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Tribalism Makes Us Dumb
If you align perfectly with a political group on everything — abortion, BLM, guns, healthcare, school choice, affirmative action, the deficit, tax cuts, etc. — you may not be thinking for yourself.
If you’ve heard of the Sunrise Movement, it’s probably in the context of the Green New Deal. This is the group that organized the protest outside of Nancy Pelosi’s office in 2019 demanding a comprehensive plan to decarbonize the American economy. That protest got a lot of media attention at the time and eventually led legislators in both the House and Senate to introduce resolutions calling for a Green New Deal.
If that’s all you’ve heard about Sunrise, you might think it’s just another environmental group focused on environmental issues. But you’d be mistaken. Over the past few years, Sunrise has taken firm and uncompromising stances on every political issue imaginable: immigration, guns, BLM, trade, abortion, the filibuster, minimum wage, and every issue besides.
What’s interesting is that you have probably already presumed to know where Sunrise lands on each of these issues. I haven’t told you anything about the group other than its position on climate change, and yet that was probably enough context for you to predict that they are pro-immigration, anti-gun, pro-BLM, anti-trade, pro-choice, anti-filibuster, and pro-minimum wage.
We don’t even think twice about it anymore, but this correlation between unrelated issues is tremendously strange. There’s no good reason why the tens of thousands of eco-activists who make up the Sunrise Movement should be perfectly aligned on policy areas as diverse as these.
This is clearly not just a Sunrise problem. No matter which tribe you look at in American politics, you can find this bizarre and stifling uniformity across a mass of unrelated issues.
The most obvious example is within the political parties. Your typical Republican would probably be pro-gun, anti-BLM, and pro-life. But why? Is there any substantive connective tissue between these issues? I can’t think of one.
I know the point I’m making is not revelatory. People are aware that tribalism and polarization have a tight grip on American politics. But few people have taken the time to understand why people are so willing to export their thought process to the tribe rather than think things through for themselves. So let’s do that now.
Imagine you’re a true-blue Democrat. You believe in most of the party’s platform, but are among the 10% of Democrats who consider themselves pro-life. Ultimately, you have three options: be a pro-life Democrat, stay quiet about abortion, or change your mind and become pro-choice. None of these options is ideal, but you’ve got to choose one.
If you’re the kind of person who’s okay with conflict, maybe being a proud pro-life Democrat is doable. But be aware that choosing this path will get you tarred as a heretic. Many of your fellow Democrats will literally consider you evil for your opinion. If you’re not up for that, you can just stay quiet about your pro-life opinions. This might cause less interpersonal conflict, but will probably weigh on your conscience. Your final option is to change your mind. In many ways, this is the path of least resistance. Changing your mind would make all those pesky interpersonal and ethical conflicts vanish. And if you don’t think that you can consciously choose to change your mind like this, the power of your subconscious + motivated reasoning is probably enough to make it happen.
Out of these three options, remaining a proud pro-life Democrat would be the most disruptive to everyday life. Perhaps a small slice of people will choose that route, but most will not. Instead, most people will opt either to stay quiet about being pro-life or they’ll change their minds and become pro-choice.
This consensus-producing machine is how we arrive at a point where there is 1 Democrat in the House who is pro-life and 212 who are pro-choice. Rinse and repeat, and it’s easy to see why politics these days is riddled with tribalist conformity across many unrelated issues.
To be clear, the point I’m making is not against ideology itself. If you’re an economic progressive, you’ll support more government intervention to provide basic needs like health care, living wages, and housing. Conversely, if you’re a fiscal conservative, you’ll probably oppose those things. In both cases, there’s a clear and coherent worldview that bundles these ideas together. Alignment on these issues makes perfect sense.
But there’s no coherent worldview that explains the issue alignment that we’ve come to expect in American politics. For example, there’s no ideology that can explain why people agree with their co-partisans on trade, healthcare, abortion, school choice, gun restrictions, the deficit, affirmative action, tax cuts, unions, immigration, climate change, and Supreme Court appointments. Anybody who agrees with their tribe on each and every one of these issues is probably not thinking for themselves. Because, seriously, what are the odds that they all just happened to come to the same conclusion on all these different issues? Basically zero.
And yet despite the power that tribalism has in politics today, I’m actually quite hopeful about the trajectory of American political life. Americans are by their nature disobedient and hard to wrangle. Very few of us actually want a political monoculture, which explains why more people than ever are rejecting party labels and identifying as politically independent.
This optimism might seem foolish in our current era of intense tribalism, but the American impulse for independence is strong. In the long run, I’m confident that it will overpower the pull toward conformity and obedience.
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