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Why political tribes are becoming more dangerous than ever
In a recent Financial Times column, Janan Ganesh asserted this,
“For a sense of how little I believe in belief, here is an experiment that I have been running in my head for two years. Imagine, at the start of the pandemic, that Donald Trump had shut his country down and Angela Merkel had kept hers open. He justified his action as a protection of the homeland while she stressed liberal ideals. (“As a girl in East Germany, I saw the human cost of draconian…”)
I bet the pandemic culture war we have seen since 2020 would have been exactly inverted. It would have been a badge of rightwing pride the world over to mask up or stay in. It would have been a progressive statement to bare your face and party. People don’t work out what they think and then join the corresponding tribe. They join a tribe and infer from it what they think.”
Though Ganesh did not spell them out, this assessment has sinister implications. If the actions of tribes merely reflect the initiatives of leaders, this implies that tribes will do anything! The political scientist Giovanni Sartori worried about this, noting that ideology is used in service of “messianism and fanaticism”. Sartori had first-hand experience of this, growing up under Italian fascism. Mussolini was not even a premier tyrant of the 20th century, this epoch serving as a warning of the power of demagogues.
Therefore, we might reflect on the contemporary power of tribes. Is anything stopping them from developing in the unrestrained manner which Ganesh predicts, potentially ending in the atrocities which Sartori lived through? This is associated with one’s view of ethics — are they relative or absolute? — but is a distinct question. For example, certain Christians have grave reservations about Trump, yet succumb to peer pressure and follow him anyway.
We may quarrel with the argument that leaders control tribes, Ganesh attributing remarkable influence to Trump and Merkel. How do we know that supporters did not parrot the initiative of these leaders? This is because, in multiple international cases, people with similar values adopted parallel positions to German liberals/Christian democrats and American conservatives, often doing so with little prompting from leaders.
The chances of Trump and Merkel adopting contrary stances were slim — both have ideological sympathies and were aware of the positions of supporters (!) — yet such positions would probably have achieved little impact. Certain supporters might have followed them, but these would probably have been minority factions, entailing political marginalization for Trump and Merkel.
In short, tribes have an exogenous basis. This can be psychological; research shows that conservatives prefer order and fear death, whereas liberals are more creative and open to ambiguity. This feeds into occupational roles. Conservatives are attracted to occupations in which there are strong hierarchies and technical work, whereas liberals favour occupations with flat hierarchies in which the subject of work is human. Admittedly, positions on Coronavirus were atypical, liberals advocating restrictions; this reflected distinct attitudes to science. Normally, conservatives favour constraints in areas such as immigration and abortion.
But recognition that tribes have an exogenous basis is scarcely reassuring. Psychological factors have always predicted political values, yet tribes have done terrible things. Whilst 20th century fascists and communists attracted a type of supporter, constraining leaders in certain ways, this did not preclude the atrocities of these years!
Fortunately, political culture has become less radical in recent decades. Societies have become more secure and affluent, encouraging liberal values and precluding the authoritarianism which characterized interwar decades and still affects less developed societies. Admittedly, politics has become more extreme in recent times, but this is relative; compared to predecessors, contemporary radicals pose less danger to public order. The 2021 Capitol attack was thus a farce, rather than a new March on Rome.
Yet our age is paradoxical. Whilst the elites of totalitarian systems tended to have uniform values, their hold on wider society was weaker. Traditionally, the positions of non-elites tend to be unstructured, straddling left and right. Rather than widespread ideological fealty, totalitarian crimes reflected extreme (elite) ideologies, austere circumstances and the human propensity for violence. In post-war decades, the attitudes of non-elites remained unorganized.
But this has changed. Recently, tribes have become historically coherent, enhancing their ability to mobilize members and reflecting developments such as social media. In a recent study, Christopher Hare demonstrated that attitudes among American voters have become more unidimensional. Emulating the historic organization of elite attitudes, the left–right dimension now underpins several divisions within the American public, this holding for all levels of political sophistication. In other words, voters who have liberal views on (say) abortion are more likely to have liberal views on (say) immigration. There are fewer data outside the US and other countries appear less divided, yet similar processes seem to be afoot across the West.
If ideological positions are more coherent, we may worry that more people will blindly follow their tribe. A recent study suggests that this is so. Writing in the American Journal of Political Science, Eric Groenendyk and colleagues undertook an experiment which primed participants with their favoured ideology, finding that priming increased conformity with norms. The researchers worried about this, discussing Sartori’s arguments and drawing parallels with dark passages in history.
This reflects stratification. To varying degrees, Western societies have always been stratified, feudal societies being extreme instances, yet contemporary stratification entrenches divisions between liberals and conservatives. Neighbourhoods and workplaces concentrate people with similar political views; declining civil society entails fewer chances to meet people with diverse opinions; social media creates echo chambers. Crucially, such processes are path dependent, social and political divisions reinforcing each other. This does not entail ossification, as I discuss below, yet means that such processes have deep roots.
In short, we live in societies in which political tribes are more tightly organized than ever, yet, for the moment, wider conditions limit the capacity of tribes to inflict harm. What are the implications of this? On one level, this development already poisons politics. Liberal democracies need tribes — at their best, tribes structure politics, providing followers with useful heuristics — but also need strong individual voices. Recent developments lie in tension with this. When tribes are too strong, peer pressure can inhibit the expression of individual preferences. Such preference falsification corrupts knowledge and perpetuates unpopular practices, making institutions vulnerable to instability as real preferences emerge.
We may regret the cultural implications of these developments. In recent years, atmospheres have become more stifling, inhibiting that great Western liberty: the ability to say what one thinks. Even if tribes inhibit this right, as opposed to the state, this diminishes the quality of liberal democracy. For example, it is very difficult to criticize Trump in certain American churches. Among liberals, conditions in the arts are increasingly difficult, reflecting overwhelming majorities of liberals within the sector. Resultingly, many worry about artistic output, such circumstances frustrating creativity.
Of course, external conditions might change. Postmaterial conditions are a recent development; traditionally, humans endure war, poverty and famine! Whilst it is difficult to link the organization of tribes with specific conditions — as we have seen, a variety of group structures are compatible with postmaterial political cultures — high degrees of tribalism may not be conducive to public order. The US is a prime example. The recent descent into sporadic disorder has multiple causes, yet tribalism does not help. In the future, postmaterial conditions will scarcely guarantee peace.
But independent of the organization of tribes, conditions might get worse. There is no shortage of influences which might push societies in this direction, climate change, artificial intelligence and nuclear proliferation being serious concerns. Even if worse scenarios do not come to pass, life may be more difficult in the future, low rates of growth and the cost-of-living crisis boding ill.
Such developments will have their own influences on tribes. If shocks are sufficient, a nuclear war being a drastic example(!), extant structures might deteriorate. Fortunately, this will probably not be the case, changes being more incremental. If this is so, future societies will inherit the tightly organized tribes of today. Yet this entails its own problems. As we have seen, tribes have been associated with disturbing outcomes and ideologies may become darker. If authoritarian politics returns with tightly organized tribes, a condition absent from previous epochs, it could be more vicious than ever.
For millennia, philosophers have debated the ethics of conforming with groups. Certain insights are perennial and communicated to little children; “if Johnny walked into a fire, would you do it too?!”. Whilst such advice is not always pertinent, it is very relevant to certain contexts. Our epoch may be such a time. Notwithstanding pacific conditions, tribes are organized in a way which maximizes their influence over individuals; in certain ways, they are more dangerous than ever.
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