May Your Tribe Decrease

In a recent column, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post reported on a social science study that came to some surprising (and depressing) conclusions:

Up until the mid-1980s, the typical American held the view that partisans on the other side operated with good intentions. But that has changed in dramatic fashion, as a study published last year by Stanford and Princeton researchers demonstrates.

It has long been agreed that race is the deepest divide in American society. But that is no longer true, say Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, the academics who led the study. Using a variety of social science methods (for example, having study participants review résumés of people that make both their race and party affiliation clear), they document that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.”

Americans now discriminate more on the basis of party than on race, gender or any of the other divides we typically think of — and that discrimination extends beyond politics into personal relationships and non-political behaviors. Americans increasingly live in neighborhoods with like-minded partisans, marry fellow partisans and disapprove of their children marrying mates from the other party, and they are more likely to choose partners based on partisanship than physical or personality attributes.

The tendency to live among people who share one’s general outlook was highlighted in Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort, and together with partisan redistricting–gerrymandering–it has resulted in the election of lawmakers whose only allegiance is to the deep-red or deep-blue character of their districts; that in turn has made it virtually impossible for “establishment” politicians to control them. The intransigence (and far too often, blinding stupidity) of these hyper-partisan warriors feeds the tribalism described in the study.

The authors of the study reportedly had no suggestions for how we might close the partisan gap.

In their great 2004 rant, The Urban Archipelagothe editors of The Stranger  looked at the electoral map and saw red and blue America as a rural/urban phenomenon–islands of blue floating in seas of red. They had lots of theories about why city folks were “blue,” and the whole essay is a good read, but if they are correct–and subsequent elections have confirmed the archipelago’s persistence–the ultimate remedy for our partisan tribalism may be demographic: the U.S. population has been migrating steadily to more metropolitan areas and hollowing out great swathes of rural America.

According to the theory, at least, neighbors are less likely to demonize each other.


  1. I am only slightly surprised that partisan division exceeds racism; much of it appears to me to be the combination of party combined with race causing the divide. The LGBTs are coming up fast in this race. My beautiful, incredible, talented granddaughter’s fiance seems to be an intelligent, hard working man who cares deeply for her but stays aloof from us. We have welcomed him with open arms but he seems uncomfortable; we don’t talk party per se but sometimes do discuss what is going on locally, nationally and internationally. We believe he is a Republican:) Can’t remember what the issue was recently but he shoved a note at me (due to my deafness) informing me that Boehner pronounces his name “Bayner”, his only input into the conversation. I laughed and told him, being deaf I have never heard his name pronounced and that his soon-to-be mother-in-law had finally written President Obama’s name the way it is pronounced because I have never heard it spoken. Such a minor thing to be obviously bothered by shows the depth of party division in this case; he voiced no opinion on whatever the issue was but chose to correct my pronunciation of Boehner’s name. Maybe he had no opinion or argument with our views on the situation, Republican family members were at the table with all of us in agreement and making no party reference. The division could cause problems in their relationship because the great divide in providing assisance to those in need is basic in both of their personalities and in both parties. My granddaughter said nothing; when he isn’t with her, she joins in the conversations. I am again reminded of the division of families and friends during the Civil War; the greatest partisan division this country has experienced since the Revolution till now. I continue to wear my rose colored glasses and try to retain my Pollyanna outlook while holding on to my “…audacity of hope.” It is getting to be a more difficult struggle by the day.

  2. My retirement plan is to relocate to a rural area where I can start transforming the other inhabitants into progressives.

  3. There can be little doubt that politics is a great divider. It was the basis of the rise of the National Socialist Party. Yet, once in power, the NAZIs created the illusion of race because there were no actual minorities in Germany at the time. German Jews were Germans first and Germans knew it. They had fought beside them in the previous war. Still, that was no deterrent when it came to a means of divisiveness.

    I beg to differ, Mr. Westwood. Race will ever be the go to when it comes to divide and conquer.
    It is the race card that is the ace card.

  4. The “oe” diphthong in German is not pronounced “ay.” “Bayner” may be John Boehner’s preference instead of kid-teasing “boner”.
    A German-speaking person will pronounce it closer to “Burner”.
    Alternate spelling may be Böner where the “ö” sports an umlaut to replace the “e”.

  5. It was Sheila, I think, who referred to the mess we are in as a paradigm shift. It certainly is; and it is a paradigm shift of the highest order, as confusing as the Copernican shift, as disruptive as the downfall of Rome. Some people will insist on protecting the old order – and who cannot agree that much of that order should be maintained: the world is better for Plato and Aristotle , Dante and Shakespeare, Bach and Schubert. But these people imagine a stability that was never present as they remember it and it is that supposed stability – rather than impressive cultural achievements – that fuel their fervor. Other people accept that we are moving on to something new and hope that it will be a future that is better on all sorts of levels than the past that is quickly dying. They do not know this, but hope for it. Two very contrary positions: don’t move forward versus move forward conscientiously. No wonder there is a fight going on. The mediating position is to give some direction to the inevitable move forward, to work to conserve what is best in the culture while recognizing that the culture itself is changing radically; maybe even acknowledging that the changes themselves might very well enrich our world rather than diminish it. Let’s hope such mediating voices will come to the fore.

  6. Charles; thanks for the info, it is interesting. To me Boehner is a “boner” and a “boner” he will always be. I learned in my 40’s that my German/Austrian family had been mispronouncing our name, Laxen, incorrectly. Should have been Lahxen. My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Grabhorn; no way to mispronouce that one that I know of.

    Boehner came on strong out of the gate as Speaker of the House; he has committed boner after boner and in my estimation, has been the primary source of many problems between parties today. I believe he has also been the source of problems within the Republican party but, like sheep they follow the Judas goat into oblivian. He certainly should not have more power than the president of the United States (nor should any Speaker) but, apparently that is the situation. As for the Republican party in general, how many presidential candidates are going to come crawling out of the woodwork and from under their rocks. That tribe certainly seems to have increased. Maybe their increasing numbers will cancel one another out. The Republicans today seem to be a third political party, using the aka of GOP.

  7. People are taught in school to accept what they hear and defend it angrily. You can’t fix stupid when it fights back and insists it is genius.

  8. Unfortunately, Earl is right. At the bottom line it’s race. Walter Cronkite, I’m sure if living would agree. As he often said as a spokesperson for the Interfaith Alliance: “It’s White Supremacy masked in Christianity.” Kidding ourselves only make matters worse.

    In addition, I would make a minor adjustment to what JoAnn mentioned about the Republican Party. The Nazis in Germany were described by the author George Mosse as a “Third Force.” A party created over the Volk or race.

    The Tea Party is a movement within the Republican Party and has the potential of making the Republican Party a “Third Force.” That has always been the long range plan of the John Birch Society. And the way the country is going it might be inevitable.

  9. I think that much of what Sheila speaks is a natural reaction to extremism. Extremism breeds counter extremism. “Sides” become hardened as a defensive reaction to extremism. In fact much of the historical trauma in human history can be traced to extremist arms races until nobody is in control and collective actions occur that overwhelm individual conscience.

    When Rush Limbaugh first modeled extremism I’m sure that his reaction to what he had wrought was “being the rudest in a crowd is both fun and easy. Bully on.”

    Now that his opposition is running him out of town on a rail I’m sure that he’s saying “how did things change so much?”

    If anyone doesn’t see the extremism in the Middle East as a reaction to Israeli/American extremism like bombing them, I don’t think that they read or listen to real news.

    In America extremism now has grown into a force out of everyone’s control.

    I don’t see any signs of it resolving anytime soon.

  10. Boner. Hmmmmm, needs a nickname, all I can
    think of is “Woody”.

    Woody Boner – very apt (perhaps not appropriate)

  11. Oh, my word, this post is wonderful and has prompted my response with a big smile on my face. After 30 years of marriage, my first husband had the audacity to drop dead of a sudden heart attack on our patio. Doing what I do best, I picked up the pieces of my life and carried on; however, I soon discovered I missed and enjoyed the company of a suitable, like-minded man as I’d had a good marriage.

    Fast forwarding through several frogs, I was introduced to my current husband who invited me to lunch where after the first glass of wine, he cut to the chase by asking me what were my thoughts about abortion. I shared my honest and personal thought that abortion was a woman’s personal decision and certainly not a decision that included a politician of any persuasion. Lo and behold, I was the woman he’d been seeking for 10 years even though I was well past child-bearing years.

  12. Little doubt that the NAZI Party was none other than a third force. It never won a general election. But once a foot in the door, they quickly outlawed opposing parties and sent them to Poland. Auspices? Communism of course! Just like America.

    Oh yes, American killed by drone strike. How much do you want to bet me he wasn’t CIA? (Families will be compensated.)

  13. If there is a paradigm shift under way today, which is very plausible, it is being largely led by people who likely have no idea what a paradigm is. Right now I dare say no one really knows where this country is headed given that so much of what we have experienced over the last decade and a half as a people and a country has been so far beyond any previous experience. It seems as if we have collectively lost confidence in ourselves and act like we are prisoners of circumstance, which very well may be the case. Add to that all the cultural and political angst that goes with it being buttressed by misinformation, corruption, polarization and extremism dished out every day and you have a train wreck, a big one.

    It’s going to be a very tall order to really fix this mess and end up with a paradigm shift that is truly good for this country instead of one that leaves us far short of where we could be. We can’t just sit back and coast – we have to fix this somehow, some way. While not trying to be too melodramatic, this country’s future as a viable entity is ultimately at stake.

  14. Tom, don’t you think the German, Italian and Japanese people knew where their leaders were leading them? Don’t you believe it was some sort of collective denial which had little to do with reality? Is that where are today?

    There are many films depicting the faces and voices of these people at that time. Didn’t they appear to be happy?

    Were they ignorant, uneducated, disenfranchised? Was Krupp the Koch of that time?

    When we question, we learn.

  15. I would suggest that the Germans were more into reality than we are at this time.

    Oster and Canaris who led the German military intelligence knew the catastrophe that was awaiting the German people as early as 1938. They tried to change the direction, but by then it was to late. Putting it to the Jews was one thing. Taking on the Soviet Union was a different story all together.

    The Jews were less than 1% of the population in Germany. The African-American community in America is close to 20%. At least a few Republican Senators now see where Koch’s Tea Party is taking us. Is it too late?

  16. Earl, of course they did but I’d also have to add the caveat – sort of. The Germans, for example, were laboring under the punitive Versailles Treaty reparations regime that was crushing them. The Great Depression added even more wreckage to what they already faced. The Nazis pushed the idea that they could lead them out of where they were at the time, give them better lives and restore their national honor. The German people glossed over the now obvious downside to what the National Socialists were selling but gave into their swill since they were indoctrinated by very skillful propagandists into thinking that what they were selling was their only way out. Sure, many Germans knew for various reasons that what the Nazis were peddling was ultimately wrong but they bought into it anyway. Thus the most literate population in Europe gave in to the most base and horrible political movement in history, hiding their guilt and shame as events played out the way they did in fear if they didn’t those that came and arrested their neighbors would come for them next. They trapped themselves.

    History is replete with examples of how not to do things and when I listen to people demonize the poor, immigrants, anyone that is different in their point of view, even our own government, it always reminds me of the 1930’s and the origins of the Second World War. Whether that’s an accurate parallel to what is happening today in this country I don’t know but the fact that it leads me to even consider that in regard to this country gives me pause.

    The last time we faced anything remotely like this was also at the height of the Great Depression and thankfully we had Franklin Roosevelt to lead us out of it, often with only the strength of his personality. There are no politicians of that caliber around today so the safeguards and safety valves he found that he used to hold the country together when it was coming apart at the seams, are no longer considered relevant. Instead we have people that want to go full speed ahead with political agendas that once again come at the expense of minorities and the poor with them being fed to the mainstream as being less than worthy. The question is whether or not we can find it in ourselves to ultimately reject these fraudulent ideas and actually live up to all those values that we tell ourselves that we still believe in. Only time will tell.

  17. The great lesson of WWII is that Hitler would have conquered Russia. What he didn’t plan on was American’s role in turning the vast supply of Red manpower into an unbeatable force.

    What the neo-cons fail to understand is that they do not know who is who and what is what. At no time in the history of our intelligence have we gotten it anywhere close to right. Cuba/Russia had generational tactical nukes ready when the clowns were clamoring for invasion.

    And today, were we to initiate open hostilities on a grander scale, how do we know what Russia and China would do? How do we know that they would not provide Iran/Isis/Saudi Arabia/Afghanistan/Palestine/Haiti/and your third cousin with nukes?

    One bomb on Beirut and just another city is destroyed. A bomb falling on an Americana metropolis is another thing altogether. This fractional society would quickly descend into chaos. And they know it. We don’t.

  18. Tom, there’s a paradigm. And It’s real deep. It would take something akin to a 3D MRI to see it.

    The DNA has been modified in order to prevent detection on the surface. The Italian author Umberto Eco warned of the potential for this type of scenario in his book Eternal Fascism.

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