OP-ED: The dangers of political tribalism

Luke Fuszard
Tribune News Service
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

I have a tricky relationship with my in-laws. We get along just fine, but we disagree on politics. They are Republicans; I am a Democrat. They voted for Trump; I voted for Hillary.

For much of the past two years, I have found it increasingly difficult to view my in-laws through anything other than the prism of partisanship.

“How could such good, honest people support Trump?” I’ve often wondered. Sometimes it’s even made me angry. No matter that my in-laws are wonderful grandparents and regular volunteers for the less fortunate. Their politics trumped everything (pun intended).

Eventually, I mustered the courage to ask what drove them to vote the way they did.

“Oh, we didn’t support Trump because we like him,” my mother-in-law assured me. “We just can’t stand Hillary.”

Initially stunned by her answer, I later learned that my in-laws were hardly alone. In a poll taken shortly before the 2016 election, the Pew Research Center found that 53% of Donald Trump’s supporters were mainly motivated by their dislike for Hillary Clinton. And 46% of Clinton’s supporters were driven mostly by animus to Trump.

Political scientists call this “negative partisanship,” and it’s becoming a main feature of the modern political landscape as we head into another presidential campaign. A November 2018 Axios poll revealed that more than 20% of Democrats and Republicans characterize the other party as “evil.” About half of each affiliation saw the other as spiteful and ignorant.

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There are even studies showing that more people than before are picking their spouses based on political views. As a result, Americans are increasingly separating into competing political tribes.

The rise of tribalism is not any one party’s (or person’s) fault. Instead, it is the result of our brain’s evolution.

Beginning some 200,000 years ago, early homo sapiens joined small tribes to heighten their own individual chance of survival in a world of scarce resources. Over several centuries, the brain learned to be on high alert against potential opponents who were viewed as competitors for those same resources. Tribalism is literally hot-wired into us.

Meanwhile, the brain has spent less than 500 years operating in an industrial society. Food supply no longer restricts the human population in developed countries and most live in communities where their physical safety is not constantly under threat. In fact, people who study such things say the world is actually safer than ever before.

Modern challenges – globalization, drug epidemics, climate change – require collaboration, not competition, across groups of people. But our brains are not inclined to view the world this way.

Recently, I came across a Central Michigan University study into a way to reduce implicit biases against differing racial groups. After completing a baseline assessment, a group of college students were told to practice mindfulness meditation for as little as 10 minutes. Afterward, they re-took the implicit biases test.

Those who had completed the mindfulness activity demonstrated less prejudice against people of different races compared to their non-meditative counterparts. Quite simply, participants overcame their negative preconceptions against others through meditation, which included acknowledging and reflecting on implicit biases.

By practicing my own mindfulness meditation, I realized that alleviating the tension with my in-laws started with me. Going through this process re-opened the door to a more compassionate relationship with my in-laws.

I still don’t care for Trump, and they still loathe Hillary Clinton, but I’ve managed to get past the anger and focus on the good. My hope is that the rest of America can do the same.

— Luke Fuszard is a graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a member of the city council in Middleton, Wisconsin. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.