Sticking with your own kind: tribalism in politics

So here we are in Michigan, a few days away from a primary election, and Matt Maddock is considering something he hasn’t often thought about – how he would feel if one of his children married someone really ...different.

First he says it wouldn’t happen, because he’s raised them well. But when pressed to consider the question, purely hypothetically, he answers.

“I would be disappointed,” he said. “But I want my children to be happy. I have many friends who are married to a person who is on the other side, and some marriages are just fine with that sort of difference.”

At this point, Maddock, a 50-year-old bail bondsman in Milford, in Oakland County, sounds like he’s talking about the sort of opposites-attract pairing people have made movies about, films about race or religion, with comic misunderstandings and bigoted grandmothers – “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” say, or “Annie Hall.”

But, no. Maddock is considering the knotted stomach he’d have if one of his kids married a Democrat.

In this, he has lots of company.

The polling firm YouGov asked a version of that same question in 2008, and found that 27 percent of Republicans, and 20 percent of Democrats, reported they’d be upset if their children made a cross-party match. Two years later, those figures had risen to 49 percent and 33 percent, respectively. In 1960, that figure was around 5 and 4 percent.

It is but one piece of evidence in a virtual mountain of it ‒ that the United States has become more polarized, more tribal, along political party lines. The dwindling few in the political center, the great expanse once known as the place where work got done (if you were a politician) and polite conversations could happen (if you were at a dinner party), are increasingly derided from both wings.

President Obama referred to it in his final State of the Union address.

“Democracy,” he said, “does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us.”

The Blaze, a conservative news site, ran a story about the speech. One of the first reader comments: “Bleach couldn’t remove the stain he will leave on this nation.”

Even the New York Times, analyzing the speech, asked rhetorically who broke our politics in the first place, and answered its own question: “The answer is that both sides did. A steady erosion underway for years has accelerated during Mr. Obama’s time in the White House and now shows itself in congressional dysfunction and campaign vitriol.”

So, obviously, there’s work to be done.

Get off of my lawn

Today, not only do people of different political views increasingly not want their children to marry across lines, they don’t even want to live in the same neighborhoods – the tendency of liberals and conservatives to cluster in like-minded enclaves has been noted for years. Former Michigander and Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan felt so strongly about this that he founded a whole new town in Florida dedicated to giving his people, orthodox Catholics, a place to call home and not have to confront, among other things, “pornographic television.”

What’s more, the people at the ends of the spectrum are also more likely to donate money to political campaigns, which deepens and cements the ditch between them.

Not that there isn’t a bright side.

“It’s funny,” said Maddock, looking at what passes for one. “The scales are flipped. People would be more offended by their kid marrying someone of a different party, but not race. That’s a great thing, isn’t it? (Race) is a non-issue now.”

After all, you can’t choose your race. But your politics? That, we fight over, even though our politics often seem as much a birthright as our skin color.

“I’ve been a Republican my whole life,” said Maddock, who grew up in Oakland County and ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 2014. He said he believes the GOP is “the party of our founding fathers,” because “our planks reflect our true heritage.”

He also considers himself a tea party Republican. More on that in a bit.

Finding kindred spirits

Meanwhile, meet John Celletti, 65, a retired Michigan schoolteacher who now lives in Saugatuck and winters in Arizona. He keeps active and volunteers, considers himself a solid citizen. He’s gay, and has been with his husband, Joseph Madej, for 36 years.

Celletti makes a point of noting that he never lived in the closet or otherwise hid his sexual orientation. They married in Iowa in 2013 when it was among the first states to legalize same-sex marriage. Just from his demographic details, you’d expect him to be a Democrat, although he doesn’t call himself one, preferring the term progressive. But he almost always votes Democratic, and he’ll tell you why.

“If you believe in science, in equal access, in funding education, in a woman’s right to be in control of her reproduction, if you’re concerned with income equality, any of that, it’s hard to identify with Republicans,” he states. “On every issue that I value, they’re draconian.”

It’s as simple as that, he said. He’s supporting Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination now, but if Hillary Clinton ends up at the top of the ticket, there’s no question he’ll vote for her, “and I’ll send money,” he said.

Celletti was raised in a Democratic family, Italians on the eastside of Detroit. “My sister makes me look like a centrist,” Celletti said. He has no children to imagine marrying across tribal lines, but if he’s at the gym and the TVs are tuned to Fox News, he’ll ask that the channel be changed. He blames the popular conservative cable-news channel for exasperating experiences like this:

“When Obama was releasing some individuals from (the prison at Guantanamo Bay), my neighbor went nuts,” he said. “He was certain they were being released onto American soil. They were being released to Sudan, but they wouldn’t believe me. They watch Fox News.”

Both Maddock and Celletti seem to be nice people, but they each admit there’s no moving them from their individual stances. They’re always going to be what they are, and they see fewer and fewer reasons to cooperate with, or even listen to, the other side.

Press them to name one thing the other party did that they could agree with, or grudgingly approve, Celletti, the progressive, came up with TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program signed into law by President George W. Bush, that bailed out the big banks in the 2008 financial crisis.

“The government needed to provide stability to financial institutions,” he said, but qualifies it with this complaint: “The big problem being that both the Republicans and Democrats did not hold Wall Street bankers accountable by sending some of them off to prison.”

Maddock, the Republican, has a harder time, and finally comes up with something he can grudgingly credit Michigan Democrats for ‒ opposing the gas tax in the 2015 road funding bill.

How does work get done?

Politics, we are taught in civics class, is the art of the possible, achieved through compromise. Political parties being what they are, their leaders will always look to self-preservation first. So when, for example, Flint is left without a reliable supply of drinking water, and children are left with potentially lifelong disabilities, the immediate focus in some quarters is on assigning blame – not some, but all of it – to the other side of the aisle.

Former Democratic state senator Gretchen Whitmer referred, on a public-affairs TV show, to “the children the governor has poisoned,” as though Rick Snyder personally laced the water there with lead, while the conservative National Review was quick to confidently declare the entire disaster “not a Republican scandal,” even though it happened under the control of a state run by, yes, Republicans.

But that doesn’t help the state deal with a disaster whose impact, financial and otherwise, won’t be fully understood for years. And that is part of what tribalism costs us.

“This is a story at least partly about aging infrastructure,” said Corwin Smidt, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University. But he argues that the legislature’s work in recent years has been “on partisan issues that separate people and create blocs, like benefits for same-sex couples. In terms of the public good, which is more important for a Michigan legislature to address? But infrastructure spending is not electorally beneficial.”

Smidt is author of a new paper on independent voters report ‒ more voters call themselves independent, but they vote as reliably as partisans. So even though it might seem like a good thing that fewer people are willing to identify with one party or another, when it comes to behavior, they pull the same levers as those who are.

What’s more, a number of cultural issues conspire to keep us divided, including but not limited to a splintered news media, wedded to social media, that make it easy to live in an informational bubble, surrounded by an amen choir of contacts who believe as we do, and reinforce us daily with affirmation. Tell the truth: If you accept a Facebook friend request from someone whose profile picture features an eagle and a flag, how smart do you have to be to guess their political leanings? (Not very, it turns out.)

Protection in a dangerous world

Why do we form tribes, whether of blood or orientation? Biologist E.O. Wilson took on that question four years ago, during the last presidential election cycle. Tribes, he wrote, offer safety and identity, “visceral comfort and pride from familiar fellowship, and a way to defend the group enthusiastically against rival groups. It gave people a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world. It made the environment less disorienting and dangerous. Human nature has not changed. Modern groups are psychologically equivalent to the tribes of ancient history. As such, these groups are directly descended from the bands of primitive humans and prehumans.”

If social media is the modern equivalent of the vast savannas of early humankind, imagine being all alone out there, trying to formulate opinions, finding truth in a bewildering forest of contradiction. How much easier it is to share a simple meme (such as this one satirically identifying Texas Sen. Ted Cruz as the Zodiac Killer) or link to an ideologically aggregated news site. Which encourages the people who make them. And the cycle goes on.

Don’t tell that to Brandon Hall, a 26-year-old Grand Haven resident whose job is providing some of that material you might post on Facebook. As founder of West Michigan Politics, and a writer for Conservative Intel, another website, he’s been active in politics since he volunteered to make phone calls for John McCain, when he was in fifth grade. Ask him his place in the GOP solar system, and he answers immediately:

“I’m the sun, bringing light to everything going on.” He takes his work seriously.

West Michigan Politics contains mostly original material, not memes or other easy cannon fodder. To Hall, websites like his are essential to fully understand the political landscape. He sees the Flint story as one that neatly fits into a conservative frame, one in which “every level of government failed Flint.” (Subtext: Don’t blame it all on Gov. Snyder) The heroes are “private citizens who fought and prevailed, and that’s an awesome part of the story.”

But he hasn’t been writing much about Flint, although he’s not above passing along a juicy slam of a Democrat under a click-luring headline: Breaking: Trouble For Dems As Kwame Says Granholm Knew About Flint Water Issues And Did NOTHING.

His major complaint of late has been with his own party, in the state version of the establishment-insurgency split playing out on a national stage and starring Donald Trump. More on that in a bit, too.

Can’t we all just get along?

Sandra Hughes O’Brien is a member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors and a lifelong Democrat. Despite her Irish maiden and surnames, she identifies as Hispanic. She grew up in a big Catholic family in Saugatuck and followed her parents into their party as surely as Maddock and Celletti did theirs. She remembers coming home from school in 1976, when her fourth-grade class was having a mock election, and asking her father who he was voting for.

“We are voting for Jimmy Carter,” he said. And that was that. “I love the teams of my father,” O’Brien said. “The Tigers, the Lions, and the Democrats.”

However, she worries about the increasing distance between people, about the futility of getting things done in a bipartisan manner, about the price paid when a significant part of the electorate feels steamrolled by the party in power, because when the scales tip back, they tend to take it out by steamrolling, too.

“I think people want to come together,” O’Brien said. “I know a lot of reasonable-minded friends who vote Republican. We still have some very spirited conversations about the president, the electoral process, the GOP pool of candidates.”

Which suggests that perhaps it’s the rest of us who take all this stuff too seriously. Or maybe we’re just incubating a new class of true believers. Take Maddock, for example, who along with Hall is currently locked in a battle not with Democrats, but with his own party. He’s an organizer of Battle Cry Michigan, a wing of the party concerned that too many current officeholders – Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof comes in for the most fire – are not conservative enough.

“The way I see it, there are two Republican parties in Michigan,” said Maddock, describing a “tug-of-war between people pulling us to the left, off our platform,” mostly around the proposed solution to Michigan’s poor roads, which included an increase in the gas tax. “The other part are the people like me, and others, who are trying to pull our party back to the right.”

Even among the most ideologically pure, sometimes you can’t be pure enough.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Thu, 03/03/2016 - 9:47am
Nancy, Once again, well done. You just explained why our split party family dinners can be so difficult to get through during the election season! -Jackie Berg, Publisher, TheHUB
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 9:56am
I think the majority of people who identify themselves as democrats or republicans can be reasonable and share views. The problem is the political system being taken over by radicals on both sides, aided and abetted by career politicians in Washington and their cronys. The question was, "How long will the 'moderates' tolerate the corruption?" We now see that the less extreme folks on both sides are rebelling against the rampant lawlessness and collusion in DC. It remains to be seen what will come of it. Outsider(s) nominated? Mass cross-over in disgust? A failed third party? In my mind the current situation is unstable and unpredictable, but in all likelihood will end up with a better political situation. There seems to be general agreement that Washington is broken. We have witnessed its inability to fix itself. I don't know how the promoters of an Article V Convention of States break down (liberal/conservative), but one thing is for sure: The establishment--which is neither--do not want their setup broken up, and if there is an establishment candidate vs. an outsider (regardless of party) it will be a monumental cage fight.
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 10:02am
Want to get more of the center involved, then let all primaries be completely open and have all candidates run together in only one primary. The two top vote getters would go on to run in the election. The end result could be a democrat and a republican, or 2 D's, or 2 R's, or an R and a Libertarian, or a Green and a Libertarian, or any combination imaginable. Make it so everyone can vote and you'd have to spend time talking about what you will do as opposed to how bad your opponent is. Maybe you'd even have to offer some meat to the opposing party to get the votes. As it is today, it is set up so the candidates have to appeal to the far side of their party. Just notice how Hillary is sounding like Bernie, or Marco is sounding like Ted. Perhaps we might even end up voting for people rather than party.
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 2:06pm
Open primaries, or "top-two" primaries are even worse than the current system. In a top-two contest, the small minority of party faithful who vote in primaries select the candidates for the general election, severely limiting the choice for the general public in November. Better to eliminate the taxpayer-funded primaries for those two private organizations (R's & D's) and let them select their candidates on their own dime at party caucuses, as they did for the first 200 years of our Republic. The general election should include all parties and independents, with equal access for all. This article fails to note there are more Independent voters than either Republican or Democrat. The intense squabbling of the extreme elements of the two major parties represents minority viewpoints that are exaggerated by media coverage. The independent centrist majority is fed up with both extremes.
Bob Balwinski
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 2:46pm
I agree with Will Tyler. On March 8th, I will get a chance to vote as a Republican or as a Democrat in MI Primary even though I am neither and have never, ever been a member of any political party. Why do I even have a vote? The parties should caucus with their members and come up with a candidate for the general election where I vote as a citizen and not a party member. I've noted the insanity of the MI Primary system since it began.......and it continues next Tuesday.
Sun, 03/06/2016 - 5:05pm
Willtyler is precisely and absolutely wrong. It is precisely in closed primaries that the small minority of extremists have decisive influence. In an open, "top two" primary, the extremists on both sides cancel out each other. A moderate can appeal to those who are right or left of center and still appeal to those in the center. That process is much more likely to produce two candidates who are both reasonably close to the center, even if both are on the same side of the center. The voters would wind up with much more palatable, more representative candidates. None of the primary candidates could appeal to the extremes because they would be conceding far too many votes in the center. Somebody who did successfully appeal to an extreme would find himself facing a candidate who appealed to a large majority of the voters.
John Q. Public
Sun, 03/06/2016 - 7:24pm
Absolutely correct, Observer--as long as you're willing to ignore the demographics of who actually votes in primary elections, and as long as the number of moderates vying for a spot is limited to two--and ideally, just one. Under the current dynamics, we'd typically see the same sort of outcome in an open primary that gave us Rick Snyder in 2010: multiple candidates with similar majority views split the vote, propelling the outlier to victory with a plurality of about 35%. willtyler's aim is true on all counts: if ballot access and media coverage weren't purposefully heavily tilted toward the "Big Two" we'd get fewer at-the-very-periphery extremists.
Tue, 03/08/2016 - 3:49pm
John Q. Public's scenario is possible, but unlikely. He is assuming that several moderates run and only one extremist from each wing of the political spectrum. It is just as likely that at least two extremists from one wing run in competition with several moderates. In that event, one moderate and one extremist would be nominated, and the moderate would easily win in the general election. And even assuming his scenario, it is unlikely that an extremist from each wing would be nominated. And in that event, the moderate would again easily win in the general election.
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 10:14am
You did not have any interviews with someone who has "seen the light" and changed affiliations within the last few years. I grew up in a Republican family (Eisenhower), would have voted for Goldwater if I had been old enough (lots of heavy discussions with my HS classmates), became more socially liberal but retained my fiscal conservative bent through college and finally decided the Republicans had deserted me with John Engler destroyed the conservation ethic built by Governor Milliken. Still voted for GW Bush the first time because he promised to do something about the pending climate change disaster (which he decided against when elected). Then we have a Republican who cuts the income of the Federal Government just when we are finally able to tackle the overwhelming debt built by Reagan. Remember, we had a BUDGET SURPLUS when he was elected and a huge deficit when he left office. The Republican majority frittered it away and then compounded the problem with unpaid for wars and unfunded social programs. I now describe myself as a Proud Liberal and usually vote on the Democratic side. They have proven that they are the fiscally responsible party and are socially advanced. If one really looks at President Obama's record and does not listen to Mitch McConnell et al or get their news fro Breitbart or Fox, you would have to admit, more jobs, more [protections for workers, less taxes for most people, a deficit reduction every year, and all done with total opposition from a recalcitrant Congress whose sole goal is to deny him any progress. 'Nuff Said!
William C. Plumpe
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 12:44pm
On the other hand... I would describe myself as a longtime progressive Democrat (maybe I've voted for three Republicans in the last 45 years and one of them was Gerald Ford who spoke at my college commencement) but as I get older I see liberals as "trolling for victims" and trying to make sure everybody even I must say very "unique and eccentric" individuals have their "rights" even when those "rights" go against biology, history, law and morality. To me such "rights" are nothing more than thinly disguised privileges and special treatment for small, select groups with a lot of money and political influence who are able to "play the victim" and get all sorts of attention while I am struggling with issues because I am old, white, male, well educated, straight, not a victim and I guess not worth it. Of course this apparent obsession of liberals with "every poor discriminated against victim" at my expense (or so it seems) does not really sit well with me. I want others to have their "rights" but not if they step on my rights and my values. I will probably vote for Kasich in the primary and if it happens the Rubio---Kasich ticket in the election. The potential nominees of my party the Democrats do not appeal to me. Both are older than me (I'm 63) so maybe I'm a "young whippersnapper" or so I hope. Sanders is too radical and his programs unrealistic and too expensive. Clinton is not to be trusted, too "Establishment" and her Presidency would turn the White House into the Clinton family business or probably something much more feudal connected with emerging royalty or something to do with the "Empress and her New Clothes". Trump is a crude, loud mouthed, arrogant schoolyard bully and if he was elected President that is who America would become. I certainly DON'T want that so I'm taking my best shot and voting for Kasich---the most level headed and moderate of all the candidates to begin healing partisan divides and restore power to the middle where it belongs not the extremist fringes.
Mike R
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 1:02pm
Mr. Plumpe, I feel your pain. I'm not wild about any of the choices in this election, and although I will certainly vote for the Democrat, I will do so holding my nose. I suspect you and I are not as far apart as it may seem; I appreciate your observations on Mr. Kasich, and in another universe I might possibly see myself voting for him were it not for my dread of what would come out of a Congress and Presidency controlled by Republicans.
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 2:40pm
What rights are you talking about that "go against biology, history, law and morality"? I'm guessing you're no fan of, say, gay rights or affirmative action? The thing is, you're falling into the trap of seeing people who have been legitimately discriminated against (and who are seeking redress for that) as somehow taking something away from you. You reserve your resentment for them. That's exactly what the powers-that-be want you to do. They play up false narratives to pit Americans against each other, keeping us divided and distracted. Meanwhile, THEY (corporate overlords, corrupt politicians, wealthy plutocrats) are in fact the "small, select groups with a lot of money and political influence" that are most likely responsible for the issues you're struggling with. Don't get played. Get informed and fight back against your true enemies. Trust me, it's not the poor, gays or people of color who are screwing you over.
Mike R
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 12:56pm
Thank you, Barry, for the thoughtful timeline. I made a similar journey: I was actually a Republican Precinct Delegate and went to the State Convention in 1980 but soon became completely disillusioned by the intolerance, miserliness, mean-spiritedness, and deviousness of most of the activists I encountered. I did not find this to be true of most non-active Republicans, but it was the activists who were in charge and leading the way, and it was from them I drew the conclusion that there was no room in the party for me. I have been, like you, a proud Liberal and Democrat since then. My party has many, MANY faults, and there are enough despicable people to go around, but on the whole I am proud to identify with a party that stands for tolerance, kindness, magnanimity, peace, and optimism.
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 2:31pm
Yup. Nothing says more than: 'Maddock, a 50-year-old bail bondsman in Milford, in Oakland County.'
Steve Hanley
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 12:11pm
The article is right on point with the inability of people and parties to compromise. Hopefully SB 710-711 is one were both parties will come to the table quickly and help fix DPS.
Fri, 03/04/2016 - 2:42pm
There are people in the Michigan legislature that want to see the Detroit schools go into bankruptcy just out of spite for Detroit in general.
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 1:12pm
Brandon Hall has been convicted of stealing money from a school-sponsored American Cancer Society fundraising event. He subsequently violated his probation twice. I believe he's still currently awaiting a decision from the State Supreme Court to determine whether he will be tried on either election fraud or falsifying signatures on a petition charges. This information seems relevant if you're going to attempt to legitimize him as a conservative voice in state politics. I doubt most conservatives would be lining up to support him.
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 2:34pm
Here's where Brandon appeared in this column: 'Don’t tell that to Brandon Hall, a 26-year-old Grand Haven resident whose job is providing some of that material you might post on Facebook. As founder of West Michigan Politics, and a writer for Conservative Intel, another website, he’s been active in politics since he volunteered to make phone calls for John McCain, when he was in fifth grade. Ask him his place in the GOP solar system, and he answers immediately: “I’m the sun, bringing light to everything going on.” He takes his work seriously.' Brandon takes his profits seriously.
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 5:20pm
Why would anyone be surprised (or write an article), that there is as little cross mixing as there is, along with hostility from family members? (And probably getting more so.) Think about it. The Progressives/Left vs. Right. GENERALLY, single vs. married (not same sex), non-religious vs. claimed religious, urban vs., new suburban and rural, occupations, (public/unionized/caring/artistic types vs. self employed small business very bottom line oriented), Children,(fewer vs. more), recreations (bird watchers vs. bird shooters), and aspirations that come with all these. It's natural that families want their children to have same traditions (or un-traditions) along with the shared time coming with them and avoid the conflict that comes with trying to fight your way thru to agreement on things or values that don't lend themselves to compromise. Friends can easily be a different matter but are usually built on a passionate interest/hobby with someone close in age that still shares many values. Say what you want, it's as simple and old, as birds of a feather stick together.
John Q. Public
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 6:50pm
We stop honoring cooperation and start idolizing competition among our youth at around age seven. "Us vs. them, and may the best man win." The political outcomes are an expected result--we reap what we sow.
Walt Duro
Fri, 03/04/2016 - 8:42am
Well, the world's smallest, most messed with Tribe, is the Tribe of the Individual. Basically, you can't even say the words, "I", "Me", "Mine" without the accusation and condemnation of being selfish. "You Didn't Build That" is the mantra of collectivists on the Left. Collectivists the Right will tell you how to live your life, how to raise your own Kids, what to eat, drink, consume, how to spend your money, tell the schools what, when, and how to teach, knock you upside your head, put your shit at the curb, and change the locks on your doors - in the name of innovation, competition and economic development.
Roger Martin
Fri, 03/04/2016 - 1:09pm
First, nice read Nancy. Well-reported, as usual. Second, congrats to the Rs, Ds and Independents in this thread of comments for being civil, respectful and thoughtful.
Dr. Z
Tue, 03/15/2016 - 8:04am
The Feminists told us that the "Personal is political," and encouraged the use of government for social change. And you wonder why people take politics so personally?