Social Politics

One of the reasons I spent so much time yesterday focusing on Scott Alexander’s post, “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup,” is because I see social behavior as having a greater and greater role in our political behavior. In fact, I suspect that Alexander is at least ten years younger than I am, and probably more like a dozen or fifteen years younger, because these “tribal” cultures and their associations with specific political parties have become closer than they were when I was young. Even the tribes themselves, or at least the stereotypes of their members, have become more solidified. Furthermore, I don’t think they would have been as strongly associated with someone’s identity in the past. The stereotypes are so strong that sometimes it feels, when watching the media, that people who don’t conform to one or the other of them barely exist. Yet I know in my own personal life, the reality is quite the opposite. Very few people actually fit them well.

It would be an interesting thing to trace the emergence in the popular imagination of the Red and Blue Tribes. I imagine it would probably result in a book not unlike David Sirota’s Back To Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now. A Wall Street Journal review of the book concludes:

Most egregiously, Mr. Sirota ignores MTV: There’s really no point in writing about ’80s pop culture without addressing its single biggest engine of influence. All you really need to know to understand the 1980s happened during two glorious cable-televised hours in July 1984. “Purple Rain” premiered. Prince welcomed Lionel Richie, John “Cougar” Mellencamp and Weird Al. Eddie Murphy wore a leopard-skin blazer. It was awesome. And David Sirota missed it.

It shows the great difficulty in trying to understand the origins of how we see ourselves. Which popular culture examples are salient? It remains, however, that our own personal contacts are too few, limited and diverse to be useful in generalizing about larger cultural trends. The sense that there are categories like yuppies, metrosexuals, rednecks and so on comes in large part from popular culture. As I never tire of trying to explain to people outside the U.S. who think we have preachers on every corner, if I had to rely on my first hand experience, I’d think evangelicals were a strange curiosity, and I’d only know of them because one of my mother’s friends sons converted. He’d just be a weirdo with some highly unconventional religious beliefs. It’s only due to the fact that we can get news from other parts of the country that we know that there are others like him and his beliefs are not unusual at all.

Off the top of my head, I see two things as the driving forces behind the tribalization of politics. The first is the role of modern marketing techniques in political races. The public first became aware of the work of advertisers in modern political campaigns when Joe McGinniss’ book The Selling of the President appeared. Advertisers sell their products based on associations and emotional appeal. Creating a stereotype of the audience is part of the process. This stereotype must have enough connection to reality to be useful.

If the rise of mass communications, especially television, created the methods for selling candidates that were brought to light by McGinniss, the rise of social media needs to be taken into account regarding the current situation. The ability to tweet one’s support of a candidate or a position, or post a comment on Facebook, brings social pressure to bear on one’s political views in a way it did not in the past. I suspect that this will lead to a greater homogeneity of political views within social circles.

Within the past few weeks, I’ve found myself growing distrustful of statements like, “I’m a conservative,” or “I’m a liberal.” What are we really trying to say? Are we summarizing our political views, or indicating tribal allegiances. I like to think that I’m a liberal because “liberal” is a useful term which can give a person a general notion of my political views without having to give a long-winded explanation of what my positions are on a variety of contemporary issues and the ideology that caused me to arrive at those positions. The positions come first and the label “liberal” is a conclusion. It would be mistake to first decide that I am a “liberal” and then afterwards form my beliefs to conform to that self-image. However, with this Red Tribe / Blue Tribe identity and the rise of social media, I’m afraid many people are doing just that.

The first thing we need to do is to divorce our social identities from our politics. To give one example, there is no reason that someone who enjoys listening to country music needs to hold specific political positions. The link between the musical elements that characterize the form and particular positions, let’s say laissez-faire economics, are entirely circumstantial and not inherent in the music.

As someone who would like to see the political positions about which I am most confident be reflected in our politics and our government’s policies, I need to convince a large number of my fellow citizens that these are good positions. Dividing them from me by fixating on superficial differences of tastes will not achieve that. If I want to, let’s say, keep religious influence out of schools, I need to reach out to people who are not like me, who drive sedans, who listen to treacly pop, who eat hamburgers and drink Bud. Or drive muscle cars, listen to heavy metal and eat… well I don’t know what food is associated with metal heads, but I think you get my point. I advocate keeping religion out of schools, not simply because it is my personal preference, but because it is a good policy for the country as a whole.

I intentionally try to keep some of these personal issues out of comments I make about politics. I am just as fond of the next person of my own little tastes. I will be very happy to argue, heatedly, about what movies are best, what books to read, what music to like, what clothes look great, why living in New York is better than the suburbs, but I want to divorce that from my politics. The government needs to serve the entire country, not just people who are like me.

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