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.