Tribal Psychology and Racism

  • What evolutionary psychology reveals about American politics — nothing new here, except to note that these ideas have reached the mainstream press;
  • A former Republican speechwriter summarizes Trump’s vile racist remarks;
  • Short items about Trump’s confusion of Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi; a gay couple’s caving to torture from a Christian MAGA neighbor; and how conservatives don’t see diversity as a strength;
  • R.E.M.’s “Bang and Blame.”

First let’s visit the article I noted yesterday, about what “science” is revealing about American politics.

Washington Post, Joel Achenbach, 20 Jan 2024: Science is revealing why American politics are so intensely polarized, subtitled “Political psychologists say they see tribalism intensifying, fueled by contempt for the other side”

The article notes the obvious, increasing polarization of American politics. The link in this para is to Ezra Klein’s book (my review here).

Social scientists have taken note of these hardening political divisions, pumping out academic articles and books that add data to what appears to be a steady rise in tribalism.

One theme emerges in much of the research: Our politics tend be more emotional now. Policy preferences are increasingly likely to be entangled with a visceral dislike of the opposition. The newly embraced academic term for this is “affective polarization.”

Polarization based on feelings, not on divergent policy preferences.

One theme emerges in much of the research: Our politics tend be more emotional now. Policy preferences are increasingly likely to be entangled with a visceral dislike of the opposition. The newly embraced academic term for this is “affective polarization.”

“The evolution of cooperation required out-group hatred, which is really sad,” said Nicholas Christakis, a Yale sociologist and author of “Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.”

This is just as true on today’s political stage. There are two major parties, and their contests are viewed as zero-sum outcomes. Win or lose. The presidency is the ultimate example: There are no consolation prizes for the loser.

No researcher argues that human nature is the sole, or even the primary, cause of today’s polarization. But savvy political operatives can exploit, leverage and encourage it. And those operatives are learning from their triumphs in divide-and-conquer politics.

I have the Christakis book, but haven’t read it yet.

“We wouldn’t have civilizations if we didn’t create groups. We are designed to form groups, and the only way to define a group is there has to be someone who’s not in it,” Mason said.

Experiments have revealed that “children as young as two will prefer other children randomly assigned to the same T-shirt color,” Christakis writes.

What’s most striking is that in the process of defining who is in and who is out of a group, enmity and derision can arise independently of any rational reason for it.

The article then discusses the famous, or perhaps notorious, 1954 experiment in which boy scouts were divided into two groups, who then “developed irrational contempt for the other.” (Not mentioned is that Rutger Bregman, in HUMANKIND (which I’ve read but not yet summarized here), somewhat debunked that experiment.) Still, humans are a social species given to group affiliation.

Here’s where psychology gives way to political science. The American political system may cultivate “out-group” hatred, as academics put it. One of the scarce resources in this country is political power at the highest levels of government. The country has no parliamentary system in which multiple parties form governing coalitions.

Then follow examples of people who are baffled that anyone could vote for the candidate on the other side. And how Trump urges his followers to be angry. Ending with implication of the media.

The media do their part to keep things inflamed. Conflict grabs attention.

“We’re evolutionarily predisposed to pay attention to conflict, because we might be in danger. We don’t turn our head really quickly to look at a beautiful flower. We turn our heads quickly to look at something that may be dangerous,” Mason said.

That’s a part of human nature anyone can exploit.

“There are politicians who are good at this,” Mason said. “Trump is the best.”


OK fine. But I resist the implication that “both sides are just as bad as the other.” A reminder, lest we forget, or neglect.

The Atlantic, Peter Wehner, 21 Jan 2024: The Party of Malice, subtitled “Donald Trump has made the Republican Party cruel, xenophobic, exclusionary, and bigoted.”

The writer, a former speechwriter for three Republican presidents, recounts a history of Trump’s racist, xenophobic remarks. About Nikki Haley, Kamala Harris, Ted Cruz, and recalling his 2015 rant against immigrants.

The Washington Post, citing the Congressional Research Service, reported that very few undocumented immigrants “fit in the category that fits Trump’s description.” But one person who does fit in this category is Trump himself. New York District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who is presiding over the civil case brought by E. Jean Carroll against Trump for defamation, said last week, “The fact that Mr. Trump sexually abused—indeed, raped—Ms. Carroll has been conclusively established.”

The writer cites more examples. Then:

This is not the Republican Party I once knew. Ronald Reagan was a formative president for me; I cast my first vote for him and I later worked in his administration. He was generous toward all immigrants, even those who had crossed the southern border illegally.

Then follow examples of what Reagan said, in support of immigrants, and what Bush said, and Abraham Lincoln said. And concludes:

The Republican Party, at its founding and at its best, was capacious, generous in spirit, welcoming to foreigners. It was conservative, and it was compassionate.

Today’s Republican Party has laid waste to those sensibilities. Donald Trump took a party that, by the time he first ran for president, was increasingly inward looking, fearful, and uncharitable, and he made it cruel, xenophobic, exclusionary, and bigoted. It is the party of malice.

I hope my former party will one day be reformed. For now, it needs to be defeated.


Short items.

Salon, 20 Jan 2024: Trump credits Nikki Haley as being the person in charge of security on Jan 6 in New Hampshire flub, subtitled “‘If Biden did anything like this, Fox would melt down,’ one person said in response to Trump’s flip flop”

Christian values: LGBTQNation, 20 Jan 2024: Gay couple sells restaurant after enduring years of torture from MAGA neighbors. Yes, the neighbors were Christians.

CNN, 20 Jan 2024, Obama told a story about America at his first inauguration 15 years ago. These people were there, and they still believe. The homepage title was “Some see America’s diversity as a weakness, not a strength.” Of course; this is essence of conservative thinking. Never mind “E pluribus unum.” See articles above.


Getting around to R.E.M.’s MONSTER, the follow-up to the sedate, introspective AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE, I think their best album. MONSTER seems to express a need to reassert the band’s rock bona fides. A much more aggressive album, with lots of vocal effects and guitar reverb. (Something similar happened years later, it seems, with ACCELERATE, following AROUND THE SUN and two earlier albums.)

The song that’s always struck me from this album is “Bang and Blame,” the eighth track. Its minimalist lyrics are open to interpretation; is this about failed sexual relationship? I especially like the ambiguous pendant, which again, could be taken literally, though if so, what might be meant by “let go on me”…? I can only imagine.

You kiss on me
Tug on me
Rub on me
Jump on me
You bang on me
Beat on me
Hit on me
Let go on me
You let go on me

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