Tribalism and Electoral Politics

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.

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