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Political Tribalism: Voting by Brand


Political polarization has increased over the last fifty or so years, particularly during the 1960’s when the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 was implemented. Today, you don’t see conservative democrats or liberal republicans that vote across party lines as previously witnessed several decades ago.

Over the years, the parties began taking unified positions on various issue areas, from abortion to guns and everywhere in between. Thus, the pro-gun democrat or the pro-choice republican has virtually disappeared, resulting in the vast majority of voters to vote down ballot as opposed to splitting the ticket.

Political affiliation has always been a “sticky” phenomenon, but it wasn’t as volatile as it is today. In turn, the increase in political tribalism, which has trickled down to the electorate due to the polarization witnessed at the national level, has produced very little debate or dialogue, and instead has furthered the divide via brand affiliation.

Currently, discussion of policy is a rarity. This can be seen in almost every sphere of political discourse. On social media, insults questioning one’s character, as well as intelligence, are stated as the rationale to justify one’s views and discredit another’s. Dialogue based upon policy positions and the merits of each are scarce.

In the media, similar attitudes are evident, just on a different scale, with pundits for each candidate or party regurgitating the talking points of whom they support. Individuals such as Jeffrey Lord, Paris Dennard, and the like continually deflect all blame from their side, justifying even the most abhorrent and indefensible behavior. In turn, they proceed to attack the other side by the most effective tool pundits currently possess, mischaracterization. Straw man arguments, followed by ad hominem attacks, are now the norm. This form of debate tends to reinforce partisan beliefs as well as individual echo chambers, only furthering the brand divide.

Representatives on the national level continue this trend, although in a distinguishably more subtle way, such as the labeling of bills. Republicans labeled the Affordable Care Act (ACA), “Obamacare,” followed by the Democrats labeling the American Health Care Act (ACHA), “Trumpcare.” The intention of doing so is to hype up partisan disdain for the “other side,” attempting to drive home the point that bill “x” goes against your ideological beliefs, as the “other side” represents the antithesis of your values and principles. They relish the in-group vs. out-group sentiment, which isn’t based on differing views and perspectives, but more so a mentality of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

Politicians have seemed to favor simplifying the vote, essentially voting based on heuristics as opposed to policy. As a result, voters perpetually cast ballots valuing brand name rather than critically evaluating the ideological proximity or agenda of each candidate. It’s not the left vs. the right, it’s Nike vs. Adidas.

An apparent example of just how far brand voting has come was exemplified in the 2016 presidential election cycle, particularly in the primary elections. Bernie Sanders, the longest serving independent in U.S. congressional history, was repeatedly attacked both by the Democratic Party’s establishment and its supporters, for not being “a real Democrat.” Thus, a good deal of the Democratic Party’s base, as well as the establishment, has an issue with Sanders not being a registered Democrat, regardless of the fact he’s caucused with the party for several decades. This illustrates how individuals are disregarding policy and ideological alignment, and basing their support or disdain for a politician primarily on the brand associated with the name.

A January 2016 Gallup poll found 42% of Americans self-identify as independents, which is a record high. Yet these findings can be rather misleading, as most independents indicate they lean toward a particular party. As a notable study concludes, the majority of independents actually affiliate themselves with a party and behave like partisans. Therefore, studies such as the WaPo-KFF poll have concluded that actual independents, or “pure independents,” are at or near a record low.

Another study by Patrick Miller and Pamela Johnston Conover published in the journal Political Research Quarterly, found that partisans increasingly view politics like a sports rivalry, as opposed to critically evaluating issues independent of affiliation. The study indicated that 41% of partisans viewed winning an election as more important than policy or ideological alignment. Additionally, 38% of partisans believed their affiliated party should use any means necessary to win “elections and issue debates.”

To further highlight the current era of hyper-partisanship, a Pew Research study showed that partisan animosity has spiked considerably over the past two decades. For the first time, majorities of both parties, 58% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats, have “very unfavorable” views of the opposition party.

America has come to a point in which not only is political tribalism tolerable, it’s celebrated. Partisans on both sides of the spectrum deflect or refute any criticism of their party, yet readily criticize the opposing party for circumstances indistinguishable from those which they viewed invalid when it was the party they affiliate with in question, resulting in unthinkable mental gymnastics to view one a valid criticism and the other morally outrageous.

When naming civilians killed unintentionally in other countries as Enemies Killed in Action (EKIA) matters only when it’s the opposing party’s administration. When support for the overthrow of a regime depends upon the party whose administration occupies the White House. When your support of whistleblowers depends on which brand occupies the White House. When broken campaign promises are determined to be acceptable or condemnable depending on if the president is a red elephant or a blue donkey, you aren’t an individual sticking up for morals and values, you’re a consumer picking and choosing why Nike is better than Adidas.

Writer and activist. Adversary of political tribalism. Follow Christian on Twitter

Christian is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.

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Political Tribalism: Voting by Brand