagons” of social identity, a process very much like social sorting, in order to keep their multiple identities as aligned (and therefore impervious to outsiders) as possible…. Increasingly aggressive activism [results].

In situations such as this, “simply reminding a person of their self-worth, a technique called self-affirmation, can significantly reduce extremism and ideological closed-mindedness.”  

Though she says it “may be an unlikely scenario,” a major split in one of the two major parties could lead to an unsorting, “generate the cross-cutting cleavages that suppress social polarization and social distance,” and build “toward a more tolerant set of partisans on both sides.”

NOTE: Emphases were added.


From my perspective, it would also be helpful to grow one or more massive, united, democratic, multi-issue national movements that overcome our fragmentation and stay together over time. To achieve that goal, however, activists would need to help each other overcome their egoistic and highly competitive power trips, and avoid strident rhetoric that demonizes opponents. It would also require a shift away from doctrinaire, simplistic ideologies.

A clear commitment to alternative ways of working together could help that effort. Doing so would not necessarily require much additional time from activists. Rather, primarily, it would merely require a shift in perspective -- away from an exclusive focus on immediate impact toward a deeper, clear commitment to underlying values and principles that are commonly neglected.

Americans for Humanity: A Declaration” aims to help nurture that kind of commitment. To sign this declaration, click here.