2019 Federal Election – Week 4: Political Tribalism

Earlier this year I painted all but one room of my apartment over five or so days. It seemed to go by in an instant because I listened to some podcasts and some audiobooks.

One of those podcasts made a sociological argument that human beings are conditioned to be unable to cooperate in groups larger than 50 or so people. The reason being that in hunter-gatherer times, that was more or less the maximum amount of people that could work together and be fed by the fruits of the collective at a given time. The argument went on further to say that we’ve never grown out of this ‘tribal’ mindset and that our modern-day squabbles on twitter and elsewhere reflect this hardwiring.

Whether this is true or not, I think all of us watching this election certainly feel like it could be. The polls are so frozen that journalists are frantically tweeting slight changes in numbers as if they aren’t still within the margin of error (and therefore no real indication of anything).

Meanwhile, partisans from all parties continue dunking on each other and each other’s leaders as if any of the insults they trade are giving Canadians reason to vote for them. We’ve long been warned about what would happen when the social media generation ran for office. The result is a campaign driven entirely by dueling war-rooms whose only goal is to suppress the other side’s votes. Prospective first-time voters have little reason to show up and mark an X.

So, how did we get here?

When the Loudest Voice Wins

The first audiobook I played during the week I spent painting was Political Tribes by Amy Chua. The most striking part of the book focused on why the Americans lost the Vietnam war so badly despite having some of the ‘smartest brains in America’ making decisions about the war effort.

Chua maintained that despite their individual and collective brilliance, none of them understood the tribal loyalties in place on the ground. They presumed the people they were supposedly liberating would cheer their arrival. They were simply wrong.

But how do groups become so uniform in the first place? The simple answer is that once in-group values are set, they are very hard to break. And that’s because the loudest voices keep anyone wavering in line. In my time in politics I’ve seen this first hand but it is not exclusive to political parties.

Within the political discussion about our energy future, the oil and gas sector has been very good at sticking to the theme that expansion is the only answer and any attempt to diversify or plan for the day when the market dries up is strictly prohibited. None of those arguments are about the workers, they are about the CEOs and shareholders.

The workers themselves aren’t so much attached to their sector as they are to getting a cheque that allows them to put food on the table. But in order to keep putting that food on the table for the time being, they fall into line by not biting the hand that is currently feeding them. It’s a reasonable response to a tough situation. And they aren’t alone in being boxed in by their tribe.

Last week I attended the Catholic Vote Debate in Toronto that was broadcast across Canada. Here again is a group that is kept in line by its loudest voices. I grew up in a social-justice parish and know countless Catholics who recognize if Jesus was a voter in this election his top issue would not be abortion.

And yet in the crowd of 1200, a few loud voices pretended the Conservatives would reopen the abortion debate simply because Garnett Genuis, MP for Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan, said Andrew Scheer would allow MPs to bring Private Member’s Bills to the floor of Parliament.

What he wouldn’t tell them was that, for the vote to move forward, the government of the day (regardless of party) would have to send it to committee. Scheer has committed to not doing so. Whether the commitment is real or not, Genuis knew how to pander to the group – by going through the loudest voices in the room.

His strategy was amplified by the poor moderating job done by Don Newman who proclaimed, as the neutral moderator, that the voting decisions of those in the room would be exclusively decided by the topic of abortion.

The same loud voices that both men amplified booed a candidate for making an Indigenous land acknowledgement, hissed at the far-right being called out, laughed at any mention of climate change, and (like toddlers) used flashing lights and loud coughing to disrupt Liberal, NDP, and Green candidates while they spoke.

These voices didn’t speak for all in the room but they did egg each other on to ignore the values they supposedly hold, namely the Golden Rule. When groups close ranks like this, there is no room for free-thought or debate. The only action left is to follow the mob. And that’s what we’re seeing across our political system as a whole.

Going Against the Grain

The last audiobook I listened to while painting was The Last Campaign by Thurston Clarke about Bobby Kennedy’s 82 day campaign for the presidency before his assassination. Read side by side with Chua’s book, it provided interesting insight into what happens when the most famous member of a political tribe sets out firmly against the tribe’s popular expression of its own identity.

Throughout his campaign, Kennedy challenged sacred cows and disappointed Democrats who assumed he’d share their biases. When he visited college campuses he would tell the (largely white) students they should not be receiving education-based deferments from the Vietnam War just because they could afford college unlike their poorer (largely of colour) fellow citizens. He toured Republican strongholds like South Dakota when other Democrats wouldn’t bother and visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation instead of hobnobbing with local democrats ahead of a primary.

We seldom see this in modern politics. Mostly we see more of the same tribalism that demands supporters defend their leaders even when they know they are wrong. Sometimes people take this so far that they won’t call out racism, sexism, or homophobia and other transgressions in their own ranks. When a rabid response is the norm, few are willing to stick their necks out for fear of damaging the brand and, more importantly, of being cast out of the group. But our system is stronger when more people do.

You only have to look at the Republican Party in America right now to see what putting party before people looks like in practice. It isn’t pretty and we aren’t as far off as we’d like to hope.

In his Capetown address (much better known for a different line), Bobby Kennedy provided some important advice for all of us during these tribal times:

Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change the world which yields most painfully to change.  – Bobby Kennedy, 1966

What to Do Now

The times we live in seem incredibly bleak and are reflected by a common saying in politics that voting is about choosing the best of bad options. Absent a debate on some truly big ideas, it certainly feels that way.

But voting in this campaign, as always, is an act of hope with an outcome that has yet to be written. In contrast, we already know the outcome of not voting: more of the same. As Bobby Kennedy went on to say in the same speech:

Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation.

Drawing change from this election will be painful. But it is crucial for our future that we try. And the only way to do that is to vote.