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How to Resist the Pull of Today’s Tribalistic Politics

In the recent pandemic, it’s been shocking to observe how much some people’s political affinities have influenced their views about the proper response to the disease itself. I’ve recently written about how emotionalistic partisan loyalty, rather than careful and independent consideration of the evidence, has driven too many people’s views about whether or not we should ingest a previously obscure drug like hydroxychloroquine. There’s probably a similar explanation for many people’s views about whether or not we should wear masks.

The fact that even questions of medical fact have become grist for political controversy is a good sign that America’s political tribalism has become especially virulent. Especially because we are about to enter another election season, it’s worth reflecting on how to detect and combat this tribalistic thinking, as we are sure to keep encountering more and more of it.  

I delivered a talk on the topic of political tribalism back in October 2018, just before the most recent midterm elections. The lecture was part of a conference ARI hosted on the topic “Individualism in an Age of Tribalism.” Unfortunately much of the advice offered there is as applicable today as it was then. I give examples of the tribalistic pull coming from both major political camps in American politics, criteria for how to recognize it, and practical tips on how to avoid it in one’s own thinking. In particular, I stress how politics has become too much like sports: people are picking a side to root for just to get along with their peers. That can be okay for sports, but politics is not a game. So I’m pleased to note that this talk has been added to our YouTube channel:

Toward the end of this talk, I urge the audience to resist tribalism’s pull by rejecting the assumption that they need to pick teams at all. If both camps are at odds with your own principled values, you may need to stand against both.

It’s important to emphasize that refusing to go along with the existing political camps expressly does not mean refusing to take a stand. It’s crucially important to take a stand on political issues that are important to you, and it’s doubly important to do so for rational reasons. In a more recent webinar, I explore the difference between good and bad reasons for taking a stand in order to untangle the myriad of practices that are sometimes criticized as “virtue signaling.” Much of the political grandstanding criticized as “virtue signaling” really is tribalistic, but some of it is in pursuit of real justice:

Until a few months ago, ARI’s weekly webinars focused exclusively on discussing timeless philosophical questions. We have now begun to use the format to comment on contemporary controversies as well, especially since the beginning of the pandemic. You can view a playlist of all our recent New Ideal Live webcasts here, or subscribe to ARI’s YouTube channel to get notifications about the latest offerings. I hope you’ll find that our analysis models the non-tribalistic approach that we advocate: we aim to tackle the issues of the day rationally, without any hint of tribal conformity.

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Ben Bayer

Ben Bayer, Ph.D. in philosophy and formerly a professor, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.

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