The Dangers of Political Tribalism

I hate Kobe Bryant.

No, this isn’t another attempt to tear down one of the all-time greats in his sport. In fact, it’s not really fair or accurate to say that I hate Kobe because I don’t know him as a person at all. No, when I say I hate Kobe Bryant, it’s a fake kind of hate that I call “sports-hate.” For a decade, Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers were the team that kept crushing the hopes and dreams of my preferred NBA champions. First it was Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers. Then it was Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers. Finally, it was Paul Pierce’s Boston Celtics. I grew to “hate” Kobe Bryant for no other reason than because he was the most prominent (and arguably best) player on the “other” team. I had my teams and anybody who was against them was the enemy.

Kobe Bryant celebrating another victory
I legitimately hated seeing this.

I readily admit that sports loyalty, especially in the age of free agency where star players constantly switch teams, is a curious concept. My own sports loyalties are even more arbitrary than just rooting for the local teams like most people do. When I was young, I got a basketball video game (whose name I can’t remember) where Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were the prominent players. My favorite color was (and still is) green, so I decided to play as Larry Bird; thus was born my interest in the Boston Celtics (and later, Indiana Pacers, who Bird coached). If my favorite color was yellow, then perhaps I would be starting this off with “I hate Tim Duncan”.

Not only is “sports-hate” a little arbitrary, but it can also force people to twist themselves into logic pretzels trying to justify abrupt changes. My own example is trying to deal with the fact that in 2010/2011, the Celtics’ championship chances relied heavily on the performance of Shaquille O’Neal, the other prominent Laker involved in the aforementioned decade of the Lakers defeating my teams. I found myself in the unenviable position of rooting for a player that I had likely been cursing just a few years earlier. It’s a feeling that Cleveland fans who loved LeBron James, then burned his jerseys, then welcomed him back (and maybe will have to burn his jersey again?) are very familiar with.

This kind of illogical and fickle tribalism is okay in sports. Sports is entertainment where the very nature of it is competition and pitting one team against another in an “Us” versus “Them” way. Sports are also a zero-sum game. In order for my team to win, yours must lose (except for tie games, which is basically a fancy way of saying both teams lose). In fact, sports are basically by design a way to differentiate winners and losers. Also, while it may not seem like it in the 4th quarter of game 7, unless you are gambling on the games, the stakes for sports are relatively low. Lastly, my sports-hate of Kobe Bryant is relatively harmless. He’s unlikely to care about my dislike. He might even enjoy it.

Republican Support for Firing Comey Doubles Following Removal
Credit: Morning Consult

Tribalism in politics, though, is a much different beast. The logical inconsistencies are more dangerous and the stakes are much higher. The most LeBron-esque recent example is the extreme whiplash that politicians have gone through in their opinion on former FBI director James Comey. When he announced the FBI’s recommendation to the Department of Justice that no charges be filed against Hillary Clinton, he became a hero to Democrats who praised him for his “independence and integrity”, while becoming an enemy to Republicans. Just a few short months later, after his infamous letters to Congress, those same Democrats that were praising his independence and integrity were instead questioning it. And now? Comey is the heroic martyr that Democrats are hoping will bring down the Trump administration.

It’s almost as if judging Comey’s actions through a partisan lens is the wrong way to go about things. Maybe the FBI Director, a lifelong Republican who was nominated to the post by President Obama (and even considered for a position on the Supreme Court) was simply trying to be as non-partisan and fair as possible while trying to do the right thing, regardless of how it might look. Tribalism in politics is dangerous because it deprives us of being able to have a nuanced view of complicated issues. When Comey recommended against charges being brought against Clinton for her email server, it was portrayed as complete victory for and vindication of Hillary Clinton. What was often missed is that even though Comey didn’t recommend charges, he was highly critical of Clinton and her associates, stating that they were “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information” and noting that people who did what they did were “often subject to security or administrative sanctions.” I say this not to bash Clinton at all, but simply to point out the nuance that is often lost in the noise of partisan score-keeping. When we lose nuance, it leads to oversimplification.

Tribalism cartoon
Picture by Tom Gauld

Tribalism makes people inconsistent in their political beliefs. The reactions to Comey are a prime example, but there are countless others. The anti-war movement largely disappeared after the election of Barack Obama. Republicans were all in favor of blocking Merrick Garland, until the time came for Neil Gorsuch’s nomination. Before Democrats were decrying the nuclear option, they were all for it. The list goes on and on. This blatant hypocrisy leads to justifiable mistrust and contempt of politicians who routinely speak out of both sides of their mouths. Double standards make having debates about established principles impossible.

Ironically, tribalism is also problematic because it makes people improperly consistent in some ways. Far too many Democrats and Republicans refuse to see the faults in politicians of their own party while being blind to the positive aspects of the opposition party. For Democrats, this might mean conveniently forgetting how late to the party Obama and Clinton were in terms of being for gay marriage. For Republicans, it might mean glossing over how much government spending increased during the George W. Bush administration.¬†For those who are interested in criminal justice reform, there are few stauncher allies (on either side of the aisle) than Rand Paul. However, because criminal justice reform is largely considered to be a “liberal” issue, many Democrats are dismissive of the idea that any Republican can be on the “right” side of the issue. This makes bipartisanship and working across the aisle more difficult than it should be. Why even bother working with the other side when they are all backward thinking knuckle draggers?

All this does is signal the biases that we approach these issues with and does nothing to help us come to a deeper understanding of the issue.

Unfortunately, I see this as a problem with the current Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements. It’s not at all inconsistent to believe that both police lives and black lives are valuable and that every life lost is a tragedy. Yet far too many people seem to think that to support one side means to shun the other, as if there’s something incompatible with mourning losses of life on both sides. In addition, and this should go without saying, but not every police shooting of a minority is the same and it’s wrong to treat them as such. Sometimes cops make mistakes. Sometimes the victim was committing a crime. Sometimes both sides were in the wrong. Sometimes neither. It’s crazy to pre-judge incidents before they even happen, but it happens far too often. Before all the facts are in, people are far too willing to speculate that somebody might be racist or somebody was on drugs. All this does is signal the biases that we approach these issues with and does nothing to help us come to a deeper understanding of the issue.

Lastly, I believe that tribalism in politics leads to decreased civility when it comes to discussing politics, especially over social media. Instead of putting in the hard work to do research on the issues and come up with constructive criticism, many people feel like all that has to be done is to insult the “other” side. The travel ban is bad because Trump is a jerk. The minimum wage shouldn’t be increased because Clinton is a liar. Obamacare is great because some Republican was once on welfare. Tax increases are bad because some Democrat once cheated on his taxes. If we stop trying to keep score on which party is “winning”, maybe we can focus more on the serious business of debating laws and regulations on their merits, instead of the morality of the people proposing them.

Tribalism is relatively harmless when it comes to sports, but we need to be better when it comes to politics. Mindlessly sticking to your group and demonizing the “other” might be easier, but we need to be willing to put in the hard work to try to understand the other side and realize that “our” side has flaws and “their” side just might have a point. We owe it to people on both sides, and to people who don’t choose sides, to be better.

Maybe it’s time I give Kobe Bryant another chance.

Kobe Bryant giving a thumbs up
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images


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Paul Essen
Founder and Chief Discourse Officer at Rampant Discourse
Proud geek. Trekkie. Browncoat. Entil'Zha. First human spectre. Hokie. Black belt. Invests Foolishly. Loves games of all types and never has enough time to play as many as he wants. Libertarian who looks forward to the day he votes for a winning presidential candidate. Father to two beautiful daughters.

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