How To Save A Country

“How to save a country” is a podcast hosted by Felicia Wong, President of the Roosevelt Institute and Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic. I highly recommend it.

A recent episode featured a talk with Dr. Lilliana Mason, an expert in political psychology and group psychology. The podcast was lengthy–and meaty–and revolved around Mason’s contention that Americans’ political “tribes” have become “mega-identities”  that now “encompass where we go to church, where we went to school, our values, and our prejudices.”

“Before the social sorting occurred, the status of our party was the only thing at risk in every election,” Dr. Mason says. “But now that we have all of these other important identities linked to the status of our party, every election feels like it’s also about the status of our religious group and our racial group, and our culture and where we live, and who we grew up with.”

The phenomenon Mason identifies rebuts an often-voiced progressive complaint that poorer Republicans “don’t vote their interests” “Interests,”—a complaint that assumes that interests are economic. That isn’t the case.  As Wong says, “We know that we don’t make decisions only based on our material interests or our material conditions.”

Mason agrees.

The classic understanding of what politics should be and how voters should participate in politics is that we assume that we are all rational actors, and by rational, we tend to mean we are economically rational. We are trying to maximize our own economic well-being or the economic well-being of the people around us or the people that matter to us. This is something that political scientists Chris Achen and Larry Bartels called the folk theory of democracy: this idealized version, mythological version of what we think Americans and citizens of any democracy should be. The reality is more complicated…

A “status defense” seems to be hardwired into most of us. Mason shared a fascinating experiment about our tribal/status instincts.

In the 1950s, researchers recruited a group of fifth grade boys in the Oklahoma City area and invited them to a summer camp. They were chosen to be as similar to each other as possible, not just in terms of race and religion, but also academic progress, social well-being and family situations.

They were separated into two camps: Rattlers and Eagles. When the groups were told about each other,

the boys immediately wanted to engage in competition with the other camp. They started calling the boys from the other camp bad names. Once they met them and started having competitions with them—not serious competitions, but baseball games or board games or whatever low-stakes games—they began to accuse people on the other team of sabotaging them, of cheating. They were consistently privileging their own team. Ultimately, these competitions became so intense that they had to stop the experiment early because they had started throwing rocks and engaging in fist fights and getting violent.

The main takeaway was that this type of animosity between these two very similar groups of kids was easily engineered. All that it took was for them to be separate from each other to form a bond with their own teammates and to form an identity with those teammates. In psychology, we call that their ‘in-group’. Just learning that there was an ‘out-group’ made them want to have conflict. They actually craved it.

Efforts to bridge our political differences must contend with this very basic human trait. And identity-based polarization is worse now than in the past.

We all have countless identities. We identify as different things depending on the situation or who we’re talking to or what is salient for us in that one moment… We always have these limitless numbers of identities. Some of them are more powerful than others. Our party identity can be quite powerful, especially during elections. Our racial identities are almost always quite powerful. Our religious identities are powerful. One of the things that we saw change over the last few decades is that the Democratic and Republican parties were basically racially and religiously relatively similar to each before the ’60s.

Over the last few decades, Americans have lost what political scientists call “cross-cutting cleavages.” People might  vote for different parties, but go to the same church, volunteer for the same nonprofit, have kids in the same school or  shop at the same grocery store. They would see each other not just as partisans but as basically similar humans. Now, we’ve sorted, and the Republican Party has become the party of white Christian rural people. Now, every election feels like (and arguably is) a contest about the status of our  identities–religious, racial, cultural, educational…

And we wonder why bipartisanship has become so hard…..


  1. This may well be the best thing you have brought to my attention ever. I’ll be mulling this over all day…and maybe tomorrow too. Thank you so much.

  2. Copied and pasted from The National Interest web site;
    “Patriot historian David Ramsay and Loyalist historian Joseph Galloway, two of the earliest historians of the Revolution, agreed that religious complaints were an important catalyst for war. What’s more, the revolutionaries themselves credited the Reformation with enabling ideas of liberty. The Protestantism John Adams credited upon reflection was not some newfangled hybrid of skepticism and piety, but the Old Time Religion of the first century of Protestantism: polemical tracts in England and France, one written by a bishop, defending liberty against royal absolutism. But while the guns of the war have cooled, the pens (or rather, keyboards) have not. Scholars continue to debate religion’s role in the War of Independence.”

    Copied and pasted from Sheila’s comments;
    ” Now, we’ve sorted, and the Republican Party has become the party of white Christian rural people. Now, every election feels like (and arguably is) a contest about the status of our identities–religious, racial, cultural, educational…”

    Religion seems to always finagle its way into our lives; either actively or benignly into our daily lives and our most personal interactions, never more blatantly than today in political affiliations. Yesterday I again watched the movie “Sunrise At Campabello”, the story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s battle against polio and the beginning of his rise to his place in history. He gave the Al Smith presidential nomination speech at the Democratic Convention; Smith was a member of the Catholic religion which this country fought against, claiming we would n ever accept a Catholic as President. The same fight was fought regarding John Kennedy’s election with different results. We again have a Catholic President sitting in the White House who manages to separate his religious beliefs from the rights of all Americans and has made progress against all odds enacted and left behind by Trump and his MAGA, White Nationalist, Freedom Caucus foundation who claim Christianity as their own.

    But…there is always a “but” in politics; it has taken the Catholic Church over 100 years but they now rule the Republican party and this nation’s Supreme Court. The foundation of the Catholic religion is one of denying rights to major segments of their own members and they have carried it into our courts to enact laws which are forced into our daily lives, including our most intimate relationships and the life-and-death health decisions are being made by the majority of Catholics in the highest court in this nation.

    Again from Sheila’s comments;
    “Now, every election feels like (and arguably is) a contest about the status of our identities–religious, racial, cultural, educational…”

    Can’t argue with that statement!!!

  3. This makes sense for the “never Republican” and “never Democrat” folks who identify with one party over the other, but what about the 30% who are independent?

    Progressives see Democrats voting against their self-interests more than Republicans. The Oligarchs control both parties along with the propaganda media. They manipulate (oppress) those who are locked into identity politics. It’s not hard to do. 😉

    The New York Times desperately wants this next election to be about abortion and abortion rights when our economic rights are being oppressed with job losses and other economic pressures like inflation and high-interest rates.

    Almost everything is propaganda against our best interests. That’s the point!

  4. William Golding wrote Lord of the Flies for a similar purpose that study in Oklahoma brought to our attention once again. In 1983, after the book was in circulation 20 years, Golding mused: “The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable.” Today his work is on the book ban list of Moms for Liberty.

  5. Correction. But this is very interesting. Golding’s Lord of the Flies was released in 1954. I enrolled at George Williams College (Hyde Park, Chicago) in 1964 along with other students with aspirations of working with youth as a career. Golding was required reading our first year. The discussions his work inspired were captivating and insightful. There was one thought I remember best if we could write the script and see how it would play out. A sort of measure to test are we making a difference. Instead of just one island, there would be five, each hosting marooned fifth graders from different shipwrecks. Each ship carried boys from the same community but each ship carried boys from five different communities. On each uninhabited islands, there are essentially two groups. One group that had no influence of a youth development worker and the other group who were enrolled and engaged with youth development. We would only imagine the end results but it did get us thinking how do we make a difference to positive end results when we are no longer around.

  6. I think this may be why I no longer want to identify myself as a member of any political party…and why the number of Independents has grown.
    I feel as if I am resisting a pull to be on one side or the other.
    The same goes for organized religion.

  7. The number of Americans who continue to support the past administration and its hate-filled rhetoric is enough to convince any rational person that some of us are incapable of bipartisanship…or even congenial tolerance of ”the other.”

  8. First, I am so glad to have learned about this blog as well as the Capital Chronicle. I am a better informed activist.

    As for the divisivenes in the country, civility bridges the gaps between extremes. I am concerned with the lack of civility in discussions or investigations on the political level. The escalation of name- calling and general nastiness should be unacceptable, but it is apparently an acceptable method these days. Behavior modeling is important in creating understanding. Leaders must be exemplary, but we seeing a dearth of this. In fact, it is obvious that people value the bully in bully pulpit. My other concern is the lack of breadth of knowledge about what legislators are doing. It takes effort to educate ourselves about what is happening in the state and national levels of government. The “if it doesn’t affect me” attitude also divides the country and sets up conflict.

  9. All this blog and its responses does is attempt to define our most primitive social instincts in modern terms. 200,000 years ago, tribal mobility was minimal, so humans in each tribe probably looked similar to others in a local sense. BUT they were all in competition for the resources at hand. When those resources dwindled, the competition for them began in earnest.

    As the socio-biologist Rebecca Costa wrote in her defining book, “The Watchman’s Rattle”, humans have evolved much faster socially than we have biologically.

    Nice try, democracy. You did your best to make the intellectual leap to overcome that evolutionary hurdle. But with nuclear weapons quivering in their silos, one wonders if we’ll get to have the opportunity to try harder before we make ourselves extinct.

  10. Norris; my initial thoughts on the blog today was your reference to “Lord Of The Flies”, I read it in my 40s and found it frightening in its reality. I questioned the wisdom of it being required reading for impressionable students, middle-school to high school; would it be taken as a warning or encouragement to directions which could be taken in their lives. I wonder if there has been, or maybe should be, research into a tie-in with that book and today’s leaders in government? The written word is a powerful weapon for all ages; the Bible one of the most powerful books, who doesn’t have a Bible in one form or another in their home. It is not a tome spreading love and peace but views of violence, sex and greed; for or against, some winners and some losers, but still looked to for guidance by those who need to be looking within themselves for answers and solutions to today’s problems which were beyond the problems and their solutions a few thousand years ago.

    I did a little shopping at Walmart yesterday and again, the metal stick pen was broken and I had to sign the screen with my finger. This nation uses our signature as the final proof of our identification and the childish scrawl running off the edges of the screen to prove I was me yesterday is questionable. My stolen signature cost me money and lowered my credit rating for months after a mugging and robbery. Simply asking for ID, usually drivers license, would have shown that 27 year old get away driver for the mugger was not 77 year old JoAnn Green. This electronic age, which continues to expand into all phases of our lives, runs on electric power with no consideration as to how the power is provided. Electric cars are being pushed as our transportation into the future. The majority is fighting against the use of fossil fuel during this severe Climate Change and Global Warming while pushing for solar and wind power to replace it as the almost daily storms blows out power sources for thousands and sometimes millions for days and weeks. And the new form of criminal activity of destroying power plants must not be ignored.

    Connect that dependence on electrical power to religion by the TV programming bringing religion into our homes, with a flick of the remote we can choose between Jerry Falwell, Joel Osteen and Peter Popoff’s free Miracle Spring Water and countless other local options. There has not yet been developed a safe form of electronic communication; if not even the Pentagon is safe, we are putting our most private and financial lives out into cyber space for the cleverest hackers to obtain. Education is being sold to the highest bidder to control minds of our future generations; creationism being one of the most dangerous and highly funded via spreading voucher systems.

    Again; “Now, every election feels like (and arguably is) a contest about the status of our identities–religious, racial, cultural, educational…” I will add FOLLOW THE MONEY!

  11. Todd, I heard a piece on NPR the other day. The US economy, compared to the rest of the world is kicking butt. Almost everyone has higher inflation, fewer jobs. They compared the average wage in Missouri (the lowest in the US) is higher than the average wage in ALL of France.

    Interest rates seem like they’re high right now because people were used to free money, but 6% is still a pittance compared to the first mortgage I took out at 18% in 1989.

    Ask yourself personally what makes things so bad, or are you getting your impression of the economy from what somebody else wants you to think.

    The one gloomy thing on the horizon is I am pretty sure the Republican congress is willing to tank the American and World economy over the debt limit, not because it’s rational, but because they perceive it as their in-group winning.

  12. One of the reasons I maintain that the “other side” is voting against their own self interest is the polling I see on issues like gun control and abortion. Polling indicates that large numbers of Republicans agree with the rest of us that gun control is necessary and abortion is health care and should be available. The latter is tied tightly to religious identity, as well.

  13. First – Todd, keep up with the world – major poll last week shows that 40%, not 30% of Americans identify as independents.

    There is at least one critical root cause for the theme today, the loss of community. If you haven’t read it, check out “Bowling Alone”, yes, nearly 25 years old, but a definite howl in our coal mine.

  14. I guess I am the odd person out. The ties that hold the MAGA folks together are, i believe very real, and the center around a desire to return to the 1950s, if not the 1880s, just after reconstruction ended, and when the Bill of Rights did not apply to the states. Talk about States Rights! Maybe partly because I know lots of young people through my kids and my involvement with the LGBT community, I don’t see that there are a lot of things holding people on the left together. And the people on the right have long been recognized as followers, and more cohesive as a group. Dr. Professor Kennedy qoutes Lilliana Mason as saying “But now that we have all of these other important identities linked to the status of our party, every election feels like it’s also about the status of our religious group and our racial group, and our culture and where we live, and who we grew up with.” FIrst, it seems to me that she has a very lose idea of identity, but maybe she’s not talking about core identity, but something more vague. I think this, for the left is patently false. Only 30 percent of liberals, according to PEW, go to church about once week. We differ about many things, but we largely agree that people should get to self define and should have civil rights. But those are beliefs about the world we want to live in, not a significant part of our identity. But they are a very big part of what is holding us together, because of the threat to those values from the Republican Party. Right now they are in the midst of trying to push trans people back into the closet, deep in, taking away even their right to medical treatment for being trans. Daily Wire host Michael Knowles, said at CPAC, “For the good of society … transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely — the whole preposterous ideology, at every level. Little does he know that we have been around since at least the beginning of written history (there are mentions of what we now call transgender in texts from 12,000 years ago), and in cultures across the world, We aren’t goin anywhere.

  15. A book worth reading, as I am now, is The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. The subtitle is “Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics”.
    One of the ideas he talks about in the opening chapters is moral dumbfounded ness, which is exactly what it sounds like: moral reasoning not in search of truth but reasoning that supports one’s emotional reactions.
    Three years ago my husband and I were in the protest against the death of George Floyd. We were in our car ( pandemic ) and thus had our “sign” on the side of the car which read No Lives Matter Until Black Lives Matter, which my daughter has encouraged me to keep.
    I have been challenged by some who read this statement as racist ( against whites ) or simply No Lives Matter. So far, the conversations provoked by this have been…civil.

  16. Joan – “moral dumbfoundness” is the cocktail you get when you mix no religion with no community with a topper (for those under 40 of “anything goes if I like it”).

  17. After some mulling I have a bit to add at this point. Spoiler alert: I’m not done mulling.
    The results from that 1950’s study of fifth grade boys doesn’t exactly apply to our present day understanding of the development of teenagers. The brain development of eleven and twelve year old’s is not complete, much less their emotional development. Because the boys acted in such a primitive way does not mean that all adults act this way. What the study does show is that boys that age can easily be manipulated in group behavior.
    I see a similarity in the way hate/talk radio, and cable “news” shows, manipulate their listeners into similar group against group reactions.
    Back to the mulling….

  18. “A ‘status defense’ seems to be hardwired into most of us.” Probably true but we are not slaves to those kinds of things that are hardwired into the evolutionarily primitive parts of our brains. We also have a cerebral cortex capable of overriding those impulses. As is so often the case, education is the key to unlocking our potential for rational behavior. The ignorant are most easily exploited, so would-be autocrats always undermine education and attack the most educated members of the society they wish to rule. Thus, they sow the seeds of the destruction of that society and, eventually, their own self destruction.

  19. Lester. I’d argue that religion reinforces rather than undermines moral dumbfoundedness. Morality does not depend on religion. It exists independently of and prior to religion.

  20. Sharon – like most things “it depends” …I certainly agree that “morality does not depend on religion”. BUT – IMHO – it is not innate and comes most strongly from the influences of family, community and “beliefs” (could be a religion or, even, Qanon). Human beings are not born “moral”. So…how do intense religious stands like “love thy neighbor” and “heal the world” make you “dumbfound”?

  21. Wow! Quite the clarifying perspective!
    People don’t “vote their interests,” they vote their identity. But, to them, that IS their interest.
    And, if they run into people with a different identity, they double down on their own. I’m in Florididia,
    where I saw a large sign on the side of a road, just yesterday, that proclaimed “GOD, GUNS AND
    GUTS MADE AMERICA FREE,” and where, in the run-up to the 2020 election somebody’s grandma
    was wearing A tee shirt that read “PROUD DEPLORABLE.” “Trump can grab me here—->” pointing
    to her crotch, was another woman’s statement of self, worn on her shirt, seen on the news during that
    same time. I’m sure that neither of these women had benefited from Trump’s massive tax giveaways.
    Racial, and/or, religious bigotry seems to run the show in large ways.
    As for the educational and book banning rage spreading through so much of the “REAL” America,
    how about a quote from that blatantly communistic fellow, Thomas Jefferson:
    “I have sworn upon the alter of God eternal hostility

    against every form of tyranny over the mind of ma

  22. Lester and Sharon, I do think it is not necessarily influenced by religion although religion can be used as a tool. And is! And, I’m going to posit, by ALL of the religions, not simply Christianity.
    In Haidt’s introduction he says “human beings are 90% chimp and 10% bee”.

  23. Lester, to your last question, they don’t! People become morally dumbfounded when they are cornered about their Golden Rules which include “love thy neighbor as thyself” and find that they cannot! So they invent “reasons” which come not from the brain but the gut and find themselves…dumbfounded.

  24. Joan – well said! I would slightly amend to “they invent “reasons” which come not from the soul, but the gut,and find themselves…dumbfounded.”

  25. What we call moral behavior has been documented in many animal species, presumably without their having undergone any religious instruction. Just something to think about.

  26. Sharon and Joan – and the opposite as well…evolution? If so, we might be doomed…

  27. It troubles me that the study cited and The Lord of the Flies novel are both exclusively about the psychology of young boys and conclusions are drawn about all “humanity”. Girls do not develop the same social dynamics. Rather than hierarchy, competition, and teams there seems to be more group concentration and importance of cooperation for goals. There are many modern studies (now that women are in the social sciences) so these examples from the 1950’s are very dusty indeed. It is rather like the studies of Heart Disease – which exclusively studied males and made conclusions…..only to recently realize that symptoms of heart attacks etc can be different in women AND that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women and requires study of women.
    Which is not to say that there are no pieces of insight here, but that the conclusions are grossly oversimplified and perhaps given too much weight – cooperation is also an important human trait! And may in fact be the trait we need to concentrate on right now.

  28. “Rational actors” vote for specific people not parties and in national elections for the good of the nation not personal, local, or party agendas.

  29. Pete – AMEN – hard to be rational when your head is full of sports, celebrities, social media and other “fun”. Politics and voting aren’t “fun”….

  30. As a Democrat,does anyone feel as if they’re being conditioned to be a slave to constant dread?

    I think I’m finally getting over Outrage Inc.

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