Boy building a model airplane as girl watches. Robstown, Texas, January 1942. (Photo by Arthur Rothstein. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)
Political Ignorance and Tribalism in America
The vast majority of us adopt the political views of our parents and, increasingly, those prevalent in the communities where we grow up. We absorb a worldview without acknowledging that we are so engaged or that we have done so, and in time we don’t consider ourselves as having a worldview at all.
Instead, for those of us who don’t have the benefit a robust liberal education, we learn to assume that the way we view the world represents the way the world is, period.
Such was my experience growing up in working-class neighborhoods in Oklahoma and Texas in the 1940s and ‘50s. We were politically conservative to the core, as were most of our neighbors and indeed most of the people in our region of the country.
In hindsight, I see we were also ignorant about so many things that really matter in life that it’s painful to recall such a time. It’s even more painful to witness the same ideology alive and well in so many places today.
Most of us, regardless of income or education, prefer to characterize ourselves as middle class. But even though my father was a business owner and our family income was higher than most in our part of the country, we were lower middle class by most standards.
My mother graduated from high school; my father didn’t, and he was viscerally anti-intellectual until his death. He valued hard work, and for most of his life he couldn’t take any time off of work without feeling guilty. For many years my own attitude toward work mirrored his.
Over time, though, my political philosophy has changed so much that it’s hard for me to recall and recapture what would now be considered a red-state political posture. But that was all I knew growing up until I joined the Marines in 1960.
My own enthusiastic efforts in the process of self-education have caused me to reject the outlook I grew up with, and I’ve spent nearly three decades writing about my shift in perspective, with the hope of convincing others that there are indeed better ideas for living a more fulfilling life and for creating a better world than what many of us internalize automatically from local and regional culture as we grow to adulthood.
The frustration I experience, however, from an inability to convince adamant conservatives that their worldview is often too narrow feels at times like the bane of my existence.
One of the most exasperating aspects of my frustration is that, in the past two decades in psychology and neuroscience, a great deal has been learned about the human predilection for political stubbornness, and yet these discoveries play virtually no part in political discourse.
We’ve seen, for example, how reliably we tune out our opposition in political discussion with a flood of emotion in the region of the brain that facilitates reason, ensuring that we will not only disregard what we are hearing, we won’t even give it a chance for consideration. This discovery should offer us enough insight to take the reaction into account when we experience it and to safeguard against it. That is, if we really care about getting to the truth of the matter at hand.
Regardless of our politics this information should cause us to take precautions against tuning out that which should be heard. But so far, people act as if nothing has changed in our understanding of human behavior, except our preference for obstinacy and for choosing sides.
There are four profound lessons I’ve learned through self-education:
- More often than not, things are not as they appear. Looking beneath the surface with regard to any issue or subject matter yields surprise, and yet millions of people continue to make snap judgments based on scant information.
- No culture has a lock on reality or moral virtue, and the fact that most cultures assume they do should send us reeling into introspection and caution us about ethnocentric posturing.
- Human beings are hardwired to behave tribally. As Americans, we generally assume a superior attitude over cultures we view as tribal, and yet we remain oblivious to our own tribal behavior that we practice daily.
- Our predisposition for bigotry toward differences is deeply ingrained, and even the most tolerant among us have limits to their capacity for acceptance.
It is also my view that, unless we remain constantly aware of these four lessons, there is little hope of sustaining civilization or of achieving a just state of social equality.
The latter is an idealistic aspiration, and it goes against the grain of our behavior, especially if we are unreflective. Stone Age people can’t do democracy. Genuine democracy demands a commitment to education and an unwavering conviction that discovering the truth of any matter is more important than whose side wins the argument.
In addition to the four lessons above, I’ve discerned three behavioral impediments to a good life, which I discuss at length in September University. They are:
An existential fear of death
A predilection for cultural conflict
A lack of curiosity
It is my experience that these three behavioral traits serve as impediments to keeping us from learning and appreciating the four lessons mentioned above.
In numerous essays, I have expressed bewilderment that red-state politics means that people continuously and with some reliability vote against their own economic interests. For example, middle-class wage earners who vote Republican don’t seem to comprehend that in most cases conservative policies are no friend to working people. The shift in the tax burden from corporations to individual wage earners proves this beyond doubt.
When I entered the work force, one breadwinner in a vast range of entry-level occupations could afford to purchase a home and raise a family. Now, because the tax burden has shifted from corporations and high-earning individuals to the increasingly strapped middle class, it takes two wage earners in most cases just to keep from going under economically. But this reality is not only ignored by conservatives, it is vehemently denied. In my view, this is a prime example of tribal behavior, and it is based not upon reasoning out which economic policy is best from one’s own self-interest, but upon which group (or tribe) one wishes to identify with.
Having studied and thought about this situation for many years, I’ve come to the conclusion that politics has much more to do with identity than well-reasoned argument, and much more to do with the notion of honor than is currently acknowledged. I believe the notion of honor intertwined with the American work ethic, which in earlier times was referred to as the “Protestant work ethic,” is egregiously misunderstood by both liberals and conservatives.
There are many fields of employment in America where individuals have an attitude toward work that is admirable beyond reproach. These people live and breathe Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion of self-reliance. This noble self-reliant attitude is alive and well in America’s oilfields, on construction job sites, and in a whole host of occupations that sustain this country, from farms and factories to military service.
I will argue that the aspiration for achieving, acknowledging, and respecting this work ethic is internalized by millions of our citizens as a code of honor deeply associated with what it means to be an American. This applies to men and women and both liberals and conservatives, but to the latter with more passion. It is my view that this ethos lies very close to the neural nerve center of red- state America, and it is so much a part of the conservative notion of identity that it would be very hard to underestimate its importance.
An admirable characteristic of conservatism is that work is viscerally bound to estimations of worth. That’s why appeals to values tend to trump appeals to reason. One either has honor or doesn’t, and it’s not surprising that people who are thought to represent "the other" are not thought to possess honor.
In other words, they are thought to be too lazy to work or too entitled to need to. A major portion of the values issue is about self-respect, who gets it, who deserves it, and, perhaps more importantly in terms of our tribal predilections, who doesn’t deserve it. I grew up with this attitude toward work and have worked for decades in Alaska’s oil fields with men and women so proud of their quest for independence that many of them will refuse unemployment compensation, even when they are out of work through no fault of their own.
Unfortunately, the heart-felt allegiance they very often demonstrate to their employer is increasingly not being reciprocated, to put it mildly.
In The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes about how working people need to live in a culture where their achievements and aspirations are respected, one that offers them a legitimate self-image that allows them public acknowledgment of the self-respect they feel they are due. Appiah doesn’t describe this as a desperate notion, but I do.
In my experience in a working-class culture, occupational identity has everything to do with one’s sense of honor. Emotional appeals that have anything at all to do with one’s sense of self-respect seem more important than reasoning about economic policy because, without self-respect, it seems as if one has nothing of worth. The group one belongs to matters more than most other considerations.
Conservative political operatives figured this out decades ago. Ironically, the strategy of making emotional appeals to one’s sense of identity works even better when times are hard because many people who are hard working but poorly educated will instinctively look for someone else to blame for their woes. Their ethic for self-reliance is so strong that the fault for their misfortune must by nature of providence lie elsewhere. One’s self-respect may be the last solid attribute to cling to, and members of the group will provide reinforcement as they lash out at the other.
Now, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that in America today we are experiencing raging inequality. The distance between rich and poor is growing exponentially. Practically every week brings newspaper and magazine stories that feature some aspect of the growing distance between rich and poor. At some point, as the middle class continues to shrink, one would think that the politics of more and more working class Americans (and I include myself in this category) would shift toward a call for greater equality. After all, during the Great Depression, FDR couldn’t be defeated politically because it was clear his policies helped people who needed help to help themselves, and it was clear that these people were not too lazy to work; there were simply no jobs—reminiscent of many parts of America today.
Ahead for President Obama there would appear to be some similarities with FDR’s economic crisis, especially if the mortgage foreclosure crisis does not let up soon, because something else we know about human behavior is that significant emotional events can have a lasting impression on one’s politics. They can be powerful enough to trump identity politics, especially when millions of able-bodied and well-educated individuals are without work that pays enough to sustain the middle-class life they are accustomed to living. You may have heard the joke that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged and a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested. Millions of people losing their jobs and their homes are likewise more than enough to break through the small-mindedness of us versus them.
This is not rocket science. Without a strong and sustainable middle class, America will be incapable of sustaining a stable economy and enough goodwill to keep the peace. The 2010 election results suggest an upsurge in red-state political enthusiasm that is undoubtedly true, but only to a point. And from their actions so far, it would appear that the Republican Party misses the point. In spite of our strong tribal need for identity, there is a limit to how far the Republican Party can go being seen as solely focused on the needs of the already rich. Significant emotional events can be paradigm shifters, and I would argue that if we are not experiencing an economic-roller coaster ride that is off the charts emotionally for millions of people, we have to be very close to it.
Republicans are celebrating the 2010 Census because it reflects a gain in congressional seats in traditionally conservative states, but it would be wise of them to realize that a significant number of these people are moving because they can’t find work. Many of them have lost their homes to foreclosure, and if the Republican Party doesn’t get a clue pretty soon, these states may turn a brighter shade of purple with a tint of blue.