How “tribalism” miscasts left/right conflict

How “tribalism” miscasts left/right conflict June 16, 2019

Here I explore how the way in which the left and the right define and then engage with in-groups and out-groups lead to the rift between them, before a rhetorical shot has even been fired.

Let me start with some sweeping generalizations. These are intended to act as points, not in a spectrum, as the left/right dichotomy implies, but in a circle. It’s up to you exactly where you put them, and it’s a big circle. I am talking about what is broadly true of those on the left and on the right (so, true of a large number of each group, and somewhat true of most people in each group).

Some of the biggest differences between the left and the right are the sizes and definitions of in-group and out-groups, their reactions to out-groups (as noted by the difference between Benevolence and Universalism above), and the degree of orientation towards hierarchy within the in-group (Conformity and Tradition on the Right, Self-Direction on the Left). What I particularly want to highlight here is the marked difference between the Left and the Right that is mischaracterized by the lazy use of the idea of tribalism. By tribalism I mean specifically the idea that each side attacks the other because they are on the opposing side.

First, let us look at how each wing (tribe) deals with confrontation. Do they go in guns a-blazing, or with an olive branch? Oliver Scott Curry (2019[i]) suggests that hawkish and dovish traits are two parts of an evolved solution to interpersonal and inter-group conflict:

Conflict over resources—food, territory, and mates—presents organisms with an opportunity to cooperate by competing in less mutually destructive ways. There are three ways of achieving this: contests (featuring the display of hawkish and dovish traits), division, and possession.

Game theory has shown that conflicts can be settled through “contests,” in which individuals display reliable indicators of their “fighting ability,” and defer to the stronger party. Such contests are widespread in nature, and often form the basis of dominance hierarchies where resources are allocated by “rank”. Humans have a similar repertoire of status related behaviors, and culturally elaborated hierarchies. Morality-as-cooperation leads us to expect that these types of cooperative behavior—hawkish displays of dominance (the “heroic virtues” of bravery, fortitude, skill, and wit) and dovish displays of submission (the “monkish virtues” of humility, deference, obedience, and respect)—will be regarded as morally good.

[Inline citations from original removed, here, for readability – see original paper (p.49), linked in previous footnote, for citations.]

I think it is fair to say that, in very general terms, those on the left tend to be quite hawkish towards those in their in-group; worried about people they see as allies “letting the side down”. In similarly general terms, those on the right are much more likely to forgive their fellow in-group members for transgressions, especially when that in-group member is further up the hierarchy; deference and dovishness, as a byproduct of in-group membership and perceived power.

By contrast, however, when it comes to out-groups, those on the left are much more likely to call for diplomacy first, and for longer—where those on the right are much more likely to be bellicose—especially on the international stage. I don’t think that it’s an accident that, in the US, there is a “war” on drugs, primarily sponsored by the right, casting drug-users as deviants and moral failures, and thus not part of the in-group, and thus a problem to be dealt with. Many on the left see drug use as a public health issue, and that drug-abusers (but not recreational users) need support and caring. (And it’s fair to say that the distinction between use and abuse is something that many conservatives wouldn’t even acknowledge, but that many right-leaning libertarians or classical liberals would.)

Abortion is seen as morally reprehensible, and those that are involved in them are amoral and thus in the out-group, a problem to be dealt with. As such, those who commit murder in the name of stopping abortions are given an almost literal ‘get out of jail free’ card. In addition, the right is likely to project their bellicosity onto others, often as a means to justify their own warlike behaviour, such as with the annual hilarity that is the Fox News claims about ‘the “war” on Christmas.’ Christmas being a strong reference to the in-group of “true” Americans, i.e. Christian “patriots”.

You can see, therefore, where the right’s frustration with the left as appeasers, particularly with regard to the Middle East and Muslims, comes from. Equally, it should be clear that the left, as a matter of course, finds the bloodlust of the right extremely off-putting. The whooping and hollering in response to Ted Cruz “we’re going to carpet-bomb them into oblivion” and “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out”[ii] or even just the “strategy” (which back-fired badly) of ‘shock and awe.’

Take any out-group where both the left and the right agree about out-group status, and they will immediately disagree about how to proceed. Similarly, take anyone that both sides see as being in their in-group, and they will immediately disagree about how to proceed.

This gets to the nub of the matter, the very thing I wanted to point out about the laziness of the use of the tribalism trope.

When the left call upon some higher-up member of the right to do better, they are generally doing so as fellow members of some in-group, be it others who are also high up in that same hierarchy or as fellow country-men and -women. The right, however, will see this as an attack and think that the left are ostracizing that individual for a minor transgression that they (the right) would otherwise have overlooked. In response they will dig-in, double down and defend that person.

So, when it comes to discourse between the left and right; when the left calls upon the right to do better they’re also saying ‘you’re part of my in-group, and you’re letting the side down’, but when the rights calls upon the left to do better they’re saying, ‘you are a member of an out-group and I won’t trust you until you show that you’re a member of the in-group’. The single-issue voters in America, those whose single issue is ‘Never Democrat’, illustrate this latter stance well.

The right is very much more on the defensive in any interaction because of this dynamic. I also think the right are wrong to think that the left’s tendency towards dovishness is a sign of weakness:

“That which yields is not always weak.”

― Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel’s Dart

In addition, dovishness can be used tactically as an indication of mutual trust, what Oliver Scott Curry points to as the moral problem-solving approach of reciprocity. And with regard to reciprocity in diplomacy:

“The way to make people trust-worthy is to trust them.”

― Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters 1917-1961

People on the right are very much more likely to be religious – though religiosity, too, is not a simple left/right matter – and in the West that religion tends to be Christianity. So, I just want to point out that both of the above quotes have equivalents in the Bible, so this is not outside the scope of right wing thought, it is just seldom practiced these days, and I would call on them to do better.



[i] A quick overview:

A recent paper from Curry going into more depth:

Curry, O. S., Mullins, D. A., & Whitehouse, H. (2019). Is It Good to Cooperate? Testing the Theory of Morality-as-Cooperation in 60 Societies. Current Anthropology60(1), 000.



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