The nature of partisan politics has shifted over the last few decades, transforming political parties into tribal identities and opposing partisans into what philosopher Jason Brennan calls “civic enemies.” This is likely unsurprising to most readers, but now there is intriguing evidence supporting the inkling. Recently, Vox reported on the research of political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, which found that America’s two dominating parties have become even more polarized:
The experiment was simple. Working with Dartmouth College political scientist Sean Westwood, Iyengar asked about 1,000 people to decide between the résumés of two high school seniors who were competing for a scholarship.
The resumes could differ in three ways: First, the senior could have either a 3.5 or 4.0 GPA; second, the senior could have been the president of the Young Democrats or Young Republicans club; third, the senior could have a stereotypically African-American name and have been president of the African-American Student Association or could have a stereotypically European-American name.
The point of the project was to see how political and cues affected a nonpolitical task — and to compare the effect with race. The results were startling.
When the résumé included a political identity cue, about 80 percent of Democrats and Republicans awarded the scholarship to their co-partisan. This held true whether or not the co-partisan had the highest GPA — when the Republican student was more qualified, Democrats only chose him 30 percent of the time, and when the Democrat was more qualified, Republicans only chose him 15 percent of the time.
Think about that for a moment: When awarding a college scholarship— a task that should be completely nonpolitical — Republicans and Democrats cared more about the political party of the student than the student’s GPA. As Iyengar and Westwood wrote, “Partisanship simply trumped academic excellence.” It also trumped race.
The whole piece is both fascinating and deeply troubling and provides more reason for me to disengage from politics altogether. As Georgetown professor Peter Jaworski commented on Facebook in light of these findings, “Partisan politics corrupts your character. Instead of trying to get votes for your favoured tribe, try to make money instead. Engaging in markets makes mean people nicer, makes you more trustworthy, more charitable, and more beneficent.”
3 thoughts on “Tribal Politics”
Well, the ironic thing is that what you’re advocating–as part of disengaging in politics–is itself founded upon a politically contentious view of markets and capitalism.
There’s no escaping politics.
I really should have led with this instead of my prior comment: this finding is one of the most important realizations in modern American society.
I think it’s especially vital for liberals. I know, I know: that sounds like my own partisanship rearing its ugly head, but hear me out first.
I have a lot of liberal friends, especially friends from minority backgrounds, who are convinced that Republicans hate them because Republicans are racist. (Or sexist, or homophobic, or whatever.) Meanwhile, Republicans are incredibly resentful of being continually accused of racism, sexism, homophobia for holding political views that (in their eyes) are grounded in completely race-neutral, gender-neutral, sexuality-neutral reasons. In other words: there’s a huge amount of hostility between Americans because of a belief that the left/right dichotomy is fundamentally about identity-based bigotry.
And hey: it would be helpful, I think, if folks realized that the hatred was actually primarily partisan.
See, I’m not arguing that Republicans are better than Democrats. (I’m trying not to be partisan.) I’m just arguing that Republicans and Democrats are jerks to each other for the same reason: politics. Not race. Not gender. Not anything other than political bigotry.
That’s an important realization because it takes out what is without doubt the most inflammatory aspect of the left/right feud. If Democrats realized that when Republicans were being jerks, it was political, I think that would help them feel a little less alienated and attacked. It’s not nice to be treated badly for any reason, but I do think it’s worse when it is for your religion or your sex or your race than because someone thinks your politics are stupid. Meanwhile, if Democrats stopped accusing Republicans of being uniformly bigoted (on those grounds), a lot of GOP resentment would ease as well.
I’m not saying that next thing you know we’d all be singing “Kumbaya” together. But I do think it would be an improvement.
For anyone following the blog, I ended up getting into a discussion on Facebook about this that might be interesting: https://www.facebook.com/nathaniel.givens/posts/10100230387473609?pnref=story
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