The Irrational Tribalism of Partisan Politics

NPR demonstrates perfectly how a simplistic psychological tribalism is at work when most people think about politics. And the polls show this on nearly every issue, changing our answers to questions depending on whether it helps or hurts the party we identify with:

When pollsters ask Republicans and Democrats whether the president can do anything about high gas prices, the answers reflect the usual partisan divisions in the country. About two-thirds of Republicans say the president can do something about high gas prices, and about two-thirds of Democrats say he can’t.

But six years ago, with a Republican president in the White House, the numbers were reversed: Three-fourths of Democrats said President Bush could do something about high gas prices, while the majority of Republicans said gas prices were clearly outside the president’s control.

The flipped perceptions on gas prices isn’t an aberration, said Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan. On a range of issues, partisans seem partial to their political loyalties over the facts. When those loyalties demand changing their views of the facts, he said, partisans seem willing to throw even consistency overboard…

Along with Jason Reifler at Georgia State University, Nyhan said, he’s exploring the possibility that partisans reject facts because they produce cognitive dissonance — the psychological experience of having to hold inconsistent ideas in one’s head. When Democrats hear the argument that the president can do something about high gas prices, that produces dissonance because it clashes with the loyalties these voters feel toward Obama. The same thing happens when Republicans hear that Obama cannot be held responsible for high gas prices — the information challenges their dislike of the president.

That’s exactly what it is, I think, and many psychological studies show that it’s nearly ubiquitous. That’s why I used the word “we” above, because none of us are immune to it — though we often act as though only those we disagree with could possibly be so inconsistent. Probably no one avoids it entirely, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get better about it. We can learn to be more skeptical and rational by being aware of those biases and by asking ourselves questions about our own motivation. Some of us are better at it than others, and better at it in some circumstances than others; we all have our blind spots.

"Your view is nice. Just open the borders to every nation, every individual."

More Trump Lies About Immigration
"Ah, an uneducated shitty human being."

LDS President: You’re Poor Because You ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Alverant

    Except W had connections to the oil industry and their cooperation. Obama does not. In this case it’s not so much a case of partisan politics but pointing out who had the better tools.

  • Steve LaBonne

    This is the dirty little secret of democracy. That it ever works, even very imperfectly, is something of a miracle. But right now in the US, it’s working very badly.

  • robertspam

    Let me say right up front I’ve not yet listened to or read the NPR article.

    I wonder if the answer to this is as simple as presented.

    I wonder if, when asked this type of question, people don’t bring more into the assumption behind the very straightforward question. What I mean is, are people also thinking not just about the question but also policy and reimagine the question in that light.

    For example, Conservatives when asked that question would probably imagine Obama blocking the Keystone pipeline and consider it’s influence on gas prices. In this case, they’re thinking about more than just the question “can the president influence gas prices”.

    When Bush was in office, if asked that question, I would have thought about the effects of a war in Iraq would be having on gas prices and answered he COULD do something about gas prices, get out of Iraq.

    So it might appear inconsistent and tribal but may not be.

  • Homo Straminus

    This sort of thing is exactly why I like the idea of a “reality-based community”. Like Ed said, we know we do this sometimes, even if we don’t recognize it. But by affirming loyalty to reality, we’re basically saying, “Hey, I’m not perfect, but at least I know what I should be doing.”

  • gesres

    We can learn to be more skeptical and rational by being aware of those biases and by asking ourselves questions about our own motivation.

    It’s even better to do a bit of research to find out the truth, and then our own biases become less important.

  • d cwilson

    It’s how the game is played. In 2000, candidate George W. Bush talked about how he’d be out “jawboin'” with the Saudis to step up production and bring down gas prices. When he took office, he and his supporters then took the tack that the president can’t control the price of gas. With Obama, the roles were reversed, but the results were the same.

    That’s how politics works. You take credit for when things are good and try to avoid blame for when they go south. No one really cares whether such things are actually under the president’s control. It’s about scoring a win and avoiding a loss.

  • Francisco Bacopa

    A better question is why should the president do anything about gas prices? I thought we have mostly free markets and stuff.

  • grumpyoldfart

    Get a copy of the Democrat manifesto and read it out at a Republican meeting. The faithful will cheer every point made – until you tell them it is the other side’s manifesto.

    Works everywhere, for all parties.

  • Crudely Wrott

    For this very reason I do not join groups.

    I do support some groups anonymously but I will not say the club pledge or wear the club uniform.

    I find life much more satisfying when it’s open ended and the choices are my own.

    I might change my mind, you know.

  • enki23

    Reading the “Democrat Manifesto” (seriously?) at a Republican gathering will get you cheers? You think that hypothesis will hold up to even the most perfunctory test?

    Yes, people are irrational in their partisanship. No, that doesn’t mean they don’t have very real, very big, and very fucking salient differences. Yes, it feels nice to play at being Mr/Mrs big independent. No, that doesn’t mean one is going to effect positive change (or mitigate negative) through the force of his or her magnificent will. Not unless you can use that will to mobilize a group. Because groups get shit done. Not because they’re efficient. Because they’re big. When one person can get shit done on their own, it’s because they have somehow convinced, or forced a group of other people to do it for them.

    Independence is the default. It’s a goddamned easiest of easy virtues. But sometimes it isn’t sufficient. Sometimes maybe, just maybe, people join groups because they recognize their own vision of ideological purity isn’t going to be much help when some “group” of malevolent tools rolls right the fuck over them.

  • eric

    ‘Kids these days are far worse behaved than when I was a kid!’

    ‘I don’t think I ever really loved my ex.’

    ‘I’ve always been liberal. Even when I was a republican, I was a fairly liberal one.’

    All of these types of sentiments are a result of the same bias, the same psychological effect. We like to think our memories are like recordings, but they are much more constructive than that. We only remember key elements, and reconstruct the rest based on what we know at present. This inevitably leads us to think that we are much more consistent across time in behavior and belief than we actually are – because when you “remember” a past-you, what you are really doing is reconstructing a picture out of current-you plus a few minor add-ons. ‘Past me married’ is remembered as being just like ‘current me divorced,’ only I lived with this other person. Past me is not remembered as loving that person because memory is not a recording, and I am very likely pulling my feelings for that peson from my current-me-state.

    Now, you put this systematic bias (of thinking your past self is much more like your current self than it actually was) on top of the uncomfortableness of psychological dissonance, and its practically guaranteed that partisans will be obvlivious to the sort of tribalistic answer-switching described in the NPR polls.

    In any event, Ed and everyone else is right; the first step in dealing with this is to recognise that you (and I, and everyone) has this bias, and try and be self-aware about when you might be falling for it.

  • lorn

    Alverant @ #1 makes a good point.

    Ws administration was shot through with major players in energy and petroleum. The ‘energy policy’ meetings early in his term, the ones several top oil executives clearly attended, the ones we never got a list of people who participated, the ones we have no account of what was discussed, was an early clue. The systematic granting of sweetheart deals in and around Iraq, the tax breaks, the give away of oil drilling rights along the shores of the US, all seem to point toward a fairly intimate relationship between the Bush Jr. Administration and big oil.

    I suspect that just as the terrorist alert levels, and the coordinated release of scare stories through the press was manipulated for political advantage the price of gasoline at the pumps was manipulated for fun, profit, and political gain. It is clear that refineries were shut down as times when it could be used to excuse another price rise and increase profits. That this happened when higher prices supported administration policies and political ends was, one can assume, entirely coincidental.

    Obama doesn’t seem to have the same sort of hands-in-the-pants relationship with big oil. In fact his slowing of the sale of oil leases, and a minor reform of the sweetheart deals and tax breaks, has been touted by the oil companies as a socialist attack upon the free enterprise system and the energy future of the nation. An attack that raises gas prices and destroys jobs when , in fact, the oil companies aren’t even exploring the leases they have and the rise in taxes is miniscule. The loss of oil company leverage in Iraq, provided by US military presence, was also annoying but they didn’t shout about it as much.

    The relationship between Obama and the oil companies seems to be close to that between a two-dollar whore and her pimp. With oil being the pimp who doesn’t take kindly to the working girl trying to renegotiate the relationship. Even in the most insignificant ways.

  • Ichthyic

    psychological tribalism


    do I even really need say this, again?

    authoritarian personalities.

  • Ichthyic

    groups get shit done. Not because they’re efficient. Because they’re big.


    the basic truth behind politics forever, and easily trackable since Nixon employed “The Southern Strategy” 40 years ago.

  • “groups get shit done. Not because they’re efficient. Because they’re big.”

    Except of course that ALL politicians these days spend LOTS of their time, money and energy–during their campaigns*–courting the “independent” vote. And of course pollsters/pundits love the “independent” vote because it gives them an excuse for being 180 degrees from reality in their prognostications.

    * After being elected they treat the “independents” as they treat the rest of their constituency; they ignore them.