Our extreme tribalism

by Ed Sawicki - March 28, 2020

Trump worship

graphic by David Horsey, LA Times

The question, “Why are Trump's poll numbers so high?” baffles thinking people everywhere. It hovers a little under 50 percent when it should be far closer to zero.

People I know are asking that and other questions and not hearing satisfying answers. Why are those in the right-wing bubble so gullible as to believe anything said on Fox News? Why do they think that Trump is being unfairly attacked?

The answer is extreme tribalism. It demands that you synchronize your thinking with the narrative of your tribe regardless of logic and common sense.

Consider this example from a few days ago. A Facebook friend posted an article about Republican Senators Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler selling and buying stocks as a result of closed-door Senate hearings. These senators knew that the situation would be bad but supported Trump's claim at the time that the Coronavirus was a hoax. They engaged in illegal insider trading. A Trump supporter commented that this was a smart thing for the senators to do, and said he would vote for them because of it. He also said that he had just sold some stock and asked if he should go to jail.

This Trumper finds nothing wrong with insider trading when done by Republican senators. He must think this way to defend his tribe. Since insider trading is legal in his mind, he's simplified his reasoning to the question, “Why is selling stock illegal?” and the answer, “It's not.”, demonstrating the righteousness of his tribe's narrative. This is more proof to him that the Democrats are the enemy of freedom.

Other examples are religious leaders pushing narratives that go against the core teachings of their faiths. Right-wing slants on Christianity demonize those that the Bible sought to elevate and protect. They support political positions that marginalize the poor. The prosperity gospel (see prosperity theology link below) is an example of “What's in it for me, God?” thinking.

Though the most radical retooling of American thinking and reasoning is on the right-wing side of the political spectrum, it is by no means isolated to it. Liberals also allow their tribalism to affect their reasoning. A good example is the fight over single-payer health care. The Democratic presidential candidates who were funded by health care firms and PACs opposed it. They questioned how much it would cost, mentioning the trillions of dollars required. They seldom, if ever, said outright that single-payer would cost more than the current for-profit system. That's because they can't - single-payer services cost less, but they implied that it would be more costly.

Most “centrist” Democratic voters bought in to this deceptive narrative. Although they would benefit significantly from single-payer, they must protect their tribe. When presented with evidence that single-payer is less expensive, most won't accept it. They hope that someone will come along to disprove it — and save their tribe from — what?

Even as they collect their Social Security and take advantage of Medicare, many older Democratic voters want to be saved from socialism. An older Facebook friend, waiting in line at a Walmart because of the Coronavirus threat, described it as “a Soviet food line”. That analogy would not have occurred to most younger people who may have likened it to waiting in line at the Apple store for the latest iPhone.

The same friend later lamented that Canada provides better social services. Would she vote for the politicians most committed to strengthening our social safety net to be more like Canada? Probably not.

Tribalism and cognitive dissonance are more firmly entwined as you move toward the political right.


How unpopular is Donald Trump?

How Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler became political villains in the coronavirus saga

Insurance: Top Contributors to Federal Candidates, Parties, and Outside Groups

Baby boomers and political baggage



The New Tribalism

Prosperity theology

Cognitive dissonance

Why Canada's response to COVID-19 is so different from that of the U.S.

Digital Tribalism – The Real Story About Fake News

The graphic above is from this story about Evangelical Trump supporters

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