Our Tribes, Ourselves

My friend and colleague Art Farnsley teaches in the Religious Studies Department at IUPUI; he also writes sporadic Op-Eds that have appeared in such publications as the Washington Post and Religion News Service.

His most recent one deserves to be widely read. It begins

Students in my college classes start out thinking religious identity and behavior are primarily about ideas. When I ask them about differences between Catholics and Methodists, they respond with differences in beliefs: the pope, contraception and transubstantiation.

These theological differences are real, of course, but I learned long ago that ideas do not create religious identity: They follow from it. My students imagine we pick from a large menu of ideological options and then make decisions about which membership best fits our own ideas.

It does not take long to convince them this “decision” model is badly incomplete. We never start from a neutral position. Our thinking is shaped by where we are born, who raised us and the tribes we call our own.

A number of social scientists are beginning to recognize that “who we are”–what “tribes” shape our identities–explains much more about all of  us, and about our human cognitive processes, than we have hitherto been willing to concede. Tribalism doesn’t just operate in the religious realm. As Farnsley notes,

It’s time to acknowledge that political identity and behavior operate more like religion than many of us care to admit.

This may sound obvious to some, but I learned it the hard way. I have spent too much of my adult life pretending the opposite, that politics is about ideas and we develop our positions through reason, logic and formal argumentation. It’s time I accept the truth: Who we are comes first in politics too.

I just finished reading a recent book by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, that reaches the same conclusion–in their case, via lengthy review of overwhelming amounts of scholarly research. They argue–with copious evidence– that political identity and behavior operate more like religion than many of us want to admit. They also demonstrate that voters adjust their policy views and even their understanding of what is and is not fact to match their tribal identities.

Achen and Bartels include political parties among the tribal loyalties that motivate us. Our choice of partisan affiliation originally depends significantly on affinity, on the belief that “people like me” share more characteristics with one or another political party, but then the partisan affiliation itself becomes an important part of “who we are.”

Assuming the accuracy of these descriptions of political identity–and assuming the country and world survive the Presidency of an unstable and wildly unfit buffoon–Americans will need to think long and hard about the implications of “democratic realism” for the design of our democratic institutions. As Achen and Bartels confirm, there is much of value in our Constitutional system; we need to protect what is valuable, but we cannot do that unless we jettison what they call the “folk theory” of how democratic institutions actually work.

As Art Farnsley notes,

Political operatives of both parties have known for decades that voting behavior is about emotion, intuition and tribal affiliation. It’s about whose status goes up or down. The operatives know who we are.


  1. This is a great explanation of why Hoosiers vote as we do. A very sad commentary on our state.

  2. “It does not take long to convince them this “decision” model is badly incomplete. We never start from a neutral position. Our thinking is shaped by where we are born, who raised us and the tribes we call our own.”

    My grandmother was Christian Scientist on my father’s side; I never knew of any religious affiliation in my mother’s family. Actually; no religion was practiced on either side other than Grandma reading her Bible daily and refusing to see a doctor.

    My mother SENT me to the nearest Methodist Church each Sunday morning with a nickle tied in the corner of my hanky. I walked alone 5-6 blocks Sunday morning and evening, in all weather and in the dark. No family member came to see me play the angel in the Christmas play. She allowed me to attend Bible classes, offered through my public school but classes held at the Methodist Church we walked to from school…there were other denominations in the neighborhood but this didn’t occur to me till years later. The Bible study consisted of those lovely Bible stories I now view as I do Greek mythology and Indian lore.

    Catholics kept themselves segregated; I didn’t understand that was why the kids went to a different school and weren’t allowed to play with other kids like myself – I learned years later we were considered heathens and their parents didn’t want it to rub off on their holy offspring. We overheard parents referring to the Jews who owned businesses in the neighborhood but never knew exactly what a “Jew” was. The Pilgrim Holiness church was across the street from my home and their loud, confused shouts and prayers, plus trumpet playing, was laughable to the rest of us.

    My mother became the Republican Vice Precinct Committewoman when I was 13 or 14 and asked me to attend the Union Congregational Church with her. I was pleased she wanted to share that with me but…sadly, she had only signed me up to babysit with the preschool age children while parents attended services. That church was also the neighborhood polling place.

    I don’t know what “tribe” Art Farnsley would consider I came from but religion still confuses me. I gave up on organized religion after trying a few on for size; the last was the racist Birge Terrace Baptist Church on Brookville Road who demanded I tithe 10% of my husband’s salary along with portion of babysitting money although he had never attended the church. The Sunday School Supervisor was self-employed, he had a hauling business so I asked for an estimate to clear out the mess left by the previous owners in the basement of my home. He tried to rape me on the basement landing; would have succeeded had my children not come in from school. I never returned to that church.

    In later years I attended the Northwest Church of Christ; enjoyed the services and was comfortable with the friends I made. One of the Deacons was an attorney whom I believed I cold trust when I hired him to handle my divorce. He ripped me off by doing very little; when issues in the divorce were ignored by ex-husband, he demanded a higher fee to file a separate case in court and refused to even send a letter on my behalf to get what was owed. He was later a Marion County Criminal Court judge.

    I am spiritual rather than religious; believe there is some greater power to account for this world but no idea what form he/she/it takes. I am satisfied with my own Christian, Jews for Jesus mixed with enough Atheism to rely on science and evolution and believe creationism to be a bigoted view of life in general.

    “Our Tribes, Ourselves” Maybe this information explains my outspoken views on issues, maybe not. I have no basis in fact regarding a specific “tribe” to ascribe to; I am just winging it and hope to survive…I especially hope to survive this current political Hell we are all facing which, contrary to Pence, is NOT based in Christianity as I know it.

  3. Know thyself.

    The action of voting defines emotion, intuition and tribal affiliation and that remains the best place to begin.

    The Constitutional system will survive without us, our political identity on the other hand will not.

  4. Sure, political identity is closely identifed with tribalism, emotion and intuition. My father was a coal miner and a Democrat and a union man and I am a lawyer and a Democrat and sympathetic to the idea of workers banding together to collectively bargain. However, it is possible that how one came to be Democrat can also be supported by facts and reason simultaneously with his or her tribal heritage via “the greatest good for the greatest number” and other kinds of thinking that give rise to democratic idealism – that one can walk and chew gum at the same time – and that’s where I claim to stand. I don’t have a choice just lately as there is no Republican Party – it has been taken over by an unholy alliance of the libertarian superrich and wannabe fascists – a grouping I propose to fight if we are to retain any last vestige of a democratic society in which to live and pass on to our progeny and theirs.

  5. JoAnn,

    We both trust each other because we’re not tribal. That means we’re on the OUTSIDE which allows us to still cling to our ESSENCE and not the CORRUPTED RACIST TRIBAL IDENTITY so much a part of the INSIDE. The tribal INSIDE is now completely polluted that includes both the Republican and Democratic parties’ political consultants who bear much of the responsibility for the terrible mess this country is in.

  6. The same considerations apply to acceptance or non-acceptance of climate change. Andrew Hoffman wrote a fascinating book discussing social science literature dealing with that topic. He ended up with exactly the same conclusions. “How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate.”

  7. I find it interesting that, although most of the commentors are a part of the same ideological tribe, we each came here from different directions.

  8. Much like Nazi Germany, the primary cause of our political pollution is the on-going, anti-Semitic DNA which has been at the CORE of our body politic for almost 50 years.

    core (kor) n. [prob.< L cor, heart] 1. the central part of an apple, pear, etc. 2. the central part of anything 3. the most important part—vt. cored, cor'ing to remove the core of

    ~Webster's New World Dictionary and Thesaurus

  9. I have always realized that I became who I became largely due to the simple fact that early in my high school career, a government program physically removed me from my “tribe” and placed me in another “tribe”. I then realized that there was a lot more to learn about people and the world and I have been eternally thankful for that fact ever since. I probably would not have gone to college or done much at all without it.

  10. Marv; glad to know I am in such good company. I didn’t mention my religious curiosity led me to take instruction from LDS missionaries and one Jehovah Witness; no interest in joining, merely learning about them. Like the Catholic religion, both have changed and adapted their beliefs to better fit the times, but only to an extent. The Christian religion has split into so many different sects and cults I wonder if there is a way to know how many and what the basic differences are. Other than Catholic and Protestant, of course. The Protestants can’t seem to reach an agreement so they lead the pack with the most varied sects and cults. Probably the smallest and briefest life-span of one cult would be the Weaver family who were victimized by almost every department of the U.S. government who came heavily armed over the sale of one illegal shotgun. And the Branch Davidians in Waco must not be forgotten. Yet the far-right Christians believe all Muslims are extremists and terrorists; forgetting the centuries of violent history they try to bury.

  11. I was raised Catholic, both of my parents were very committed Republicans, my mother was a precinct committeeperson for several years. In my younger years, my tribal identity was very much by default. I was a product of my environment until I had lived enough life to understand that my political identity was being shaped by how I was treated in my workplace and community.

    Wealth and the power it bought made me an outsider. I had been an outsider socially from an early age due to a very dysfunctional family life, the resulting poverty and all of the humiliation associated with that identity. Working in jobs that were available to women (mostly low paying, service sector jobs) was physically challenging. When I tried to move up and was interviewed for a clerical job at a very large and still existing insurance company, I was disqualified (and told so by a male HR person) because I could not (or would not) commit to not marrying and having children for at least two years. Later, when I wanted to have a store issued charge card in my own name, from a company I worked for, I was told that I had to have my husband’s approval and his name would be on the card. Many other life experiences, reading and continued education taught me to think deeply about political and social issues.
    It did not take very many years to convince me that progressive politics were the only choice for me. That choice was counter to my religious and political upbringing but very much a result of my social and class experience. It was not hard to put myself in the same circumstances as those who struggle in a system designed to give privilege to white, male, Protestants with money.
    I do find it hard to comprehend the resentment and self-righteousness of those who already have so much, self-identify with a religious belief system that declares the Golden Rule as a foundation, while judging and condemning and sentencing anyone who does not conform to their tribal values.

    Being one of the “other” at various times in my life are what has shaped who I am. I suspect many other of this blog’s commentors could say the same.

  12. JD,

    Have you read “The Disappearance of the Outside” by Andre Codrescu?

    From Amazon. com……his cultural-literary-social critique examines why, when a society moves from a repressive system of government wrought with censorship and oppression to a free state representing unlimited possibilities, the art once created and treasured by that population is taken for granted. Taking into account his own exile from Stalinist Romania, as well as the plights of such greats as Garcia Marquez, Breton, the Dadaists, Kundera, and Milosz, Codrescu issues a call for those living in a free society to reach beyond a benign reality founded in technology and commercialism by tapping into their imaginations and striving for a better, evolutionary existence.

    “One day I had a revelation. There had been hints for some time that certain books had better not be discussed. Our next-door neighbor had a German Bible hidden at the bottom of an old sea chest. Her son Peter, who was a year older than me, showed it to me in secret one afternoon after making me swear that I would never reveal its existence to anyone. . . . It emitted a dark, pungent odor of darkness, monks, time, Gutenberg, sea journeys, incense, and last rites. Peter told me there were other books like this, some old, some new, all of them containing secrets so awesome we would be put in prison for merely mentioning them.”; From this point in his Romanian childhood, Codrescu became acutely attuned to the meaning of literature in the progress and movement of societies, both free and oppressed. “;The police have arrived everywhere: in [Eastern Europe] they are uniformed police. In the West they are the invisible police of image manipulation.”

    Andrei Codrescu, an essayist, poet, All Things Considered commentator, and MSNBC columnist, has published numerous books, including Road Scholar and The Devil Never Sleeps. Born in Romania, he came to the U.S. in 1966, and currently teaches at Louisana State Unive

  13. What we really need now in the U.S. is a Crash Course in the EXCEPTIONAL GERMANS OF THE NAZI ERA covering the plights of Foerster, Rauchning, Oster, Brandt, Reuter, Cassirer, the White Rose and a few others which could help lead us out of the way of the “rising political tsunami” that we are about to face in 40 days. Or better still, if it’s too late, do we need to start building another NOAH’S ARK?

  14. “Political operatives of both parties have known for decades that voting behavior is about emotion, intuition and tribal affiliation.”

    Apparently this time around the Democratic Party operatives forgot this. This campaign was such a complete, lazy, blinkered cock-up that I’ve given up. I’ll never vote for a Democtaic candidate again; most likely, I’ll never vote again. There is no future here.

  15. I grew up a Roman Catholic in the South Chicago area. I went to Catholic School from 1958-62. There was little of Hell and Damnation preached or Jesus Saves. It was mainly about following the Church Rituals and Good Works. Belief was not enough it had to supplemented with Good Works. I recall how our local church pastor, priests, and nuns were in the forefront of Civil Rights for Black People. Those of us school kids saw the Southern Rednecks terrorizing these Black school children dressed in their Sunday best, clutching their school books on TV and protected by soldiers. I later found out this clerical support for Civil Rights caused a lot of heart burn among some of the Catholic adults. These adults did not think the Catholic Church should take a stand on Civil Rights.

    I do not attend Catholic Church anymore but the idea of good works and showing a commitment did stay with me.

    As a light side identification with the tribe. My dad took me to first Cubs game in the late 1950’s. Ernie Banks was the Cub star back then. I have been a Cubs fan ever since. I did not understand my dad’s allegiance to the Cubs, but found out later the Cubs were a very good team in the 1930’s and 1940’s. My dad was a Cubs fan until the day he died. Interesting note was the Cub Scouts and Little League I was in went to White Sox games. The White Sox gave free tickets to us and a bus took us to the park. The idea being catch them when they are young. At some point when they grew up they would be paying customers and bring their kids along.

  16. Hmmm! Very interesting tales some of you have to tell. I guess my story isn’t all that different. Just a different time and location. Very little, if any, organized religion, which is good.
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  17. The more intelligent, the less tribal. And that is not only an IQ thing. There is an emotional intelligence that leads to accepting one’s self as a citizen of he world, not an American or a Jew or an Asian or whatever. Few of us make it there. In national elections, tribalism always wins. I agree with someone above — the democrats are essentially useless in this regard. And the Indiana democrats are worse.

  18. As Over it said, “the more intelligent, the less tribal.”

    Pluralistic ignorance was blamed for exacerbating support for segregation in the United States in the 1960s. It has also been named a reason for the illusionary popular support that kept the communist regime in the Soviet Union, as many opposed the regime but assumed that others were supporters of it. Thus, most people were afraid to voice their opposition.[8]

    During alcohol prohibition in the United States, most people thought others were for it when in reality most people were against it, including those who were vocal about its initiation. This led to bootlegging liquor becoming an extremely lucrative business because there was a private desire for the alcohol even though there was a large public outcry against it.

    Another case of pluralistic ignorance concerns drinking on school campus in countries where alcohol use is prevalent at colleges and universities. Students drink at weekend parties and sometimes at evening study breaks. Many drink to excess, some on a routine basis. The high visibility of heavy drinking on campus, combined with reluctance by students to show any public signs of concern or disapproval, gives rise to pluralistic ignorance: Students believe that their peers are much more comfortable with this behavior than they themselves feel.[9]

    Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” highlights a case of pluralistic ignorance. In this story a whole town fears speaking out on an obvious injustice out of fear that they would stand out believing nobody else could see what they saw. When two con artists come into the Emperor’s kingdom and convince him that they make the finest clothes in all of the land that can only be seen by anyone who was not stupid. The con artists continued to steal gold, silk and other precious items for their “unique creation”. Out of fear for being seen as stupid, all of the emperor’s men and towns people kept their mouths shut about the fact they could not see the outfit and the emperor was prancing around seemingly naked until finally a small child comes forth and says that the emperor is walking around naked. They believe that if an innocent child can see it, then they must all see it, and finally come forward and admit that the emperor has been tricked and that there was never an outfit being made. [From Wikipedia]

    Was the ‘innocent child” more intelligent and less tribal in speaking out? Maybe so. Is Donald Trump a President-elect walking around naked? Maybe so. We’ll have to see in the next 40 days.

  19. To All:

    Maybe you should discount anything I have recently said concerning the threat of anti-Semitism. Benjamin Netanyahu the Israeli Prime Minister has just endorsed our freedom loving President elect, Donald Trump. I must be losing my mind. Right? As a last gasp, I refer you again to http://www.KillingtheMessenger.info as well as http://www.EthicalFront.net.

    You might also want to read if you haven’t done so before: “The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman (Boston: South End Press, 1979).

    It’s still a great book, as it explains in detail the DANGERS of Israeli foreign policy.

  20. We are all born into the bias environment of our parents and social situation. To free oneself of this bias is difficult and most people are unable or unwilling to do so. As an ex Christian and current secular humanist I found a way. After taking my first biology course in 1950, I realized that their were better explanations than the creation story and Ghosts and supernatural events. Fairy tales and religious superstition were not to be believed even by a teenager. Most Christians probably agree but are content in their family and social situations.

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