Tribes And Cults

American politics these days is a sociologist’s dream. Or nightmare.

The extreme polarization of the voting public has been noted, examined and explained from multiple perspectives: we have “sorted” ourselves geographically, economically and philosophically, and political scientists suggest that we increasingly revise our ideological commitments in order to conform to those of the “tribe” we have chosen to join, rather than joining a tribe based upon its compatibility with those commitments.

There may be thoughtful citizens among us who march–resolutely–to their own drums, analyzing issues and political trends and determining their positions and allegiances based solely upon the facts as they see them after doing dispassionate research. If these ideal citizens exist, I rarely encounter them–and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m probably not one of them, try as I might.

Let’s be honest; we are all products of our socialization. We are influenced by our friends and families, persuaded by the information sources we trust, predisposed by our religious beliefs, our educations and our life experiences. Those influences on our political perspectives have always been with us, and I have difficulty imagining a time when they won’t be.

There is a difference, however, between the predictable diversity of opinion that is an inevitable result of our varied backgrounds, beliefs and experiences, and what I have come to see as surrender to political cults. America’s increasing tribalism is worrisome enough; its growing political cultism is terrifying.

It is one thing to be a passionate Republican or Democrat. It is quite another to exhibit  behaviors indistinguishable from the members of Heaven’s Gate or The Branch Davidians.

What are those behaviors?

According to those who study cults, members tend to be excessively zealous; they show unquestioning commitment to their leaders. Anyone who raises questions about the actions or character or prospects of those leaders is vilified. Supporters display an extremely polarized us-versus-them mentality, and refuse to hold the leader accountable to rules or authorities–the leader is the final authority, by definition.

If damaging information about the leader emerges, it is “fake news.” If knowledgable people dispute the leader’s ability to make good on his promises, or the premises upon which he acts, they are part of the conspiracy working to bring him down. (The “deep state,” or the “elitists,” or–on the leftwing fringe–the DNC.)

Case in point: in August, Trump called himself “the chosen one.” Did any of the self-described “deeply religious followers of Jesus” in his base rebel? Nope.

 The far-right radio host Wayne Allyn Root called Trump “the second coming of God.” Then former Energy Secretary Rick Perry straight up affirmed Trump’s craziness, telling him, “You are here in this time because God ordained you.”

The question we face, in a theoretically democratic system, is: why? Why do some people on both sides of the political aisle suspend their capacities for judgment and attach themselves unconditionally to figures that others perceive as deeply flawed?

According to one explanation,

“Everyone is influenced and persuaded daily in various ways,” writes the late Margaret Singer, “but the vulnerability to influence varies. The ability to fend off persuaders is reduced when one is rushed, stressed, uncertain, lonely, indifferent, uninformed, distracted, or fatigued…. Also affecting vulnerability are the status and power of the persuader….

In a time of paradigm shift–when the world around us is changing rapidly and the challenges to our existing world-views are multiplying–large numbers of people are “rushed,” “stressed,” “fatigued”and vulnerable. It is tempting to put one’s faith in someone who is convinced that he has all the answers; if you just follow him, you don’t have to think for yourself. (And yes, I keep using “he” and “him” because in our patriarchal society, these “leaders” are almost always males.)

America was based upon a belief in “We the People,” not “he the savior.”

We the People need to realize that even the best leaders we can find will all be flawed human beings in need of our constant supervision and constructive criticism, not our unquestioning loyalty.

We the People have a lot of work to do if we are to rescue our government.  That work will require a lot less passionate intensity and a lot more reasoned analysis than we currently display.


  1. In reference to the present state of our politics these days, I always think of the saying, “the inmates are running the asylum” but there doesn’t seem to any kind of saying for what comes next. Yes, the inmates seem to be in charge but I don’t know what to do. Is it really “reasoned analysis” that will rescue us? I sure hope that works because we all know what Mark Twain said about arguing with fools, “onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.”

  2. “…in August, Trump called himself “the chosen one.” Did any of the self-described “deeply religious followers of Jesus” in his base rebel? Nope.”

    MSNBC aired a brief news clip from an HBO interview with Roger Stone to be aired on Sunday; he isn’t worried about his prison sentence because he “found Jesus and he has been saved”. Wonder if he and Trump were in contact in August after the comment above?

  3. Unfortunately the described behaviors are not just restricted to followers of Trump. I see a lot of the same behaviors in the Bernie Sanders camp.

  4. Fear is the fundamental motivator. Small minds, filled with the anxieties of the modern world, always experiencing the existential dread of mortality, will happily accept the warm blanket of authoritarianism. This is precisely what religion is all about. We are always precariously near to the capitulation of the the values of the Enlightenment to the grubbing hands of a “2nd Coming” and his hordes of followers.

    Facing the decimation of our communities by a cruel pandemic, we will be particularly vulnerable.

  5. Sheila: Your religious references to Trump are interesting. I have a couple of evangelical acquaintances who have wondered aloud if he is the Anti-Christ….

  6. The behavior on both sides is trending now more toward WAR than DEMOCRACY. Thus, analyzing ALSO through a warlike lens might be more beneficial, if we are to move toward some sort of reality-based equilibrium. A domestic or civil war will be SENSELESS from the beginning.

  7. I don’t believe 45’s extremely dedicated followers are devoted to him because they ever thought that he has all of the answers to their problems.

    I believe that as they witness his continuous lying and the fact that he has not kept his promises they become even more outspoken in their defense of him because if they admit that they were wrong they would be admitting to both their family and friends, and even worse, to themselves that they really are not as intelligent as they thought they were.

    They angrily defend 45 because they are actually defending themselves.

  8. Nancy,

    “They angrily defend 45 because they are actually defending themselves.”

    But as long as they are met with only a PHONEY RESPONSE from their PRO-DEMOCRACY opponents they will continue to have no incentive to break ranks. From my point of view, we are at least 51% responsible for the problem.

  9. Man created religion in order to explain the unexplainable. Not sure why something happens? Attribute it to a higher power and you’re golden. It’s simple. It’s easy and it’s all too human. Why do people like Rick Perry promote the nonsense that we have in the White House? You can bet the house that he’s getting something of value to either his pocketbook or his reputation. As for those “deeply religious followers of Jesus,” they would crucify him again if he showed up today preaching what he preached two thousand years ago.

  10. Who wants to hit the target if it means cutting off all aid to The State of Israel? Let’s get honest folks! That’s exactly what will happen. When I hit the target in 1991 with “The Alarm Report,”, President George Bush responded with cutting off all aid to Israel.

    What do you think that “present jerk” in the White House would do it there was a REAL response to his insane actions?

    The first thing we need to know is how to play the game.

  11. IMO we are witnessing a REAL response to Trumps actions this week. He drained that terrible swamp of a CDC; he disavowed science; he pushed unrealistic expectations for the economy; and he lied and lied and lied so much that now that we need a trusted leader no one believes him or his stooge Pence.
    The chickens have come home to roost, and we will all pay dearly for the 2016 votes of his supporters.

  12. Perhaps before we can “save the government” we must save ourselves, a daunting task what with our fears, prejudices, differing life experiences etc. In reviewing my own prejudices (Yes, I have some), as one of three sons of a coal miner engaged in union politics and growing up during the Great Depression, I did not think of FDR in terms of the Second Coming, but I did throw my allegiance to his efforts to bring us out of that depression for good reason. We were hungry (speaking of fear motivators). He remains my all time favorite president who, like Washington and Lincoln, was a product of his perilous time.

    I have since seen FDR’s programs and those of other Democrats work for the many, including the benefits of his and other Democratic programs such as those of the New Deal, LBJ’s Medicare, Truman’s GI Bill etc., all of which, among other things, has reinforced my younger and perhaps less informed view that I will always be a Democrat, a view strengthened lately by Republican acquiescence to destruction of our democracy by what I thought were rank and file Republicans, a glittering example of the herd instinct at work.

    Democrats in my lifetime have most importantly provided opportunity for ordinary people to move into middle class status. Thus my parents were poor but not dumb – they were under-educated – and parents of three sons who with opportunities provided by Democrats (to Republican cries of socialist and communist at the time) managed to amass five college and post-graduate degrees. I have for many years noted this with a quip as follows: “How many budding Einsteins do we have who are working a holdup prone second shift at 7-11, workers who for lack of opportunity we will never know, and whose contributions to society will never happen, thus making such workers and all the rest of us losers?”

    So, yes, I have prejudices, but I like to think of them as rather informed views that spring from experience in living through the union movement (and FDR’s Wagner Act), the Great Depression, time spent in WW II, college, law school etc. We all have differing life experiences upon which to base our political views and the foregoing thumbnail description are mine.

    Finally, I spent some time in the South Pacific during WW II not for the glorification of politicians such as FDR and Truman; I spent it in the defense of our democracy from fascism, never dreaming that I would be called upon to again defend our democracy from fascism – but this time from WITHIN! Apparently there were always the likes of McConnells and Trumps and others who were lurking in the bushes waiting for their time to elevate power and profit over our hard-won democratic values, so like WW II, this is a war we dare not lose, and thus, young or old, black or white, liberal or conservative, rich or poor – Arise! As is plain to see, the fascists are at the gate (or already in the castle)! Wherever, they have to go. . .

  13. The over riding emotionalism of the The Trumpet’s is fear, fear and more fear. Fear of immigrants, fear of Socialism, fear of equal rights for woman, fear that a secular society will say no to Theocracy, fear that the government will take their guns away, etc.

    Part of the solution is to be like a clam and close up. The Reactionary Evangelical Preachers, will provide the filter of what you should know and conversely, what you should not know. All this Fear requires a Strong Authoritarian Macho Man like The Trumpet to not only defend but also to attack, attack, and attack.

  14. The failure of DC to make substantive progress on the issues affecting Main Street and everyday people tempt them in their desperation to look for autocrats. There are non-divisive, fair ways for the Federal government to help “the people” regarding college debt, infrastructure, childcare costs, working class jobs, managing healthcare costs, etc. They require servant leaders willing to do the hard work of governing.

  15. Theresa,

    No doubt we need all the help we can get. But SELF-DESTRUCTION, in this instance, is only going to make matters worse, as there won’t be anything left to fight for.

  16. I have always been one of those folks who “marches to my own drummer” and often walked my own path. I came from a family that valued science and education so, that is a deep part of my critical thinking ability. My family is also acutely aware of our ancestry and role in the creation of this nation and its’ ongoing development.

    I’ve always brought that to my decision-making – especially political decision-making. I take my ability to vote seriously. Some of that is because I was in the first generation of 18 yr. olds given our right to participate.

    I have always tried to educate myself about the candidates – to delve into their backgrounds, qualifications, policy positions, etc. Sadly, most members of my family however have always voted for a Party. I have not always done so. I look at individual candidates. Members of my family have told me that takes “so much time that I don’t have”. That’s why they choose a Party.

    One of the troubling trends I see recently is people looking for a “savior”. I definitely see it in Trump supporters but, I also see it in Sanders supporters. Both of these men feel like anarchists to me in that they want to tear down our system rather than reform it.

    I have always been a step-by-step pragmatic problem-solver.
    That’s what I look for in candidates that I choose to support.
    I also look for those who share my commitment to our Constitutional Democratic Republic.

    As I’ve grown older (I’m 66+) I find myself MUCH LESS inclined to emotional decisions.
    Sadly, I see a LOT of emotional decision-making happening. Much of it appears to be based on fear – on both sides.

    I refuse to let fear govern my choices and will continue to try to bring critical thinking and problem-solving to my decisions.

  17. Indulging in understanding and/or explaining Trumpublicans is entertaining in some ways but to me politically agnostic because they are a relatively fixed number in a reality that is what it is during these times but not amenable to change of any sort.

    What I’m betting on is that in a legal motivated election they are insufficient in number.

    Our job now is to motivate the opposition that isn’t already blue no matter who.

    Only after we are certain that goal is in the bag should we focus on who would best lead us out of the swamp back onto the hill of progress that we were forced off of by enemies of America in 2016.

    That’s a more interesting conversation once we’re sure.

  18. Jan,

    “I refuse to let fear govern my choices and will continue to try to bring critical thinking and problem-solving to my decisions.”

    Right. And we better let go of the fear from BLACKMAIL right now, or we won’t be able to save what’s left of our democracy.

  19. Pete – a lot of “ifs” in your “legal, motivated” election and add in the Russians….

  20. There seems to be a faction of Bernie supporters that fall into the “cult” category – just sayin’.

  21. From the Blog above > “The “deep state,” or the “elitists,” or–on the leftwing fringe–the DNC.”

    As a Bernie Bot, I see plenty of reasons to suspect the DNC back to 2016. The DNC has clung to that most undemocratic piece – The Super Delegates. The DNC changed the rules concerning the debates to allow the Billionaire Michael Bloomberg a place on the stage. Bloomberg is now flooding the airwaves with millions of dollars in TV Ads. (These ads are naturally good for Corporate Profits of the Communication Conglomerates. CNN and MSDNC constantly have segments on How Stop Bernie. )

    From the Intercept: William Owen, a Tennessee-based Democratic National Committee member backing an effort to use so-called superdelegates to select the party’s presidential nominee — potentially subverting the candidate with the most voter support — is a Republican donor and health care lobbyist.

    Owen, who runs a lobbying firm called Asset & Equity Corporations, donated to Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and gave $8,500 to a joint fundraising committee designed to benefit Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky in 2019.

    “I am a committed Democrat but as a lobbyist, there are times when I need to have access to both sides and the way to get access quite often is to make campaign contributions,” said Owen, in a brief interview with The Intercept.

    The Tennessee Democrat worked in 2018 to block a Sanders-backed plan to weaken the role of superdelegates in the nomination process. “If we don’t have a vote, then what good are we?” Owen told Politico at the time.

    The push was ultimately defeated. Sanders’s supporters won a key concession from the DNC, changing the rules to only allow superdelegate participation in the nominating process on the second ballot.

    Bloomberg and William Owen represent the Corporate Wing (DNC) Democratic Party. The 1% and their stooges could care less about Universal Single Payer Healthcare, Labor Rights, a Living Wage, the environment, it is all about preserving and defending the 1%.

    Eugene Debs was right:

    The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.

  22. Monotonous,

    You’re absolutely right [and so was Eugene Debs]. And any change for the better won’t come through bi-partisan politics. That’s why we have to stand-up now before it’s too late which it probably is already.

  23. It didn’t take much time at all for the Oligarchs to recognize that 45 was their golden ticket to gain even more power and wealth. All they have to do is throw some money his way, compliment him nonstop and control the media sources that agree to brainwash the right wing with lies.

    They have taken complete ownership of the Rs in both the House and the Senate with the threat that if they break rank, they will lose their jobs when it is time for their reelection.

    * Gerald Stinson wrote “Democrats in my lifetime have most importantly provided opportunity for ordinary people to move into middle class status. ”

    This is exactly what the 1% do not want. They don’t want to give up even a penny of their wealth that has been gained by controlling the working class. They have managed to push former middle class families into the ranks of the poor. The oligarchs know that by keeping people poor and hungry, they will be desperate enough to work for scraps and wages that cannot cover the basic costs of living.

  24. From a Washington Post LTE today about Bernie…”Mr. Sanders reminds me of another Jew who talked about the poor and oppressed and urged us to love our enemies, some 2,000 years ago.”

    Imagine, two Messiahs to choose from! Who woulda thunk!

  25. We on the right are reaping the unfortunate consequences of constant brainwashing in which we receive selective facts and were told that our opponents on the left are not only wrong, they are downright evil. I never realized the consequences of what was going on, but I do now. I guarantee you if you took a poll at CPAC and asked them who they liked more, Putin or Obama, Putin would win hands down.

    But don’t for a second think only conservatives can be brainwashed. I see people on here arguing not that conservatives are wrong about issues, but they’re downright evil. The vitriol some on the left have toward conservatives and the positions they hold is disconcerting. I don’t think the brainwashing on the left is nearly extensive, but it could be in the future. The left doesn’t have the equivalent of a Fox News and a network of conservative radio types yet. But it could happen. That the Bernie Bros is starting to look a lot like the Trump cult is worrying.

  26. There is definitely a difference between those that are sane, and those that are insane, HECK,Even George Bush looks pretty good right about now, LOL! When you enable an insane person, you’re asking for trouble, if you enable an insane person who has more power than anyone on the planet, well, that’s the kiss of death!

    Too bad the evangelicals turned out to be Judas priests! Jesus Christ himself never implied he was God, he made it clear that he should not be worshiped.

    Jesus Christ said as quoted in John 5:36 which reads; ” But I have the witness greater than that of John, for the very works that my Father assigned me to accomplish, these works that I am doing, bear witness that the Father sent me.”

    Also in John 4:34, it reads; “Jesus said to them: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.”

    Yet again in John 10:25 which reads; ” Jesus answered them: “I told you, and yet you do not believe. The works that I am doing in my Father’s name, these bear witness about me.”

    And John 14:10 which reads; ” Do you not believe that I am in union with the Father and the Father is in union with me? The things I say to you I do not speak of my own originality, but the Father who remains in union with me is doing his works.”

    Jesus Christ never, ever claimed he was “GOD” the ones who claimed that were the Pharisees and Sadducees of the Sanhedrin who sought to put him to death because he was a threat to their status and authority. And as you can see, Christ always referred to someone other than himself that had authority and his father’s authority was bestowed upon him to do what he was sent here for. The apostle John explains this in John chapter 14:28 which reads; ” You heard that I said to you, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I am.”

    Jesus Christ himself said at, “Matthew 11:5 which reads; “The blind are now seeing and the lame are walking, the lepers are being cleansed and the deaf are hearing, the dead are being raised up and the poor are being told the good news.”

    And all of this was prophesied by Isaiah in the Old Testament, “Isaiah 61:1 which reads; “The spirit of the Sovereign Lord Jehovah is upon me, Because Jehovah anointed me to declare good news to the meek. He sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,To proclaim liberty to the captives And the wide opening of the eyes to the prisoners,” and this correlates with Luke 4:17-21, as Christ was reading the scroll of Isaiah in the temple.

    So, Christ never ever ever anointed himself as God, but you have the evangelicals anointing Donald Trump as the 2nd coming? And him being the chosen one? Am I missing something? Christ had compassion, he healed the sick, he raised the dead, he welcomed everyone and never turned anyone away, he fought against the religious leaders of his time because of their pomp and circumstance, their traditions and dogma that was not scriptural in the Mosaic law but produced by the priestly Levitical class. These were the ones who could have an Israelite put to death for perceived slights against the unbearable weight of false doctrines and traditions in the Mosaic law.

    I’m trying to remember when the last time Trump healed a leper, or raised the dead, or showed respect to anyone, or showed concern for the widow and the foreign resident, nope, I’m not seeing it! So these evangelicals have just proven that they are purveyors of apostasy and not scriptural integrity!

  27. I spent some time perusing Oscar Wilde quotes this morning; an interesting fellow, Wilde, and aptly named. I found one I thought could be passed along to both parties; “Moderation in everything, including moderation.” The Trump administration certainly needs to be reined in; and some moderation in attitudes with the Democratic candidates.

    “No man is rich enough to buy back his past.” Could this be why Trump refuses to release years of his tax forms? Just askin’

  28. Sidebar here, and not to pick on anyone in particular.

    Re: “the inmates are running the asylum” and the presumption that such a thing is some sort of cataclysm…

    Aren’t we the inmates supposed to be running the asylum in a democracy?

    Maybe that old aphorism would make a more accurate condemnation of our current predicament of leadership if it were to read: How in hell do we keep choosing the lunatics among us to run the country?

    Or: What does it say about us when we hope for sane solutions but keep choosing lunatics for leaders?

  29. I keep coming back to Erich Fromm and Eric Hoffer – Life is getting ever more complicated and it is so much more comforting to know that you can’t make the wrong decision if someone else (The Leader) makes it for you. Your tribe tells you what to think, so you are safe. Likewise, with the loss of community, neighborhoods, and meaningful work (the gig economy is just a series of temporary odd jobs between stints of unemployment), one can gain meaning in their life by identifying with the tribe.

    I have often wondered if designer clothing is a milder form of this. People gain life meaning and identity by plastering a brand name on their body. I always wondered why I should pay a premium to become a walking billboard for a rich clothing mogul. I either march to the beat of a different drummer — or I am a space alien – never sure which.

    Still, I do recognize that my family, life experiences, and “tribe” have completely shaped my ethical outlook; it is just my decision making that remains independent.

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