Tribalism and politics. A story as old as time itself. Since we first stood upright, we have split into tribes. What drives this and why in our modern interconnected world is our politics so tribal?
Our researcher Mike Hough looks at where tribalism originates from and whether this is a good thing.
WHAT IS A TRIBE AND HOW DO TRIBES BEHAVE?
At their most basic tribes are groups of people brought together by common goals or ideals. You name it; we will split into tribes about it! Politics is just one example.
Tribes exhibit group mentality and rally against criticism of their tribe and its beliefs. They can be defensive and tend to fight back against attacks from those outside their tribe or those who express a different opinion.
Sounds nothing like our politics, or any other aspect of our daily life, right?
American biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner E.O.Wilson put it like this “The answer is that everyone, no exception, must have a tribe, an alliance with which to jockey for power and territory, to demonize the enemy, to organize rallies and raise flags.”
It takes only five minutes over our office team break to show this behaviour in action. It might be the part of country you come from (Northerners are more friendly than Southerners allegedly); the supermarket you shop in (it has to be Sainsbury’s); the cordial you drink (I hear the only option is Ribena); the food you eat (does anyone really like marmite?) or even something more mundane (or vital?) like the football team you support.
We all belong to a number of tribes.
And so to our political tribes. Labour or Tory; Brexit or Remain; diehard deliverer or floating voter; Republican or Democrat. But, you don’t need to dig down that much further to find tribes within these tribes.
Corbynistas and Blairites in the Labour Party. Brexiteers and Remainers in the Tory party. Orange Bookers and Social Liberals in the Lib Dems. This is merely scratching the surface. (Trust me, this could go on forever!).
Tribalism is everywhere. Sometimes it is more overt than at other times. But, even when not being played out in public, it is always there, bubbling away below the surface.
THE PARTY MUST COME FIRST
“To run an effective political party you need a degree of tribalism, it’s the glue that holds everyone together.” (The Late Rt Hon Charles Kennedy, Former Leader of the Liberal Democrats)
From a party political perspective, tribalism can be effective. Group behaviour and group think is useful for party management. It ensures MPs are motivated to vote in the right way and make the right interventions.
MPs have long worked on the basis that above all the party comes first. Ultimately that is where their loyalty lies. There may be different notions of the party, but the party is where the loyalty is. It runs deep. It is why despite any misgivings MPs cannot walk away.
The party comes first!
Yet, there are problems. It discourages people working together. It discourages cross-party thinking. It encourages politicians to reject arguments not based on their thinking but on who has proposed the argument. Often it can get quite nasty.
Surely that cannot be healthy? A grown up pluralistic democracy takes ideas from across the political sphere and at its best takes from different political philosophies. Tribalism makes that harder. It makes politics far less attractive to those not part of the tribes. It puts off the 97% who don’t belong to any party at all.
So what do we do going forward?
Tribalism is not all bad. It is good to have a sense of loyalty. It can stand in the way of progress if it is not your progress. It can reject perfectly sensible arguments and can defend undefendable policies. That isn’t good.
Tribal behaviour is part of human nature, but that doesn’t mean we can’t curb its worst excesses. By recognising these excesses, we can check them and prevent them from dominating. That would look like progress.
And maybe, just maybe we could all get along a little better.