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.