Political Tribalism: “Ideologues without Issues”

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Political Tribalism: “Ideologues without Issues”
by Wade Lee Hudson

Some political battles are win-lose. You have capital punishment or you don’t. You outlaw all abortion or you don’t. You tell people who criticize you to “go home” or you don’t. But most battles are subject to compromise, and all battles can be waged with an open desire for reconciliation and a commitment to maximize understanding and minimize suffering. Activism rooted in deep nonviolence holds promise for lasting progress. Security rests in establishing the Beloved Community and the 99% for the 100%. If Americans become aware of their irrational impulses, we can develop a new identity — humane American — and focus on concrete policy improvements in a rational manner (see “Americans for Humanity”).

Nevertheless, angry political tribes are tearing the country apart. Driven by primal passions, they call themselves “liberals” and “conservatives.” But their policy beliefs are secondary. What matters most is tribal victory. 

Americans largely agree on most specific public policies. But highly committed political people are like die-hard sports fans. They’re identify with their team and feel a deep need to crush the “enemy.” Tribal leaders, in their quest for the power to dominate, manipulate followers’ innate instincts. In particular, they promise to protect their tribe from threats by conquering “the other.” 

Political psychologist Lilliana Mason has marshalled considerable evidence in support of these conclusions. Her 2018 New York Times op-ed, “Trump’s ‘Winning’ Is America’s Losing,” argues: 

Winning...caters to a very primal need among humans to feel that we’re part of a group whose status is high and protected…. Gradually, the Republican Party has come to be associated with white, Christian, conservative, rural and male identity. Conversely, the Democratic Party is now more clearly the party of nonwhite, non-Christian, liberal, urban and female (or feminist) identity. I call this “social sorting,” or the development of “mega-partisan” identities…. Even those who call themselves liberals and conservatives often hold policy opinions that do not match their ideological labels.

Now, in each election, we are no longer fighting only for party victory. We are also fighting for the victory of the racial, religious, geographical and gender-based groups that win or lose with the party. Every election is a fight for larger portions of our self-concept — leading to an ever more desperate need for victory. 

Democrats, Border Walls, and Social Polarization,” my review of Mason’s 2018 book, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became our Identity, reports her conclusion, “Tribal members enjoy seeing opponents suffer even if they themselves don’t benefit…. Rather than reach agreement on how to relieve suffering, they prefer to fight win-or-lose symbolic, ideological battles over abstractions.” 

In a subsequent study of the issue, Mason analyzes the importance of issue beliefs versus the power of tribal identity. The title of her Public Opinion Quarterly article sums up her conclusion: “Ideologues without Issues: The Polarizing Consequences of Ideological Identities.” She argues “Americans are dividing themselves socially on the basis of whether they call themselves liberal or conservative, independent of their actual policy differences.” Today’s polarization is largely based in “our social attachments to ideological labels.” 

A Greater Good Magazine article (published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley) titled, “You Might be Getting Your Politics from Your Group,” reflects on Mason’s work and explores our tendency to hold intense “disdain for the other side.” It offers that Mason helps to explain why

one can hold generally liberal views and still identify as a conservative — and vote accordingly [as a “conservative”]…. She notes that social identity “fills two basic psychological needs — one of inclusion (being part of a group) and one of exclusion (distinguishing oneself from others).” ...The terms “liberal” and “conservative” can similarly confer a sense of group identity, along with the assumption that your group is inherently more virtuous. That makes politics very personal, and compromise very difficult.

When that’s the case, Mason says, “a policy compromise is a useless concession to the enemy.” Being a “liberal” or a “conservative” helps people to define who they are, even if they’re “fuzzy” on what those labels actually mean.

Mason reports that — actual issue positions aside — the stronger you identify with an ideology, the more you prefer marrying, or being friends with, a fellow partisan…. Unless we somehow forge a unifying national identity, America will be vulnerable to demagogues like Trump who instinctively know how to exploit this destructive divide.

In her Public Opinion Quarterly article, Mason writes: 

As Achen and Bartels argue, “identities are not primarily about adherence to a group ideology or creed. They are emotional attachments that transcend thinking.”...

Social identities have repeatedly been found to generate ingroup privilege and outgroup derogation... Even among imaginary groups that exist only in a laboratory, group members will privilege their own group at the expense of the greater good….

Ideological labels...push Americans into bias against their ideological outgroups…. Identity-based ideology… [drives] affective polarization against other ideologues…. Americans can use ideological terms to disparage political opponents without necessarily holding [different] sets of policy attitudes.

Partisan identity predicts identity-based ideology far more effectively than does issue-based ideology…. This effect [of identity-based ideology] is more than five times as large as the effect of issue-based ideology…. 

Identity-based ideology...motivate[s] political preference for primal, group-based reasons, while issue-based ideology will generate political preferences for potentially less visceral reasons. 

Politicians, pundits, and cable TV benefit from this polarization, but the country suffers. As reported above, we:

  • fight for larger portions of our self-concept;

  • form emotional attachments that transcend thinking; 

  • are motivated by visceral emotions;

  • become desperate; 

  • enjoy seeing opponents suffer; 

  • fight win-or-lose symbolic, ideological battles over abstractions;

  • hold disdain for and disparage the other side;

  • seek status for ourselves;

  • assume our group is inherently more virtuous; 

  • generate ingroup privilege and outgroup derogation;

  • privilege our own group at the expense of the greater good, and;

  • develop bias against ideological outgroups.

Fortunately, Donald Trump, with his “post-ideological” approach, has revealed that the Republican Party is not “conservative” as we knew it, rendering that term even more meaningless. And some political actors are rejecting the “left-right spectrum.” Rev. Al Sharpton has affirmed a position that “is not right or left but right down the center of what is morally correct." Mayor Pete Buttegieg, who calls himself “a progressive and a democratic capitalist,” told Kara Swisher on Recode Decode:

Challenges are less and less ideological by the day. The fact that the Republican Party got taken over by an economic populist who doesn't really have any ideology tells you that the next battle will not be along the familiar left-right terms of the last battle. There's some of that, but I think people are way over-estimating how much this is a left-right- center fight.

Mason believes, “I’m optimistic about the social diversity and policy interests of the younger generations now moving into politics. Once ‘winning’ comes to mean policy victory rather than partisan victory, we’ll know we are on the right track.” A “Purple Alliance” focused on supporting compassionate improvements in public policy supported by a majority of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents could help achieve that goal. As reported on by Harry C. Boyte, “‘’We the People’ — meeting polarization and other challenges,” a recent national convention convened by Better Angels is very encouraging along this line.

Despite the constant media barrage about the “left-right spectrum,” some forty percent of the American public decline to identify themselves as either “liberal” or “conservative.” And those who do so identify largely don’t agree on what the terms mean, and disagree with each other on many specific issues — and often agree with the other camp instead. 

Nevertheless, many thoughtful people continue to use terms like “liberal” and “conservative,” although alternative, more specific, terms are more descriptive. And some people twist themselves into illogical contortions trying to provide new definitions to the terms.

Squeezing opinions into “left” or “right” categories helps create dogmatic tribes. As affirmed in “Beyond Left and Right: Compassionate Pragmatism, Americans can set aside those confusing labels and dedicate ourselves to serve the common good of all humanity, the environment, and life itself. A new identity, humane American, can replace conventional ideological identities. 

We can fulfill our primal need for inclusion by participating in and identifying with communities that welcome all who share a commitment to serve the common good with mutual respect. And we can fulfill our primal need for exclusion by distinguishing ourselves from those who do not embrace that commitment.