It's Tribalism Not Trump

AWalter Head
February 8, 2018

There has been a lot of hand-wringing in DC these days about the way in which President Trump has undermined the legitimacy of our nation’s top law enforcement agencies. Trump’s steady stream of Twitter tirades against the FBI and the integrity of the entire Russia investigation has eroded the traditionally solid support of law enforcement among GOPers. Support for the agency among Republicans dropped 13 points, from 62 percent in 2014 to just 49 percent in late 2017. A SurveyMonkey poll taken in the wake of the Nunes memo controversy found GOP support of the FBI at a paltry 38 percent.

But, we also know that weakening trust in institutions has been going on a lot longer than Trump has been in office. In fact, what’s made Trump’s FBI-bashing effective isn’t that he’s more convincing than previous politicians in reshaping our opinions of institutions, it’s that voters are more willing to distrust their institutions and to side with their political “tribe.”

Gallup has been tracking Americans’ confidence in our most iconic national institutions for more than 40 years. In 2017, there were only three institutions in which more than 50 percent of Americans said they had a “great deal or some faith”; the police, the military and small business. Back in the 1970’s, seven institutions garnered the faith of a majority of Americans. Moreover, ten institutions — Congress, labor unions, banks, big business, newspapers, TV news, the criminal justice system, the medical system, the presidency, and public schools — garner less than 40 percent “faith” from Americans.

There are multiple causes for this loss of trust in institutions. One is their ineptness and failure. The financial crisis, the child sex abuse scandals at the Catholic Church, and doping scandals in professional sports have understandably led to rising distrust and cynicism of these pillars of our society. Another factor: the bashing of institutions by elected officials for political gain. Think of all the ads you’ve ever seen that feature a political candidate trashing; 1) Washington as incompetent and corrupt; 2) the system as flawed and rigged; 3) a specific institution (schools, the insurance industry, the medical system) that has failed the voters. I’ve joked that if political candidates were an actual product, they would have marketed themselves out of business. Imagine Coca-Cola running ads with the tagline: “Soda is terrible for you — drink more Coke and less Pepsi.” It’s a pretty stupid business model that would ultimately drive both soda giants into bankruptcy. That same sort of messaging doesn’t push politicians out of business (thanks to the whole Constitution thing), but it does drive down opinions of and faith in the institution itself.

Author and journalist Bill Bishop observes another important cause for this lack of trust in our institutions. In an op-ed written last March in the Washington Post, Bishop, author of “The Big Sort,” a seminal book on the causes of political polarization, argues that “[e]verything about modern life works against community and trust.”

“Widespread education gives people the tools to make up their own minds. And technology offers everyone the chance to be one’s own reporter, broadcaster and commentator. We have become, in Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s description, ‘artists of our own lives,’ ignoring authorities and booting traditions while turning power over to the self….People enjoy their freedoms. There’s no clamoring for a return to gray flannel suits and deferential housewives. Constant social retooling and choice come with costs, however. Without the authority and guidance of institutions to help order their lives, many people feel overwhelmed and adrift.”

We have lost faith and use for institutions but we also crave the order they provide. And, it’s tribalism that has filled the void.

In an essay titled “The Age of Outrage,” Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at NYU’s Stern School of business, writes:

“we are exquisitely designed and adapted by evolution for life in small societies with intense, animistic religion and violent intergroup conflict over territory. We love tribal living so much that we invented sports, fraternities, street gangs, fan clubs and tattoos. Tribalism is in our hearts and minds.”

Tribalism also trumps (no pun intended) ideology and consistency. There’s a chicken and an egg question as to whether Trump has changed the GOP or whether Trump was the more accurate reflection of the party. After all, his success was built on the foundation set by the Tea Party triumphs of the Obama-era and the long-running demographic re-alignment of the party from that of mostly white collar, suburban voters to one dominated by blue collar and rural voters. Trump didn’t “change” the party as much as the leaders in DC simply didn’t understand it had already changed.

The tribal theory argues that the party will mold to fit its leader, even if his/her policies are out of step with their traditional orthodoxy. In other words, once your team has a new coach, you follow their game plan, not the one that was drafted by the previous team leader.

Ask most Republican members of Congress — especially those in red states and districts — what they hear most when they go home, and they’ll tell you it’s “You need to support Trump more. You need to follow his lead.” When 90 percent of Republicans say they approve of the job Trump is doing, it’s hard to argue that Republicans should be doing more to “protect the GOP brand.”

Democrats own tribalism will be tested this year as well. One worry among some Democrats is that crowded primaries — especially in swing House districts — will lead to bloody ideological warfare as more centrist candidates battle the Bernie-wing of the party. Yet, the progressive Democrats I talk to say they are laser-focused on one thing: beating Trump. That is more important than any sort of ideological litmus test. As with Republicans, tribe trumps all.

The 2018 election, like that of 2016, will be driven by allegiance to tribe. If you hate Trump, vote Democratic. If you hate Nancy Pelosi, vote Republican. Meanwhile, voters continue to tell us that they hate the tribalism and want to see Washington function better. But, unless or until voters throw them out of office, Members have no incentive to behave any differently. And so the vicious tribal cycle continues.