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On American Tribal Politics

By Jordan David Allen*

On the morning of November 9th, 2016, I walked into work at Teach For America’s San Francisco office. TFA workplace culture, based on an effort to constantly model classroom best practice, is fastidious about punctuality. In my years with TFA, this was the first and only time I’d ever seen a TFA meeting start late, really late. Why? Because Donald Trump had just been elected President of the United States the night before. Myself, and the overwhelming majority of the liberal staff, were stunned. Many people were crying. The question on everyone’s mind was, “How could this have happened? Who could possibly have voted for this man?”

I was as surprised as most people at the election’s outcome. However, the cause of the confusion in the room, I quickly realized, was largely due to the political bubbles most Americans find themselves in. For many of my colleagues who grew up in the Bay Area, they’ve simply never had any meaningful interaction with political, social, or religious conservatives. Many presumably don’t have any friends who voted for Trump, much less any family members. But I grew up in Wisconsin. I do know people who voted for Trump, some of them are in my own family. I’m biased about them of course, and I understand this is simplistic to say, but nonetheless, I do believe it remains true that many of these voters really are good people. That is to say, people who in their day-to-day lives are honest, humble, friendly, kind, and even concerned for the wellbeing of vulnerable strangers.

But anyone who honestly evaluates the evidence can see that Trump possesses none of these qualities. So how is it then, that otherwise good people could have voted for such a manifestly bad man?

Taking a quick look at people’s attachments to sports teams provides a useful parallel. For people who have a specific team that they follow, how did they come about it? I mostly grew up in Green Bay. When the people around me were young, did they diligently research the data and performance metrics of every team in the NFL, then afterwards decide they would be supporting the Packers? Obviously not. NFL team loyalty is not a logical decision, it’s an emotional one that generally develops simply by virtue of where one is born.

And this loyalty runs deep. For most NFL fans who “have a team,” they remain supporters through thick and thin. When their team has a good season, they are ecstatic. When their team has a bad season, do they bail and start supporting a different team? No! Perhaps counterintuitively, fans of terrible teams often double down on their support, as becoming aware of external criticism simply makes them want to dig in and support their team even more.

Fortunately, irrational loyalty to sports teams generally doesn’t get anyone hurt, at least in the NFL. Your team losing a game where grown men throw balls to each other is essentially the lowest stakes scenario possible. But one of the largest problems America is clearly handicapped by right now is that many people unconsciously apply the same mindset they bring to their sports team to their political affiliation as well.

Like team loyalty, most people do not form their political beliefs based on logical reasoning. They base it on unquestioned emotional attachment they developed, largely unconsciously, in early adolescence. Every child, at some point, overhears conversations the adults who raise them have about political issues. Whether your family generally voted for Democrats or Republicans, most adolescents simply absorb their early political opinions from their family. In the same way that people are essentially born into supporting a specific NFL team, most people are essentially born into the political party that their family had already decided upon for them.

Our widespread extension of tribal thinking to political identity is of profound consequence. By “tribal,” I mean a mindset founded on “us vs. them” thinking. Packers fans are in my tribe, so I’m sympathetic to them. But Bears fans? Nope. They are not in my group, they are the other, a rival, an enemy.

Perhaps the single most cliché political pundit sentence of our time is, “We’re just so divided right now!” Sure, of course this is true. But why? I believe it’s because most of us have come to view our political parties in the same way we view our sports teams. This isn’t historically new, but it’s worse than it’s ever been in modern American history. The single most profound way in which our current tribal mindsets undermine our own collective self-interest is simple. Right now, our ability to have fact-based, successful conversations with each other has been profoundly eroded.

This has no single cause, but leadership starts at the top. By electing a vindictive, self-obsessed 7th Grade boy to the White House, Trump voters have endorsed the poisoning and abandonment of honest communication in America. Disciples of the Trump Cult ask not what is true and what is false. They ask, what makes him look good, and what makes him look bad? If it makes him look good, then it is true. But if it makes him look bad, it must be false.

The go-to tactic of the 7th Grade boy is as follows: whenever someone points a finger at him, he simply points his finger at someone else. The formula is simple. Never accept responsibility for anything harmful you’ve said or done. Just change the subject by making an accusation of someone else. Anyone in the Cult who’s had the courage to read thus far may feel as if a finger is being pointed at them right now. This doesn’t feel good, so instead of pausing to reflect, or deciding to learn something new, they will likely just point their own finger, and indignantly, dutifully cry, “But what about them?!?”

I stand by my position that most of my family members who voted for Trump in 2016 are good people, this is presumably true of many other people who voted for Trump in 2016 as well. But sometimes good people, when caught up in “us vs. them,” sports-team-loyalty, political-tribal-fever can make moral errors of enormous consequence.

And for anyone who’s lost the plot, nothing said here absolves everyone on the political left from also being capable of dishonest or unethical mindsets or behaviors. This is an equal opportunity chance we all have to run our own country into the ground. Right now, it seems that we are actually happier when the other tribe loses, than we are when our own tribe wins.

So, what are we going to do about that?

Jordan David Allen is a freelance writer of Wisconsin. In his early career, he was an inner-city public-school teacher in New Jersey. Jordan then worked in public housing as a community organizer in Spanish Harlem. Relocating to California, Jordan returned to the classroom as a middle school teacher. He has also worked as a coach to a large number of new teachers.

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