Tribalism and Electoral Politics | AIER

Reprinted from The Independent Institute

Humans have always lived and worked in groups and instinctively sought 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 interest. People in other tribes are potential predators or potential prey.

These tribal instincts have stuck with us in modern times, often in socially harmful ways. Tribal instincts are the basis of racism and lay the foundations of nationalism. Modern societies have developed institutions to channel tribalism in non-destructive ways, such as organized sports. Instead of going to war with another tribe, we play against them, which gives us the satisfaction of fighting another tribe while reducing the death and destruction that accompanies other types of battles.

Electoral politics also plays on tribal instincts. We choose sides and we are against them. How the parties are chosen is up, at least in part, to the politicians who seek election.

The 2016 presidential election provides a good example. In a contest pitting “us” against “them,” Hillary Clinton called Trump supporters a “basket of unfortunate,” and clearly placed Trump supporters in the “them” category. Meanwhile, Trump has criticized Mexicans, Chinese and illegal immigrants.

One interesting aspect of these appeals to tribal instincts is that Clinton placed many potential voters, Trump supporters, in the “they” category. Trump put foreigners who don’t vote, in the “them” category. He included all Americans as part of the “us” group.

As Trump put it, we Americans, who could vote in elections, were part of his group, while some Americans were in her tribe, as Clinton put it, but others were not. Trump framed it as framing between Americans and foreigners. All the voters in his group were “us”. Clinton’s framing pitted some voters against others.

We’re seeing the Clinton-tribal type resurgence, with President Biden calling MAGA Republicans quasi-fascists. Why would a politician want to isolate such a large proportion of potential voters? Would it make more sense to try to unite the electorate against a common enemy rather than classify half of the potential electorate as the enemy?

A more comprehensive message may make more sense if the purpose of the tribal discourse is to win over hesitant voters or persuade potential voters to go over to the speaker’s side. Trump’s strategy says that we Americans, who vote, all have this in common against a common enemy – foreigners who don’t vote.

However, there are not many truly hesitant voters, and even fewer who have chosen one side will withdraw to the other. Electoral politics is more about turnout. Voter turnout tends to run at 50% in the midterm elections, so the path to victory should be stoked by having our “supporters” turn up and vote while discouraging their “supporters” from voting.

A benevolent way of seeing the tribal strategies of Clinton and Biden is that casting their opponents in an unwelcome light will encourage Clinton and Biden supporters to come out to vote against the founders and fascists. They are working to motivate their base.

However, this seems like a bad strategy because it involves the ability to motivate their opponents’ base at least as much as they have. Let’s say you are one of those people who are called sad and fascist. In this case, you may be motivated to attack those who make those accusations.

I suspect that by deliberately trying to isolate a large proportion of the electorate, Clinton and Biden’s tribal strategy is costing more votes than it earns, because it motivates “them” voters more than “us” voters. Trump’s approach of including all Americans in the “us” group against foreigners in the “they” group appears to be better electoral policy. Trump has attacked Clinton, calling her a “Hillary liar,” but he has not attacked Clinton supporters.

President Biden was his party’s choice in the 2020 presidential election, in part because he was seen as a more moderate Democrat who could appeal to a broader group of voters. After his election, he presented himself as a president who wanted to unite America. He now appears to have chosen a different political strategy – one that may have kept Clinton out of the White House rather than the old one that may have put him in the White House.

Humans still have those tribal instincts, and politicians can play them differently by defining who their group ‘us’ includes and who they define as ‘them’. Their strategies are entirely intentional. President Biden’s characterization of the MAGA Republicans as quasi-fascists was entirely meant to play on the tribal instincts of his base, but would likely have an even greater 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 percentage of Americans as quasi-fascists.

Randall J. Holcombe

Randall J. Holcombe

Randall J. Holcomb is the Defoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. He received his Ph.D. He received his Ph.D. in Economics from Virginia Tech, and taught at Texas A&M University and Auburn University before coming to Florida in 1988. Dr. Holcomb is also a Senior Fellow at the James Madison Institute and a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California.

Dr. Holcomb is the author of twenty books and more than 200 articles published in academic and professional journals. include his books Political capitalism: how economic and political power is created and maintained (2018) and Coordination, Cooperation, and Oversight: The Evolution of Economic and Political Power (2020).

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