Tribalism and Electoral Politics
Reprinted from the Independent Institute
Humans have always lived and worked in groups and instinctively seek to cooperate with others in their group while viewing people in other groups with hostility. People in the same tribe work together for their common good. People in other tribes are potential predators or potential prey.
Those tribal instincts have stuck with us in modern times, often in socially harmful ways. Tribal instincts are the basis for racism and lay the foundations for nationalism. Modern societies have developed institutions to channel tribalism in non-destructive ways, such as organized sports. Rather than going to war with those of another tribe, we play games against them, giving us the satisfaction of battling another tribe while minimizing the death and destruction that accompanies other types of battles.
Electoral politics also plays on tribal instincts. We choose sides, and it is us against them. How sides are chosen is, at least partly, up to the politicians who are up for election.
The 2016 presidential election offers a good example. In a contest that pits “us” against “them,” Hillary Clinton called Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables,” clearly placing Trump supporters in the “them” category. Meanwhile, Trump was critical of Mexicans, Chinese, and illegal immigrants.
One interesting aspect of these appeals to tribal instincts is that Clinton put many potential voters, the Trump supporters, in the “them” category. Trump put foreigners who don’t vote, in the “them” category. He included all Americans as a part of the “us” group.
As Trump framed it, we Americans, who could vote in the election, were a part of his group, whereas as Clinton framed it, some Americans were in her tribe but others were not. Trump’s framing pitted Americans against foreigners. All voters were in his “us” group. Clinton’s framing pitted some voters against others.
We are seeing Clinton’s brand of tribalism play out again, as President Biden has labeled MAGA Republicans as semi-fascists. Why would a politician want to alienate such a large proportion of potential voters? Would it make more sense to try to unite voters against a common enemy rather than branding perhaps half of potential voters as the enemy?
The more inclusive message would seem to make more sense if the object of tribal rhetoric is to win over undecided voters or convince potential voters to switch to the speaker’s side. Trump’s strategy says that we Americans, who vote, are all in this together against a common enemy–foreigners who do not vote.
However, not that many voters are genuinely undecided, and even fewer who have already chosen a side will defect to the other side. Electoral politics is more about turnout. Voter turnout tends to run about 50% in mid-term elections, so the road to victory must be fueled by getting “our” supporters to show up and vote while discouraging “their” supporters from voting.
A charitable way to view the tribal strategies of Clinton and Biden is that casting their opponents in an undesirable light will encourage Clinton and Biden supporters to turn out to vote against the deplorables and fascists. They’re acting to motivate their base.
Still, this seems like a poor strategy because it has the potential to motivate their opponents’ base at least as much as their own. Suppose you are one of those people who are being called deplorable and fascist. In that case, you might be motivated to strike out at those who are making those accusations.
My guess is that by deliberately trying to alienate a large share of voters, the Clinton-Biden tribal strategy costs more votes than it gains, because it motivates the “them” voters more than the “us” voters. Trump’s approach of including all Americans in the “us” group against foreigners in the “them” group seems like better electoral politics. Trump did attack Clinton, calling her “lying Hillary,” but he didn’t attack Clinton’s supporters.
President Biden was his party’s choice in the presidential election of 2020 partly because he was viewed as a more moderate Democrat who could appeal to a broader spectrum of voters. After he was elected, he presented himself as a president who wanted to unite America. It appears that he now has chosen a different political strategy–a strategy that may have kept Clinton out of the White House rather than his old strategy that may have put him in the White House.
Humans still have those tribal instincts, and politicians can play them differently by defining who they include in their “us” group and who they define as “them.” Their strategies are fully intentional. President Biden’s characterization of MAGA Republicans as semi-fascists was fully intended to play on the tribal instincts of his base, but likely will have a bigger impact on the tribal instincts of those outside his base. You don’t have to be a MAGA Republican to be offended that the president would label a large proportion of Americans as semi-fascists.