Monday, January 13, 2014

Tribalism in Politics is Going Mainstream

I was going to write a blog post about the kerfuffle over the George Washington Bridge and traffic jams apparently caused as some kind of "political payback". What was kindly described as "rough-and-tumble New Jersey politics" by one news outlet is really just an example of one of my favorite themes: the Tribalism of American Politics. Political staffers willing to cause serious problems (even, by some accounts, risk lives) for other people simply to "get back at" someone on the "other team" isn't "rough-and-tumble": it's stupid and barbaric. The difference between them and the interahamwe of Rwanda is simply one of degree, not of kind. While the facts are still emerging, good for Governor Christie for at least firing a couple of them on the spot - though I wonder how damaged their careers really will be.

But just as I was getting ready to go through that scandal, I read this piece from Ezra Klein in the Washington Post:
The depressing psychological theory that explains Washington
At long last, somebody in the mainstream gets what I've been writing about for years. He even uses the term "tribalism"! Yes, the account he gives here is not especially nuanced, but hey, he's a journalist - the main points are right even if this stuff has been around for 20 years or more.

And he's right that it is depressing, at least from a certain point of view. One of our myths about ourselves and our politics is that we have somehow evolved above all of this kind of barbaric your-tribe-vs-my-tribe stuff. But in fact, we haven't. Those of us who study politics have known this for a long time. I tell my students, only half-joking: if I'm not depressing you, I'm not doing my job.

I find the tribal tendencies of politics only partly depressing, however. There is in fact an antidote - it just lies outside the political system itself. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have the answer - indeed, they don't WANT they answer because they profit from the system that tribalism builds. Asking either party to fix American politics is like asking Bernie Madoff to strengthen your finances: the result will be predictable, but it won't be what you want.

The answer, at least psychologically, is a rejection of tribal loyalty. I actually know a goodly number of people who have, without any superhuman effort, achieved this. They can evaluate the ideas and positions of both parties with equal weight, think through their logical costs and consequences, and decide which ones make sense (if any do). They don't think of this process as an explicit rejection of one party or of the system as a whole; they just think of it as thinking.

Those of us in higher education who like to talk about "teaching people how to think critically" - what we do is more important than we know. And I'm not at all convinced that we aren't reasonably good at it - as I've said before, I don't know how many non-tribalists there are in America. It may be that we're the largely silent majority. Sounds like a research project for some up-and-coming grad student.

In the meanwhile: reject the politics of tribe. Think. It's a habit that gets easier with practice.

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