With midterm elections days away and political activists in a pre-ballot frenzy, it’s easy to picture the American electorate split down the middle into two angry camps hoisting banners of red and blue.
The reality, researchers say, is not so simple.
A new study of the underlying beliefs that drive our votes define not two but seven political “tribes” in the United States, bound by deep feelings about identity, fairness and personal responsibility rather than external factors like race or party.
A dive into its results — based on 8,000 online surveys taken by Americans across the demographic and geographic spectrum — sheds light on the emotions that will fuel our choices in November.
The report, “Hidden Tribes,” was released this month by More in Common, an international think tank dedicated to easing political tensions.
“The primary way we split people into the tribes was by asking about their values,” said Stephen Hawkins, the project’s research director. The analysts used the answers to understand the psychological forces at the heart of America’s political polarization.
Some questions gauged participants’ stances on moral pillars like loyalty to fellow Americans and care for the vulnerable. Plotting those values in chart form illuminates subtle differences between the groups.
For example, Devoted Conservatives and Moderates value equal justice and loyalty to their fellow Americans above all. These were the first voters to resonate with Donald Trump’s campaign promises to put “America first” and to enforce immigration laws. They’ve repaid him with unshakable fidelity in return. (The results also reveal one reason why Traditional Conservatives were late to jump on Trump’s bandwagon — caring for the downtrodden is more important to them than loyalty to their own nationality, according to the study.)
Other questions asked about personal agency: whether an unjust society causes poor life outcomes, as liberals overwhelmingly believe, or whether individuals can overcome difficult circumstances. No wonder right-wingers howled at Barack Obama’s claim that successful business owners “didn’t build that” — while his left-leaning supporters cheered the idea that government intervention makes achievement possible.
“Members of the different tribes live in the same world as the others; they share the same demographic profiles,” Hawkins said. “But they have totally different worldviews.”
To illustrate, he described two African-American women in the study. “One said, ‘I am a woman of color, and to me the story of America is a story of oppression; we need to make society more equal.’ Another said, ‘I am a Christian conservative; I’m proud to live in a country where I have so much freedom.’ Those are fundamentally distinct ideologies.”
Such tribe-influenced attitudes toward the United States also cut deep. The two most conservative groups express the greatest pride in America — so it’s no surprise that Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” is a staple of Trump rallies.
But in almost all the groups, clear majorities agree with the idea that “America is a better country than most others.” Only the Progressive Activists stand apart: 54 percent of them reject American exceptionalism. The slogan “Make America Great Again” is unlikely to ever impress them.
When the researchers asked what makes an American, members of all tribes named a belief in freedom and equality as a top factor. But while half of all respondents — and even 31 percent of Traditional Liberals — say that being born in the US matters, only 6 percent of Progressive Activists agree. Strong majorities of every tribe — except, again, the progressives — say that speaking English is essential to American identity. Those results indicate that immigration will remain a powerful factor in our politics for years to come.
Most Americans dislike political correctness and hate speech, the survey also found. While all groups express distaste for hateful rhetoric, even larger majorities worry that political correctness is stifling. “We have gotten to a point where everybody is offended by the smallest thing,” a 28-year-old Passive Liberal told the researchers.
That widespread attitude helps explain why our current president gets away with his often boorish talk — and why his rudeness so infuriates progressives, who are far more willing to follow the rules of political correctness than any other American tribe
Meanwhile, “Hidden Tribes” found that the two most extreme — and smallest — groups dominate our politics. Devoted Conservatives and Progressive Activists donate money, call legislators, post partisan content online and vote at far higher rates than the members of any other tribe.
That makes it harder for us to hear the voices of the majority. “They are the ones most drowned out,” Hawkins said. “They don’t define themselves as partisans, and they can see truths in both the conservatives’ worldview and the liberals’ worldview.
“Our concern is for what happens on Nov. 7,” he said. “As a society, we do need to find the right balance between authority and freedom. That’s a conversation that’s rich, important and nuanced.
“But it tends to get lost when the people most eager to talk about politics are the ones whose identity is most invested in their own end of the political spectrum.”
Find out what tribe you belong to by taking the quiz online at hiddentribes.us/quiz
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