Tribalism Matters More Than Policy to Voters

Survey after survey shows that many people vote Republican despite agreeing with most policies favored by Democrats, just like they oppose Obamacare even though they support most of the changes it made. Why is this? Because tribalism matters far more to them than the details of policy about which they know almost nothing. Lilliana Mason, who researches political psychology at Rutgers, explains:

A funny thing happened in five states on election night. In Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, a majority of voters surveyed their choices of candidates and ballot initiatives, and chose a Republican candidate along with a liberal position on a ballot initiative.

Alaska elected a Republican senator and passed a recreational marijuana initiative, along with an increase in the minimum wage. North Dakota elected a Republican congressman and rejected a Personhood amendment. Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota elected a Republican senator and governor, and passed a minimum wage increase. This led Zachary Goldfarb to write: “Americans will vote for Republicans even though they disagree with them on everything.”

My research suggests a key reason why this happened: our partisan identities motivate us far more powerfully than our views about issues. Although voters may insist in the importance of their values and ideologies, they actually care less about policy and more that their team wins.

This “team spirit” is increasingly powerful because our party identities line up with other powerful identities, such as religion and race. Over the last few decades, Republicans have generally grown increasingly white and churchgoing, while Democrats have become more non-white and secular. This sorting of identities makes us care even more about winning, and less about what our government actually gets done.

I often refer to this as sports fan politics. It’s all about cheerleading for your team and it has virtually nothing to do with actual policies favored by the parties. This is why I tend to be suspicious of partisans of either major party, in the sense that I tend not to trust what they say until I can verify it myself. This kind of tribalism is a powerful roadblock to our ability to think critically and evaluate the evidence objectively.

POPULAR AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
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  • grumpyoldfart

    A University professor of political science at Flinders University (Deane Jaensch) once mentioned on a late night radio show that he sometimes played a trick on the audience when he was guest speaker at a political meeting. At a right wing meeting he would read out the party’s manifesto and receive cheers after each point was mentioned. Then, at the end of his talk, he would admit that he had taken them for a ride – he had actually read out the manifesto of the left wing party.

  • scienceavenger

    @1 I believe it was Howard Stern in 2008 that asked Obama supporters what they thought of Obama’s political agenda, except he reversed the positions to be the opposite of what Obama wanted. Didn’t matter, they cheered on those fake initiatives anyway. Anything is good as long as my guy is doing it. That’s also why we have a congress with a reelection rate 5x their approval ratings.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    This kind of tribalism is a powerful roadblock to our ability to think critically and evaluate the evidence objectively.

    OF COURSE YOU JUST SAY THAT BECAUSE YOURE THE OPPOSITE PARTY OF MINE!

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou “Weegee” Doench,

    I agree with the general sentiment but disagree on some of the specifics. The Dems and GOP haven’t just been “sorted” by some impersonal force of nature. That elides over the specific strategic decisions made by Republicans over the last 34 years to actively court the Confederate vote. Framing it as becoming more “white and churchgoing” is just insufferably tame. They have become more doctrinaire and intolerant in ways that the Democratic party simply has not. Basically, on one side the tribalism pointed out here is problematic. On the other it’s electoral policy.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Lou “Weegee” Doench “That elides over the specific strategic decisions made by Republicans over the last 34 years…”

    Also, Democrats. Less so, and with the deep divisions typical of the Left, but stil.*

     

    * -New Deal, -labor, +Wall Street, +Neoliberalism.

  • eric

    That elides over the specific strategic decisions made by Republicans over the last 34 years to actively court the Confederate vote.

    Quibble: 34 years takes us back to 1980. I think they’ve been doing it for more like 50 years. Nixon and Goldwater were the architects.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    My research suggests a key reason why this happened: our partisan identities motivate us far more powerfully than our views about issues. Although voters may insist in the importance of their values and ideologies, they actually care less about policy and more that their team wins.

    Actually, no, her research doesn’t really support that conclusion at all. There’s a lot of truth to the idea of tribalistic influences in political thinking, but this study doesn’t support it. Another possible conclusion, is that the Democrats could have won those states if they had made better contact with the voters. This study does not refute or rule out that conclusion.

    Funny how you cite the study to support a fatalistic conclusion (that it’s tribalism, which strongly implies there’s nothing anyone can do about it), and not the more hopeful conclusion (that Democrats could have done something differently and got better results).

    This is why I tend to be suspicious of partisans of either major party…

    There’s tribalism in politics, therefore you’re suspicious of ALL parties’ leaders, regardless of what they’re trying to do or how they’re trying to do it? First, that’s a bit of a non-sequitur; and second, you’re using this study to justify not doing anything about the problem. That makes you part of the problem.

  • raven

    Eighty-Eight Percent of Romney Voters Were White – Slate

    www. slate. com/…/2012/…/mitt_romney_white_voters_the_gop_candidat…

    Nov 7, 2012 – 7 2012 2:31 PM … That works out to 88 percent of Romney voters being white.

    and

    President Obama and the white vote? No problem. – The …

    www. washingtonpost. com/…/2012/…/president-obama-and-the-white-vo…

    By Chris Cillizza and Jon Cohen November 8, 2012 … And, while Obama did lose white voters by 20 points to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (the widest losing … Obama’s 39 percent showing among white voters matched the percentage that Bill … Just one in every ten Republican voters were non-white.

    1. 88% of Romney voters were white in 2012.

    2. The white vote went 61% Romney, 39% Obama.

    Voting is becoming polarized among racial lines!!! Or more correctly among racist lines. A fair number of whites voted for Obama.

    This is likely to get worse. The USA is projected to go majority nonwhite in 2043. Polls show that whites are afraid that majority will treat them like they were treated. It’s all very biblical, “As you sow, so shall you reap.”

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    eric, I saw Nixon & Goldwater play Yonkers back in 1970. While it cracked up the crowed at the time, their act probably hasn’t aged all that well. Too much black face. Still, their “What’s that you’ve got there?” is a classic (“What’s that you’ve got there, Nixon?” “Why, that’s a dogwhistle, Goldwater.” “What’s it sound like?” “It sounds like this…” [Nixon blows dogwhistle, “Law-n-Order! Law-n-Order!”])

  • Nemo

    So how do we fix it?

  • Mobius

    I have often thought that there are many people that think it is more important to say, “I voted for the winner.” than to vote for policies they actually support.

  • jonathangray

    raven:

    The USA is projected to go majority nonwhite in 2043. Polls show that whites are afraid that majority will treat them like they were treated.

    “We must be open and tolerant towards Islam and Muslims, for when we become the minority, so they will be to us”. – Jens Orback

    Truly, thuman capacity for self-delusion is one of the great forces that drive the historical process.

  • throwaway, never proofreads, every post a gamble

    “We must be open and tolerant towards Islam and Muslims, for when we become the minority, so they will be to us”. – Jens Orback

    Truly, thuman capacity for self-delusion is one of the great forces that drive the historical process.

    And you have, of course, indication that the inverse of what he stated is the case right now? Or did you just want to get in your cheap shot at Muslims for the night?

  • jonathangray

    And you have, of course, indication that the inverse of what he stated is the case right now?

    As an admirer of white American and European culture, I regard it as intrinsically undesirable for whites to become minorities in their own lands, regardless of how the new majorities might treat them. Whether it’ll ever come to that, who knows? Maybe whitey will rise and some kind of race war/reconquista will kick off …

  • jws1

    Shorter #14: I’m one of the bigots who are scared shitless.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Yes, the US is almost certain to become non-“white” in the next 30 years. At which point, many fear, “whites” will be treated as they have treated others. So it’s essential to treat those others as badly as possible while it’s still possible.

  • Anri

    jonathangray @ 14:

    As an admirer of white American and European culture, I regard it as intrinsically undesirable for whites to become minorities in their own lands, regardless of how the new majorities might treat them. Whether it’ll ever come to that, who knows? Maybe whitey will rise and some kind of race war/reconquista will kick off …

    Ok*, I’m curious as to your suggested solution.

    (*Please do not take my “Ok” as an endorsement of your opinion – it isn’t. I just wanted to get past all the lead-up and get straight to the money shot: what you suggest doing about what you perceive as a problem.)

  • jonathangray

    D.C. Sessions:

    Yes, the US is almost certain to become non-“white” in the next 30 years. At which point, many fear, “whites” will be treated as they have treated others. So it’s essential to treat those others as badly as possible while it’s still possible.

    If whites have mistreated/are mistreating minorities, why is that?

    It can’t be because those minirities are mostly just horrible people who deserved everything they got, because that would be racist.

    But then again, it can’t be because white folks are mostly just horrible people who deserve what they’ve got coming to them, because that would be racist too.

    A more plausible (if equally unpalatable) reason might be that people in general are prone to act horribly toward other people, particularly others of a different tribe. If those others are a minority, they are particularly vulnerable.

    If that’s so, whites arguably have every reason to fear becoming a minority and can hardly be blamed for seeking to avoid that fate.

  • jonathangray

    Anri:

    I’m curious as to your suggested solution.

    Honest answer is that I have no solution to suggest. I fear things have gone too far for a humane solution to be found — either whites will go under or they’ll rise up. If they rise up, I think they’ll win. I hope they do prevail because I admire and identify with white European and American culture, but obviously I wish it hadn’t come to this.

  • jonathangray

    (It’s come to this in large part because the Left thought they could abolish tribalism altogether through technocracy rather than realistically trying to manage tribalism’s more destructive aspects. Return of the repressed.)