Skip to content

Why The Election Won’t be an Etch-a-Sketch Moment.

    Oh, the swell of hope. The hope that the bipartisanship so critical to progress might somehow arise from the post-election ashes of a rancorous and divisive national election. The hope that comes from the rejection of loathsome remarks about rape, (Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock both lost), from the blossoming of social tolerance (gay marriage won in every state that voted on it), from the rising political influence of a greater diversity of Americans (increased voting by the young, Hispanics, Asians, single mothers). Surely these must be signs of hope.

     A majority of political commentators seem to think so. Many say the election was a rejection of the extreme conservatism of the Republican party, a result that will force the party back toward the center and moderation. And in their post-election speeches, both candidates agreed on the need for bipartisanship “At a time like this we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing,” said the Republican standard bearer, Mitt Romney“We are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people,” said President Obama.  Might this election at least in part clear the Etch-a-Sketch screen of partisan divisiveness and prove President Obama right when he claims “We are not as divided as our politics suggest.” Oh, sweet naïve hope.

     No, no single election can resolve the underlying drivers of partisanship, the pressures and stresses and uncertainties of modern life that make people feel so threatened and angry and so little in control of their own lives and futures. These are the conditions that drive us into our partisan tribes, and, sadly, make President Obama sound naïve when he observes “…we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We remain, and forever will be, the United States of America.” Reality challenges that hopeful belief. More and more, compelled by nothing short of the deep imperative for our very safety and survival, we are circling the wagons of our own unique groups – our tribes – and treating those with whom we disagree not merely as people with different ideas, but as the enemy, as a threat, as a danger that can’t be compromised with and must be vanquished. 

      This runs far deeper than Red or Blue, or politics. That is just one current and obvious battle in a deeper and ancient conflict between tribes, social groups that are far more fundamental than which political party we belong to, a conflict which manifests in many ways. Where we choose to live, who we choose as friends, what we believe about things like climate change or abortion or the size and role of government…these are all versions of the same phenomenon, a deep-seated and instinctive need as social animals to protect ourselves when we feel threatened by agreeing with the beliefs of our tribe. Agree with the tribe and you will be accepted as a member in good standing. The tribe will help protect you. And if everyone in your tribe agrees, that unity will make your tribe strong and more successful in competition with other tribes…for political power, for social and cultural influence…in shaping how overall society operates, and your tribe’s dominance also helps keep you safe.

     As noted, tribe is far more profound than party. These affiliations are organized around attitudes about how society should operate, the fundamental ways the world we live in ought to work. As identified by research in a field called Cultural Cognition, we fall into four basic tribes;

Individualists, who prefer a society that mostly leaves the individual alone and free to control their own lives.

Communitarians, who prefer a ‘We’re all in it together’ society in which people share decision-making and control and sacrifice some individual freedom in the name of the greater common good.

Hierarchists, who prefer a society predictably and reassuringly constrained by unchanging rules and fixed hierarchies of social and economic class.

Egalitarians, who prefer a society that is more flexible, less unconstrained by rigid ‘the way it’s always been’ norms, people who oppose decision making and control by a powerful few at the top of the ladder imposing their structure on everyone else.

     The election hardly softened these underlying tribal identities. In fact, it forced us to choose, to pick sides, to support the party and candidate more closely aligned with our basic beliefs about how society should work. Individualists and Hierarchists manifest as Libertarians and Conservatives, and Republican. Communitarians and Egalitarians are generally Liberals and Democrats.  

     Nor has the election eased the broad underlying pressures and uncertainties and influences that are making so many of us feel more worried, insecure, and powerless (note that both the Tea Party and Occupy Movement are about ‘taking back control’), feelings that make us feel threatened and motivate us to circle the tribal/partisan wagons and align ourselves more closely with our tribe’s views.

       Though he may not have realized these deeper cultural identities that motivate us all, President Obama instinctively captured this challenge when he said “…each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions, as a country, it necessarily stirs passion, stirs up controversy. That won’t change after tonight.” True. The underlying reasons for hyperpartisanship are deep and powerful, and the conditions that fuel these passions still exist. No amount of pleading for bipartisanship, nor hopeful interpretation of the election results, can overcome those underlying forces, and help “…end all the gridlock, or solve all our problems, or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward,” as the President also said.

      And, sadly, neither will his appeal that we come together around our ‘common hopes and dreams…our common bond.” It is unfortunately more likely that our separate tribal identities, sharpened and intensified by the threatening pressures of turbulent and troubling times, will continue to magnify separate values and hopes and dreams, and erode the common bonds we do all share, bonds to a greater tribe that is also vital for our well-being and our future.


Up Next