Thursday, May 31, 2012

Tribalism Trumps Judgment

A piece of an NPR story about the presidential election this morning caught my ear as I was driving to work. You can read a full transcript of the story here. The particular bit that got my attention was this:

"Democrats [are] very optimistic about the country's future, even though they're not as optimistic that every individual has it in their power to get ahead," he says. "Republicans believe in that aspect of the American dream — that hard work will pay off — but they're very skeptical about the way the country is headed as a whole." 
Dimock says that divide began when Obama took office, with Republicans becoming very downbeat about the direction of the country. [Emphasis added]

Dimock in this case is Peter Dimock, Associate Director for Research at the Pew Research Center. I've not been able to lay my hands on the underlying numbers, but I'm guessing that the Republicans he's talking about here represent 30% to maybe 40% of the US population, and that the downbeat view is a majority but not universal position within that segment.

That this would be true should hardly surprise us - but it should bother us. Contrary to the way we construct our news narratives, the fate of the nation turns on forces far larger than who happens to be in the White House at any given moment. The economic downturn which still dogs the country started well before Obama's election, and may survive him to yet a third presidency.

Moreover, for all the hyperventilating on the campaign trail there have been very few massive shifts in US policy over the last three years. Even the major initiative of the Obama presidency, "Obamacare", is still largely theoretical, its implementation put off into the future. To the extent that the US may be headed in either a more positive or more negative direction, the impact of the election of a particular president hasn't had much tangible effect.

So why would a majority of self-identified Republicans have decided at the start of 2009 that the country is now going to hell in a hand basket? Simply put, because tribal identity trumps evidence, judgement, or facts nearly every time. If you identify yourself strongly enough as a Republican, and if the Republican party (the tribal elders) are all saying that the election of Obama means the end of Western Civilization, then by golly that's what you're going to see.

Democrats, of course, are guilty of the same thing. At the moment they are optimistic about the future, because Their Guy is in the White House. If Romney wins later this year, expect a downward shift in their opinions come January, regardless of what's actually happening in the world.

For anyone who identifies with the fundamental principles of the Enlightenment - Reason, Evidence, the Scientific Method - this kind of "thinking" is appalling. It amounts to rank superstition, or at best an allegiance to a vaguely-defined (but very powerful) secular religiosity. It is the mantra of the Dittohead (to pick on one self-identified example): "If Rush says it, I believe it."

As much as we want to project the Democrat/Republican, Left/Right divide onto everything in public life, this one strikes me as much more important: the Tribalists versus the Rationalists. Do we believe that truth is whatever authorities tell us  (even if we think they are authorities of our own choosing), or do we believe that reason and evidence should guide our judgments about the world? Are we children of the Enlightenment or of the Middle Ages that preceded it? That's a distinction that matters a great deal more in terms of what kind of public life we are going to get - but it's one that nobody (not even the Pew Center) pays any attention to.

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