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Tribal Politics

The NY Times has an interesting article by psychologist Jonathan Haidt that examines the behavior of voters.

To understand politics, we are often told to “follow the money”. Monetary self-interest is a good predictor for the behavior of politicians, but it doesn’t seem to help at all for understanding how people vote. Consider people who who are not very rich but nonetheless support tax cuts for the wealthy (e.g., Joe the Plumber). Studies have also shown that parents whose children attend public schools are not any more supportive of government aid to schools, and people without health insurance are no more likely to favor single-payer health insurance.

In other words, ironically and despite the gospel of capitalism, people are not always selfish. Instead, we evolved to favor the interests of our group or tribe over our own interests. These groups are often built around what are considered “sacred values” — if an outsider violates one of these values, the group springs to its defense.

This happens both on the right and the left. Recent examples include the right perceiving a “War on Christianity”, while the left perceives a “War on Women”.

UPDATE: The NY Times review of Haidt’s new book about this.



  1. a regular reader wrote:

    I would proffer that both the ‘War on Christianity’ and the ‘War on Women’ relate to right wing attempts to create wedge issues–the former is their stab at fabricating one, the latter is the left’s calling them on another by adopting the right’s hyperbolic language.

    Tuesday, March 20, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink
  2. Don wrote:

    I find the concept of tribal priorities quite interesting. Perhaps this helps explain why a lot of people seem pretty eager to label someone a conservative or a liberal. Perhaps we need to do this to identify friends and foes, at least at the political perspective level. This is a good argument as to why so many folks seem to vote/talk against their own apparent interests. Perhaps, per this argument, their best interests are served by the maintenance of the tribe’s cohesiveness.

    This also may help explain why so often I feel the odd man out. Many times, I’ve had folks assume that I was of a certain tribal/political persuasion based on a point of argument I’ve made. Personally, I have a hard time feeling I fit into any of the major categories folks like to throw around at each other and, admittedly, find it troubling that others can categorize me better than I can.

    When I’ve responded to those who try and label me, explaining that their label really doesn’t fit, their response commonly borders on incredulity (meaning they can’t believe me). I’ve got libertarian views and I have socialist views, too. Depends on the subject and the context. I’ve often said that when I grow up I want to be a curmudgeonly iconoclast with an emphasis on the iconoclast side of things. Maybe that makes me a seeker of truth more than a tribal member of any particular political grouping.

    Tuesday, March 20, 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink
  3. PATRIOTSGT wrote:

    Hey Don – I feel quite similar to you. I don’t neatly fit into any particular tribe.
    One tribe say I can’t belong because I’m fine with things like gay rights, and womens right to choose (in the 1st timester) and that everyone should have healthcare. Basically keep religion out of legislation. I also think having million dollar earners pay more even if it’s for a limited time say 5 years is not a bad thing.
    The other tribe would throw me out because I’m fiscally conservative and believe no gov’t assistance including unemployment should last more then a year (excepting the disabled of course). I also believe everyone should pay some income tax, even if its $10 so that everyone can say they contribute what they can.
    To both tribes I would say the other is not evil. Both have some good ideas and both need to take responsibility for what ails us and stop throwing mud.

    There, now i’m a complete outcast. 🙂

    Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink
  4. Iron Knee wrote:

    Welcome to the club. I guess that is our tribe — the outcasts.

    Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at 6:34 am | Permalink
  5. Michael wrote:

    This is why I come here. I think most people that post here feel that it is possible to have real, spirited dialogue about political issues without the need to walk the party line. For the most part, I lean progressive, but that is a result rather than a motive. That is, I prefer to look at what evidence and objective study suggests, and (in the current climate–but this was not always so) that leads me to the left more often than not. In fact, there are many points (e.g., gun rights) where I think people on the left are wrong. (Interesting side note… Did you know that Howard Dean, when he was governor of VT, consistently received top scores from the NRA?)

    So, @P, as a representative of that “other side,” I wouldn’t throw you out for being fiscally conservative and your views on taxation. I would simply ask why you believe one year is a good cut-off. I’ll argue back why I think arbitrary deadlines are bad because it would harm more good people than punish bad people. But since I believe in ideas and sound arguments rather than tribes, I wouldn’t kick you out. Actually, I don’t know what it is that I’m supposed to kick you out of. 😉

    Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink
  6. Arthanyel wrote:

    I often wonder if it’s not so much a question of tribes as it is a question of rationality – and that rational people are in the small minority 🙂

    Agree with Psgt, Michael and others – an amazingly large number of Americans register as conservative on some topics and liberal on others, and find it hard to support either extreme.

    Michael, my approach is not dissimilar from yours. I try to get to the root causes and the actual facts and let logic and compassion combine to propose a workable solution to a problem.

    At the end of the day, however, no two people are likely to fully agree on everything, let alone politics. Both extremes want to use the government as a big stick to force everyone else to kowtow to their personal belief system. They just fight about what to force the rest of us to do – and frankly, unless what i am doing directly injures YOU, YOU have no right to stick your nose into my personal affairs.

    Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  7. PATRIOTSGT wrote:

    Thanks Ik, Michael and Arthanyel.
    As for the taxation issue here is what I think and believe. I believe everyone can be dealt and bad hand, have some unforseen circumstance or even the perfect storm of negative consequences. I also believe it the responsibility of the peoples government to step in and help out when family and neighbors cannot or will not assist. I also believe that each individual is responsible for themselves and responsible for helping those within their close circle in need. I believe that people don’t necessarily plan to fail, however there are those who fail to plan. I believe part of being a responsible citizen is to shed oneself of dependence on others so that you may be able to help another once you’re on your way.

    I think that many take advantage of the system and feel they are owed something. I also think that many don’t bother with planning how to get out of their situation and resign themselves to dependency. I think, exceptions can be made to my arbitrary 1 year rule if a person is actively engaged in reversing their misfortune. For example, if someone is going to school or learning a trade and needs 2-3 years to re-tool their skill sets, then I’d be for that person continuing receiving assistance. If they are not trying to change their situation then perhaps they need a little more stress, such as hunger or shelter or clean clothes to spur them to make a positive change. I often tell my children, we need a certain amount of stress to perform at our peek. If we sit on the couch and someone supplies us with a TV, remote and batteries along with a sandwich whenever we need it, why would you ever get up off the couch? But, when we need something or want something and work for it, we feel better about ourselves and our ability to provide and we in turn do even better. Sometimes I think too much help, hurts. It’s like the enabler to the addicted person, they think they are helping when in fact they are making things worse.

    Well, thats what I believe and think about just one issue.

    Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  8. Iron Knee wrote:

    I don’t think you’ll hear much argument with that view in here.

    I remember well when Germany reintegrated, that West German companies had trouble when they hired ex-East German workers, because the East Germans had lived in a socialist state all their lives. And when I visited Bulgaria back when it was still communist, it was almost impossible to get service in a restaurant or store.

    This is also why I am in favor of (close to) 100% inheritance tax (over a fixed amount, and with exceptions of course, like for minor or disabled children and a few other things). Leaving your kids too much money is just about the worst thing you can do to them.

    Thursday, March 22, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  9. Don wrote:

    I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.

    -Thomas Jefferson, letter to Francis Hopkinson, March 13, 1789

    Thursday, March 22, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Permalink