Political Tribalism and the Shutdown
How naïve realism, group-centrism, and groupthink led to the lengthy impasse
Posted Jan 14, 2019
In the summer, I wrote “Tribalism in Politics” and made some suggestions for overcoming it. My article was motivated by a valedictorian’s speech at a graduation ceremony in Kentucky. Cheers turned to groans when the valedictorian attributed an inspirational quote to Trump but then revealed it was actually Obama who said it.
Why did the quote in all its wisdom lose its cheers just because it came from a different leader? The answer is political partisanship or tribalism.
As of today, Washington politicians have definitely not overcome tribalism. In fact, it may be getting worse. As potential evidence, the government shutdown has become the longest in United States history. In a reverse of the cheers-turned-to-groans from the summer graduation, Republicans who were averse to a border wall are now proverbially cheering for it because of Trump’s ultimatum to fund it (Singer, 2017; Washington Post, 2019). Similarly, some Democrats were previously okay with a barrier though it was a fence (Graves, 2017).
Of course, there are multiple factors behind the shutdown, but tribalism is a major reason it has lasted this long. As the negative consequences of the shutdown grow, I hope further discussion of tribalism might be helpful in understanding if not addressing the shutdown crisis.
Tribalism is loyalty to our group that can go beyond common sense, facts, and even our own personal values (not that we are all susceptible to it). Tribalism is largely about protecting our ego and feeling a sense of belonging, but in Washington it’s also about protecting our job. If we belong to or self-identify with a group to a strong enough degree, especially if we’ve publicly supported that group, then we feel a need to blindly follow that group’s leader and attack any critic.
It’s easy to see the other side as behaving in this irrational way and more difficult to see it in ourselves. Thinking that our way of seeing things is the correct or rational way, while the other side is biased, is part of what’s called naïve realism. In moderation, naïve realism is mentally healthy and good for our egos, but the rhetoric regarding the shutdown has gone beyond moderate. And the negative consequences of the shutdown are becoming extreme, including unmet needs for food and medicine among federal employees (Anapol, 2019). A challenge for both sides is to be open to the possibility that some of our own thinking may be irrational or naïve in this way. Openness to our own biases can be a first step to reduce biases (Stalder, 2014).
Tribalism is also part of what social psychologist Arie Kruglanski termed group-centrism. Group-centrism is not just about group loyalty but also about finding comfort and closure in accepting the reality put forth by our group or group leader. Research shows that political conservatives are generally more prone to group-centrism and need for closure than liberals (Kruglanski et al., 2006), although both sides are clearly capable of tribalism.
One thing that’s been changing politically is that more and more Republicans have been privately disagreeing with Trump or conveying concerns about Trump’s behavior (Daugherty, 2018). So they’re probably not finding comfort in accepting Trump’s reality. But they’re still publicly going along (with some exceptions). It may be that a follow-the-leader approach still provides relative comfort through its clarity about how to behave. Trump himself may be trapped in a follow-the-leader compulsion after leaders in conservative talk radio and cable news seemed to pressure him into his current course of action (Johnson & Everett, 2018).
Part of group-centrism is also a shifting down to more simplistic thinking including either-or thinking, as in you’re either with us or against us. You’re either for the wall or for open borders. The zero-sum game that the shutdown crisis has become is a further example of this cognitive shutdown. I get that politics can unfold this way, which can help win elections, but as articulated in the is-ought fallacy, just because something is a certain way doesn’t mean it ought to be.
I concluded my previous tribalism article with a symbolic suggestion to click “like” on a likeable post from your Facebook friend who is also your political enemy. Looking for these opportunities might offset the political demonizing that fuels tribalism and triggers unfriending on Facebook.
But I think the shutdown has taken us far past this Facebook analogue. See my previous post for other suggestions to curb your own potential tribal thinking. But my real hope is that a greater number of high-profile Republicans are moved enough by the shutdown’s consequences to, at a minimum, publicly speak against Trump’s ultimatum.
A large part of tribalism and group-centrism is public perceptions of what the group wants. Let’s continue to puncture the illusion of unanimity in the Republican party on this issue. This illusion is a feature of groupthink. Yes, the Democrats bear responsibility to do something here too (as when both parties passed that temporary spending bill in the Senate before Trump’s reversal), but the splintering among the Republicans on the shutdown has already begun if only to small degree. Let’s just push it a little further, for the sake of federal employees and their families. Let’s consider that we are all one tribe.
Avery Anapol, “Federal Employees Showing up to Food Banks in the Hundreds as Shutdown Enters Fourth Week: Report,” The Hill, January 13, 2019, https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/425108-federal-employees-showing-up-to-food-banks-in-the-hundreds-as.
Owen Daugherty, “McCaskill: GOP Senators Privately Say Trump Is ‘Nuts,’” The Hill, December 24, 2018, https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/422765-mccaskill-gop-senators-privately-say-trump-is-nuts.
Allison Graves, “Fact-Check: Did Top Democrats Vote for a Border Wall in 2006?” Politifact, April 23, 2017, https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2017/apr/23/mick-mulvaney/fact-check-did-top-democrats-vote-border-wall-2006/.
Eliana Johnson and Burgess Everett, “Pressure from Base Pushed a Flustered Trump into Shutdown Reversal,” Politico, December 20, 2018, https://www.politico.com/story/2018/12/20/trump-budget-reversal-1071388.
Arie W. Kruglanski et al., “Groups as Epistemic Providers: Need for Closure and the Unfolding of Group-Centrism,” Psychological Review 113 (2006): 84–100.
“Republicans Were Against a Border Wall Before They Were for a Border Wall,” YouTube video, 4:19, posted by “Washington Post,” January 9, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8IHjGZIkAxY.
Paul Singer, “Exclusive: Less than 25% of Republicans in Congress Endorse Border Wall Funding in USA TODAY Survey,” USA Today, September 20, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/09/20/trump-border-wall-survey-congress-republicans-billions/640196001/.
Daniel R. Stalder, “How to Reduce Biases: Learn About Them,” PARBs Anonymous (blog), April 6, 2014, https://parbsanonymous.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/how-to-reduce-biases-learn-about-them/.