Tribalism: Part 2
From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 9.3
The strategic imperative of a winner-take-all election, with its zero sum game logic, generates an “us versus them” culture that goes beyond mere criticism, to demonization of opponents. Ad hominem attacks on opponents, while distasteful, are common-place. Voters generally say they dislike negative campaign ads, but since they are often effective (sometimes simply by driving down voter turnout), politicians regularly resort to them. Ironically, many of the calls by politicians themselves for “more civility,” and complaints about an opponent's “negative campaigning” are themselves calculated negative campaign tactics, intended to portray opponents in a negative light, since the implication is that the opponents are the ones who are being uncivil.
A democracy structured on an adversarial election process with winners and losers gives candidates a built-in incentive to promote and amplify these “us/them” tribal dichotomies. Rather than allowing for a thoughtful exchange of ideas, leading to a common vision of a way forward, this type of “democracy” prompts citizens to revert to warring tribes bent on defeating the other party. This dynamic is not uniquely modern. In his famous treatise, Politics, Aristotle mentions that the city of Heraea replaced the election of magistrates with the selection by lot specifically to overcome the partisan machinations and plotting induced by elections.
This us/them partisan divide generated and/or exacerbated by elections, is not a characteristic of genuine democracy, but rather an existential threat that is undercutting democratic principles. In recent years there have been a rash of political science journal articles examining what is termed “affective polarization” — characterized by even greater disdain for the “other” party than approval of one’s favored party. A study published by Yale researchers in 2020 showed how deeply this threat to democracy has permeated American society.
"Our findings show that U.S. voters, regardless of their party affiliation, are willing to forgive undemocratic behavior to achieve their partisan ends and policy goals. … We find that polarization raises the stakes of elections and, in turn, the price of prioritizing democratic principles over partisan interests. Voters' willingness to sacrifice democratic principles may not be desirable in terms of protecting democracy, but it has an intuitive political logic: They are trading off one political interest against another."
The study found that only 3.5 percent of voters were willing to use their vote to punish a candidate from their preferred party for engaging in anti-democratic behavior.
This willingness to ignore or forgive anti-democratic behavior by those on your side of the partisan divide may have become transparently obvious since 2016, but has existed forever. Sadly, we seem able to perceive and condemn this dynamic on the other side, but to either be completely blind to it, or even approve of it on our own side. A team of researchers from Stanford University and M.I.T. published a study with 8,000 participants in 2022, examining depolarization strategies among partisans. They found that
“while these depolarization interventions reliably reduced affective polarization, we do not find compelling evidence that these interventions reduced support for undemocratic candidates, support for partisan violence or prioritizing partisan ends over democratic means.”
It is widely proclaimed that democratic principles are fundamental. But many people’s partisan priorities, as shaped by an electoral milieu, indicate those “principles” are merely instrumental and easily jettisoned — valuable if they help elect the genuinely “good” politicians we support. Contrary to the widespread assumption, elections and partisanship actually foment anti-democratic attitudes.
“affective polarization is the canary in the coal mine. That is, it tells us things are dysfunctional without causing the dysfunction. Affective polarization as an indicator of dysfunction rather than a cause doesn’t diminish its importance.”
I would argue that the cause of the dysfunction, which affective polarization reveals, is society’s reliance on elections themselves. I should note that this dynamic is most extreme in higher offices, such as federal elections, and may be weaker or nonexistent in more local elections. However, since the same party labels are used, and local voters are also national voters, the psychological effects filter down, even if the local candidates don’t fan the flames. And it goes far beyond mere partisan suspicion and hatred. This casting of electoral opponents as “enemies” infects the rest of society. For many people, partisan loyalty, like religion, ethnicity, race and other classifications can be more about a personal identity, than policy preferences. Research has shown that many people refrain from making friends or even living in the same neighborhoods with supporters of the “other” party. Any efforts to seek the common good seem unrealistic and naive in this combative atmosphere. Flipping the classic quote of nineteenth century general Carl von Clausewitz, “politics is war by other means.” Alternatively, partisan “lack of civility” can prompt non-partisans to wash their hands of the whole sorry mess and turn their attention to more appealing activities outside the political realm.
Of course, it isn’t just politics where we see factions and forms of tribalism – team sports, home town loyalties, etc. also stem from this instinctual propensity. As mentioned above, the other side of tribalism is the altruistic sharing and self sacrifice it promotes within the tribe. A major advance made possible by civilization is the extension of that tribal boundary – ultimately, perhaps, to include all of humanity – the “human family,” as proclaimed in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, the propensity of elections to foment inter-group hatreds, which elections foster for compelling tactical campaign reasons, are counter-productive. They are harmful in relatively homogeneous developed countries, but can be totally devastating when foisted on nations rife with ethnic and religious divisions. I should note, however, that within the political realm, it is not only elections that foster this tribalism. Any society divided into leaders and followers can give leaders this same incentive, in which leaders (even without any elections) find it beneficial for their own purposes to demonize opponents. My point is not that elections uniquely promote this tribalism, but that unlike a sortitional democracy, electoral systems increase and thrive on it. The election panacea, favored by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all “modern democracies” is the completely wrong approach to democratic governance, in both developed and developing nations.