All Politics Are Tribal
May 24, 2010 10 Comments
My cynical theory of political leanings is that most people’s views – whatever they say – can be explained by what they think will make them honored, empowered and/or prosperous. In other words, contra the left’s cherished ‘what’s the matter with Kansas’ theory, people do too vote based on self-interest – even when they may not appear to. It’s just that you have to correctly identify the self-serving ends that guide peoples’ votes (hint to the supposedly anti-materialist left: money is not the only possible self-serving end).
The flip side of this theory is that when faced with someone’s political views, and arguments for those views, it’s a waste of time to take them at face value let alone try to argue with them. Instead, you’ll understand the situation better simply by trying to look for how the person’s political aims would benefit him (where again, ‘benefit’ needs to be more broadly defined than ‘gets money’) if broadly implemented. My theory, in short, says that you’ll always find some way in which a person’s politics point towards a system in which that person, or at least people like him, are celebrated, empowered, prosperous and/or comfortable.
In a way this is just the (not exactly original, cf. Robin Hanson) theory that all politics are tribal, where ‘tribes’ are broadly defined. Sure, the group of people (say) ‘African-Americans’ is a tribe. But also, the group of people ‘unionized workers’ is a tribe. The group of people ‘public schoolteachers’ is a tribe. The group of people ‘homosexuals’ is a tribe.
The group of people ‘intellectual elites’ is a tribe. They behave as a tribe and vote as a tribe.
A corollary is that if you look at a person’s political views, you’ll see right away which tribe(s) they think they belong to, because those will be the tribe(s) their political views tend to elevate.
Matthew Yglesias evidently thinks he’s part of the intellectual elite. Rush Limbaugh evidently does not. They may in fact both be right, but the point is, this self-identification alone – not rational arguments – explains virtually all their political views. Under the sort of system favored by the sort of left-wingers that Matthew Yglesias favors, Matthew Yglesias is confident that Matthew Yglesias would be an important and well-compensated person. Rush Limbaugh, not so much.
Before you protest at my (admitted) cynicism, at least acknowledge that most people already think in my terms about at least some political factions. Who for example doesn’t think in terms of “the black vote” and confidently expect “the black vote” to vote for whoever promises to give more handouts to blacks (or a proxy group for blacks), or even just for whoever seems likely to have more black appointees/confidants at his side, or who will tend to flatter blacks more often, or (of course) whoever is himself black? In this context what exactly is the argument for why blacks are all always supposed to vote for (D)’s? It’s no more and no less than the assertion that (D)’s are ‘better for blacks’, is it not? If this faction weren’t deemed so tribal and self-serving (by everyone, especially by those on the left), this argument would fall flat. If tribalism weren’t the expected norm of behavior, then wouldn’t blacks be expected to just vote for whoever’s ‘best for the country’, like everyone else?
So all I’m really saying then that may be controversial is that ‘tribalism’ exists on planes other than mere race. People seem to be able to form tribal links out of just about anything – ‘saving the Earth’-ism, ‘taxes must always be raised on other people’-ism, etc.
Actually, humans seem to need tribes in their lives, which may explain why America – the atomized, antitribal country for a long time dominated by tribeless WASPs – has so readily formed so many new, synthetic tribes. Just as without religion people will come to believe anything, however wacky, it seems that people without a traditional tribe in their lives will cling to the most shallow and tenuous of associations as their ‘tribe’, and if only out of convenience will hitch their wagon to political views meant to elevate that ‘tribe’ above others.
When I see an SNL skit aimed against Sarah Palin, I can’t help but get the feeling I’m watching tribal behavior (certainly not rational discourse). The people who laugh at those skits and think they’re hilarious aren’t engaging in political discussion of or rebuttal against the merits/demerits of Sarah Palin (and, most likely, never have). They are simply making fun of a tribe they hate (Palin, and people like her), and trying to keep it down, and ensure that it does not rise to a position of honor. On the flip side, people who like Sarah Palin sense this attack on them and their tribe, and instinctively fall into a defensive position, rooting for Palin to kick some ass, to score one for their tribe, circling the wagons around her, flaws and all.
For another example, watch this (highly entertaining) political ad and tell me that its power and resonance doesn’t trace mostly to tribal cues, rather than rational argument:
The point is that it doesn’t really matter to my observation above that the ‘tribes’ who have come into conflict over Sarah Palin, or “Alabama”, might be as shallow and silly as ‘cool kids who listened to alternative music, went to a preppy East Coast university, and now are foodies’ on the one hand vs. ‘people who have hunted, like the WWF, and had three kids by age 23′ on the other. Sure, it may not seem like such associations form a solid foundation for a tribe.
But that doesn’t prevent tribal behavior on either side’s part, evidently.