Are You a Member of My Tribe?

There’s a lot of research confirming the human tendency to sort other humans into tribes–to distinguish between those who are “us” and those who are “them.” Historically, those categories have primarily–albeit not exclusively–been based on race and religion.

Now, evidently, many of us are basing our tribal identities on partisan affiliation. According to a recent article at Vox,

In 1960, Americans were asked whether they would be pleased, displeased, or unmoved if their son or daughter married a member of the other political party.

Respondents reacted with a shrug. Only 5 percent of Republicans, and only 4 percent of Democrats, said they would be upset by the cross-party union. On the list of things you might care about in child’s partner — are they kind, smart, successful, supportive? — which political party they voted for just didn’t rate.

Fast forward to 2008. The polling firm YouGov asked Democrats and Republicans the same question — and got very different results. This time, 27 percent of Republicans, and 20 percent of Democrats, said they would be upset if their son or daughter married a member of the opposite party. In 2010, YouGov asked the question again; this time, 49 percent of Republicans, and 33 percent of Democrats, professed concern at interparty marriage.

What makes this partisan tribalism puzzling is the fact that public opinion on the various issues that confront us are not particularly polarized; opinion surveys show most Americans remaining firmly centrist (depending upon how one defines that term) when asked their positions on  specific issues.  And yet, party affiliation has become a form of personal identity that divides “us” from “them.”

[P]arty affiliation wasn’t simply an expression of our disagreements; it was also becoming the cause of them. If Democrats thought of other Democrats as their tribe and of Republicans as a hostile tribe, and vice versa, then the consequences would stretch far beyond politics — into things like, say, marriage.

And the data was everywhere. Polls looking at the difference between how Republicans viewed Democrats and how Democrats viewed Republicans now showed that partisans were less accepting of each other than white people were of black people or than black people were of white people.

The Vox article describes several experiments that confirmed this partisan bias, some in ways that were deeply troubling. (People awarded jobs or scholarships to less-qualified applicants who shared their partisan affiliation, for example.)

What is driving this phenomenon? Obviously, there is no single cause, but the article does note the role of media:

There are no major cable channels devoted to making people of other races look bad. But there are cable channels that seem devoted to making members of the other party look bad. “The media has become tribal leaders,” he says. “They’re telling the tribe how to identify and behave, and we’re following along.”

Evidently, most of us have a need to despise some “other,” and if the culture frowns upon using race or religion as the operative distinction, some number of us will substitute party.

Others, of course (Trump, Cruz, Pence, et al) will stick with the old standbys of race, religion and national origin.

Evidently, we humans aren’t hard-wired to see other people simply as individuals.


  1. I do not find the partisan tribalism puzzling at all; it is no longer a difference in political opinions, it has turned ugly, hateful, racist, bigoted and very dangerous to many Americans. It is now a matter of one party preventing the President to resolve many problems he inherited and it trying to prevent more wars, lacking humanity, depriving specific groups of people of civil and human rights, forcing specific religious beliefs on others by enacting laws, delving into sex lives and disallowing medical decisions by and for women, using public education money to subsidize private – mostly religion based schools, allowing the wealthy to prevent job creation to renovate collapsing infrastructure nation-wide, refusing to raise minimum wage or pay livable wages, destroying many unions and disallowing formation of new unions, turning Amendments against Americans and adding Amendments putting our government on the auction block, depriving specific groups of Americans of their basic civil and human rights once provided and protected by the Constitution and the Amendments. What is puzzling about partisan tribalism?

    I couldn’t identify why it actually scared me till my granddaughter (whose fiance is a staunch Republican) announced on Thanksgiving she will be voting for Trump if nominated because “he knows how to run a business”. Seeing that she has been so easily convinced to turn her back on her lifelong humanitarian beliefs and her moral values made me see how dangerous the Republican party has become. Three months ago she was in Uganda assisting in pediatric heart surgeries on dying black babies for the second year and supporting the bid for a nurses union in three local hospitals. She comes from a family with biracial and Mexican-American cousins on her father’s side and lesbians and gays on her mother’s side, her brother is a paramedic in the U.S. Navy and will be on the battlefield if Republicans declare the war they are intent of getting us into. She is an extremely intelligent, successful young woman and is turning her back on her own beliefs, her family members, the moral values she has stood by all her life for a raving fool who “knows how to run a business”, or so she has been convinced by her fiance. If she can so easily be swayed by a large diamond ring and led from her own set of values; we need to be seriously concerned about that “clown car” full of presidential hopefuls who just may put one of those clowns in the White House.

    I will repeat what I said yesterday; I am afraid, I am very afraid.

  2. 55 yrs ago, politics wasn’t so crazy and media driven either. Yes, I’m a member of your tribe maybe because we’re educated and can think for ourselves. JoAnn makes a good point though about her granddaughter changing her mindset because of her partner. Those people have been brainwashed and she’s a prime example. You have to save them from themselves and I hope JoAnn can help her realize that. Good luck.

    I thought I was a conservative until I found the “political compass” test that verified that instead I was a far left liberal. Proud one at that too. I knew after that “test” that I had been compromised by those close to me and knew why I was so conflicted in what I heard and felt.

  3. 55 years ago …

    For those who lived in New York City, being a member of the Tribe
    came down to this:

    You were either a Met’s Fan or a Yankee’s Fan

  4. Tribal identity is certainly not a new phenomenon. Sheila is right that the use of political affiliation as a marker has become the new norm for this country. It is very reminiscent of Germany at the rise of the Third Reich when membership in the Nazi Party was a social as well as political litmus test.

    I have a large family that traditionally has been politically diverse. I would not be surprised if there were someone in the group of us who is tempted by the bombastic bigotry of certain candidates. I would be very disappointed and dismayed. And frightened, too, that someone I love and respect could be so easily swayed.

    The assertion that someone who knows how to run a business (despite numerous bankruptcies and the use of his enormous inherited wealth to intimidate those who disagree with his politics) as the sole qualification for the highest office in the nation is based on a misunderstanding of our system of governance. Sheila has thoroughly discussed that difference in previous posts.

    Gary Varvel’s editorial cartoon this morning sums it up for me. (I know that may come as a shock to those who know me well.) Make America Hate Again is a fitting slogan for the rhetoric coming from the radical right. Anyone who supports those candidates, especially women, have made a serious and, hopefully not, fatal mistake for themselves and our country.

  5. JoAnn: It’s not the diamond ring but it could be the ring he inserts in her nose every morning. That would be a classic Republican leadership tool if with a short chain. Been there, done that. You sound like you might have been there too.

  6. I believe that the driving force behind tribalism is “fear”. It is the fear within ourselves that comes out of self-protection. This age old reaction to events has been and is still part of the human experience. It has, until modern times, mostly served us well. Now, due to modern ways of communication and the advent of psychology it is used against all of us by political parties, advertisment and most religions. It is aptly named fearmongering. And it works.

    Look at the shooting in California. Sadly, as many people were killed in the terrorist attack, there were scores more killed that day by gun fire across the country. But the outrage is directed at only two killers. We see not our neighbor who looks like us, but the other who is different. And we are afraid. Enter the fearmongers, and a large segment of society returns to survival instincts and turns their fear into irrational ideas and actions. This is the fertile ground for dictatorship. What we need to fear is getting sucked into this ocean of fear. As the wise man said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

  7. OMG; I don’t believe she realizes the full effect of her drastic turnaround – YET! When she does; she will realize she lost herself with that decision.

    You are right about me but it wasn’t a political ring in my nose; it was the 1950’s demands of girls/women at that time to be under the firm control of parents, passed on to husband who inserted the wedding ring. I was 34 when I revolted; realized I had a brain but needed to use it, had rights but had to demand them. I have looked back from time to time, but never with regret or a sense of loss of those who stayed behind. At age 78 I am still a charter member of the “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” club.

  8. daleb, while there is much “Idiocracy” being played out these days, I see an opportunity for this nation to rise up in its finest hour, reaffirming our belief in freedom, justice and the rule of law.

  9. As Sheila noted, the media plays a very significant role in dividing us and creating hatred.

    We are bombarded with “hatred” news 24/7, and it seems the people that watch Fox news or listen to Limbaugh and other extremists play a very significant role in firing up this hatred.

    Sadly, the people that fall for that propaganda have no clue that they are playing into the hands of their chosen media sources and making them very wealthy and powerful.

  10. JoAnn, I have intelligent (or so I thought) friends that think Trump will make the best president for our country. I am baffled at how they could even consider him to be worthy of such a powerful position, let alone how dangerous he would be.

    I am guessing that your granddaughter would not even listen to anything you might have to say about politics because she has been so brainwashed. I learned that my friends’ minds are so closed that they are not even capable of listening to common sense ideas or thoughts. We can only hope they come to their senses before this completely blows up for all of us.

  11. Trumps paternal grandparents were German Immigrants.
    Grandfather Frederick Trump (formerly, Frierich Drumpf)

    Wonder if Trump is tarred with the same brush as some of
    the early 20th century German politicians ?

    He certainly has an attitude …

  12. “Evidently, most of us have a need to despise some “other,” and if the culture frowns upon using race or religion as the operative distinction, some number of us will substitute party.”

    And, I’m trusting that some number of us will be confident enough in our own skins and with our own thoughts that we will not require affiliation with any specific tribe.

  13. When we use the word “media” we’re talking technology. All technology has many uses, some good and some bad.

    One use of media technology is pervasive propaganda. Of course that’s not a new commodity, but is enhanced nowadays by the state of media technology.

    Also mankind has developed pervasive propaganda as a profession called brand marketing.

    The result of all of this is tribe creation and reinforcement. Home and garden, cooking, financial, football, fashion, automobiles, po!itics, that old time religion, intellectual, music, the list is endless and by asking us to select our channel we invite into our lives a steady stream of ideas and services and products that meet our wants and needs.

    A shaman for every us.

    I have made the assertion that at their very core liberals favor collaboration and conservatives competition.

    What channels do conservatives watch to get their competition fix? Fox, financial, business, hunting and fishing, sports, automobiles, and religion that preaches evangelism (we need to fix all of “them”) reinforce 24/7, winning and losing.

    See they’re right that life is only competition it says so every place you look.

    Once you get them hooked, dead easy, you can play them like a piano. You can even get them to suppot a political party that intensly dislikes government, diplomacy, and solutions to any problem. Tell them that’s where winners go.

    Who would want their kid to marry a loser? Collaborate with a Muslim? Are you kidding me! Yea makers, boo takers! See my stuffed bear in the family room? I killed him! Work globally to save our only world from us? Losers trying to take our winings.

    Collaborators know that all of that raucus cheering had a place back when we all could be disconnected into tribes. It was even beneficial. We left those times forever in the dust 4B people ago, or about 60 years. Way before computers and networks.

    The teamers will eventually die out, but slowly. Each new generation will see early what collaboration gets and what competition destroys. There will be loads of good old dayin’. But we will move on.

    In the meantime our job is to minimize the damage. Save democracy and freedom and the atmosphere for the tribe of man.

  14. I would worry if one of my sons chose to marry a Republican only if she shared the bigoted ideology that so many Republicans seems to have today. The tribalism is the logical conclusion of Richard Nixon’s southern strategy, closely followed by Ronald Reagan’s adept use of “dog whistle” political speak.

  15. I believe Howard Zinn mentioned it in his book Peoples History of the United States, the goal of the 1% is to keep us divided. A Zinn quote >> “In the year 1877, the signals were given for the rest of the century: the blacks would be put back; the strikes of white workers would not be tolerated; the industrial and political elites of North and South would take hold of the country and organize the greatest march of economic growth in human history. They would do it with the aid of, and at the expense of, black labor, white labor, Chinese labor, European immigrant labor, female labor, rewarding them differently by race, sex, national origin, and social class, in such a way as to create separate levels of oppression-a skillful terracing to stabilize the pyramid of wealth. ”

    The Unions even reflected this stratification. As a Boomer and former Blue Collar Worker, I remember the “Skilled Labor” was virtually all White and the “Unskilled Labor” was African-American and Hispanic, back the late 1960’s.

    Today, we have the McMega-Media CNN, FOX, and MSNBC have carved out their marketing strategy based upon their audience and the facts, well we do not need any stinking facts.

  16. We each are capable of good and bad but mostly we just survive in a soup of culture and what our predecessors created. Like billiard balls, we react. From all of that randomness some faint trends appear which we try to anticipate and encourage or discourage.

    I saw a fascinating video of 10,000 migrating snow geese tempted to rest on a lake in northern NY. Rules became apparent. Nobody wanted to be alone either on the lake or in the air but there was no leader.

    They swooped and swirled and compressed and moved apart seemingly totally randomly but eventually decided collaboratively to rest.

    We are similar, which is why we’re so easily led and misled. Someone willing move one way or another despite the crowd will attract a lot of followers.

    At the moment Republicans are being led by ISIS and Democrats by Obama. Republicans by fear and Democrats by hope. We will swoop and swirl for a time then eventually decide collaboratively.

  17. It is my experience that people don’t need much of a reason to be mean to each other…skin color, religion, political views are as good a reason as any.

  18. As my own thinking has shifted to left of middle over the past few years because of the prevailing meanness of both ideas and attitudes on the conservative side, I have been dismayed to find some of the same meanness (of attitude at least) and rigidity on the left side of the divide. Then this past week I happened to hear a repeat of an NPR TED Radio program on WFYI on the topic of compassion and had an a-ha moment. Turns out that what I’m looking for more of in this society and world is “emotional correctness.” Don’t know if I can include a link here, but look up “Sally Kohn: Let’s Try Emotional Correctness.” It’s only 6 minutes long. I hope I’m not alone in this.

  19. Recognizing “tribe” and “other” was an important defense mechanism in the time of small tribal groups competing for scarce resources. Remnants remain.

    Still, I am not certain that this is irrational at this time. In a multi-cultural, “melting pot” society, some see avoiding mixing with others as protecting their particular cultural heritage. There is also the question of the extra stress induced by marriage between vastly different people (please note – the stress is there, but it isn’t impossible — my wife is Chinese and I am an American Jew).

    In the political context, would I want my “daughter to marry a Republican” might become more of a question about her happiness. Can my daughter be happy being married to a selfish, mean-spirited bigot. This bad caricature is closer to reality than it was when Sheila felt at home in the Republican Party.

    You will also note that while 1/3 of the Democrats feel this way, almost half of the Republicans do. There has long been asymmetry in the political parties, no matter how much people (and “the media”) like to pretend otherwise. The Democrats have moved to the Right as the Republican Party was taken over by frustrated white racists and Reactionaries (those who want to return to the past). For a modern-day Republican who views Democrats as”the enemy” and as pure “evil”, it is very rational to not want your daughter to marry one.

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