Political tribes might be fixed - but our lack of cooperation needn't be

Political tribes might be fixed - but our lack of cooperation needn't be

Catherine Neilan

19:42 23rd February 2021

Anyone who has ever supported a football team will know that it doesn't matter whether your side is winning or losing, you will always keep the faith.

My dad is a long-suffering Brighton & Hove Albion fan, although a formative experience was enough to put me off from any real passion. I was eight when I went to my first football game - the 1991 play-offs at Wembley: fluffy mascot at the ready, our anticipation was running high and we were swept along by the fans chanting "we are going up". Notts County trounced us 3-1.

As my family trundled out forlornly, the crowd's chant had flipped to "we are going up - next year".

Of course, far from making it into the first division, we were relegated into third. But while it might have been enough to put me off (I was always too bookish, to be honest) the highs and lows of football fandom might feel intense and even painful at times, they are pretty much unshakeable.

We don't expect football fans to switch allegiances whenever the wind turns, so why would we expect that of political tribes? Of course, winning over a floating voter is the core of what the political machine is set up to do - but to what extent is that changing someone's minds, and to what extent is it leaning into pre-existing beliefs.

There are two concepts that might appear to be competing here. One is that over time, people's minds can be changed - the classic Overton Window, which marks the shift in public opinion on topics like immigration, healthcare, prison reform and so on.

Usually the more a topic is talked about, the more it becomes normalised within public discourse until policies that might have once seemed unthinkable can become core tenets. This is arguably what happened with the "hostile environment" towards immigrants that both Labour and the Conservatives talked up for some years - although there is perhaps a closing of the window on that topic now.

The Overton Window demonstrates that people can be persuaded to change their minds, just as the periodic change of governments shows that the electorate as a whole will plump for a different party when the time calls for it.

However within party allegiances there are tribes that are perhaps more entrenched and less malleable.

In recent years, there have been a number of studies suggesting that authoritarian or traditionalist traits may be genetic.

A 2013 paper published by the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that authoritarianism, religiousness and conservatism - or the "traditional moral values triad" - are "substantially influenced by genetic factors."

According to the authors - Steven Ludeke of Colgate, Thomas J. Bouchard of the University of Minnesota, and Wendy Johnson of the University of Edinburgh - all three traits are reflections of "a single, underlying tendency," previously described in one word by Bouchard in a 2006 paper as "traditionalism."

In a recent interview with Yascha Mounk, John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, set out why psychology underpins what he calls the "securitarian" personality.

But if authoritarian/securitarian personalities are largely pre-determined, why should we assume that cuddly liberals are any different? Are our political tribes set, not by rational consideration of the facts, or even because we were won over by a particularly charismatic leader, but because we inherited some genetic tendency from our forefathers?

Of course there will be environmental factors that affect which tribe the political sorting has puts us in - education is clearly a large factor, although not always that easy to unpick from genetics itself, but social and religious values also play a role, as does age (or perhaps more explicitly, proximity to death).

Roger Sapolsky's recent book Behave highlights just how limited our supposed free will is when it comes to our actions - and without getting too philosophical, belief is just another action, albeit one that may never yield a physical manifestation.

But there is one aspect to his argument that does give reason to hope that authoritarians do not always have to cross the Rubicon as Trump supporters did on January 6.

He stresses the difference between predetermined and predisposed to act in a certain way, such as becoming a serial killer. A person might have a tendency to behave dangerously or violently - but they still have trigger points that can be avoided, if not perhaps overridden.

"Genes aren't about inevitabilities, they're about potentials and vulnerabilities," he writes. "They don't determine anything on their own."

Sapolsky highlights the infamous Christmas truce in the First World War, when German and British soldiers stopped shooting at each other long enough to play a game of football in which almost everyone - except a corporal named Hitler - took part. This was made possible by the fact the fighting was taking place on land that was neither German nor British, that many soldiers had family and friends in the opposing countries, and that the truce was supported by senior figures such as the pope. Truces continued sporadically, he notes. "So hooray, just like social bacteria, we can evolve cooperation."

Being a member of a given tribe doesn't make it inevitable that someone will refuse to engage with those of differing views, to listen and understand counterpoints and acknowledge, if not appreciate, our pluralist world.

Aged eight I chose not to join a particular football tribe, but I have many other factions that I am a member of - no doubt, at least some of which I am completely unaware. The problem is not so much whether we are a member of a particular tribe, team or battalion, but how we can evolve cooperation between them.

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Tags: Brexit Donald Trump Authoritarianism Polarisation Tribalism