Ame­ri­cans are ext­re­me­ly po­la­ri­zed po­li­ti­cal­ly. Exp­la­na­ti­ons for this state of af­fairs ran­ge from pro­noun­ce­ments that Ame­ri­ca’s ex­pe­ri­ment in de­moc­ra­cy has al­re­a­dy fai­led to me­re­ly pooh-poo­hing cur­rent dif­fe­ren­ces as a pas­sing phase be­cau­se the next elec­ti­on will su­re­ly bring all Ame­ri­cans to­get­her to stand be­hind their Pre­si­dent (alt­hough such views ge­ne­ral­ly as­su­me that it’s the “ot­her par­ty” who will give up their pre­vi­ous­ly mis­gui­ded be­liefs).

None of them are right. An exp­la­na­ti­on for Ame­ri­ca’s po­la­ri­za­ti­on re­qui­res scien­ti­fic in­qui­ry ins­te­ad. The so­ci­al scien­ces, par­ti­cu­lar­ly so­ci­al psyc­ho­lo­gy, are trying to be help­ful. Se­ve­ral schools of thought stand out.

Is tribalism to blame?

Tri­ba­lism or ne­ot­ri­ba­lism is the con­cept that hu­mans have evol­ved from iden­ti­fying as in­di­vi­du­als or mem­bers of a mass so­cie­ty to ins­te­ad see­ing them­sel­ves as mem­bers of tri­bes. Such tri­bes or groups then de­fi­ne them­sel­ves by cont­ras­ting their va­lu­es with ot­hers who are not in their tribe. In a mo­dern po­li­ti­cal con­text, it re­fers to the of­ten mis­ta­ken­ly strong po­li­ti­cal so­li­da­ri­ty ty­pi­cal of post-truth po­li­tics.

Ext­re­me tri­ba­lism is inc­re­a­sing­ly ram­pant in Ame­ri­can po­li­tics and so­ci­al life in ge­ne­ral, where fear of thre­ats to the tribe have rep­la­ced con­cerns about truth or facts. For the first time in Ame­ri­can his­to­ry a for­mer Pre­si­dent has bra­zen­ly de­nied elec­ti­on re­sults, wit­hout pre­sen­ting any evi­den­ce at all, yet Mr. Trump tel­ls his sup­por­ters that all ef­forts to stop his lies mean “In the end, they’re not co­ming af­ter me. They’re co­ming af­ter you”.

De­ca­des of so­ci­al scien­ce re­se­arch show that hu­mans’ need for col­lec­ti­ve be­lon­ging to their tribe sha­pes how they view facts, and how they vote, more than ac­tu­al truth. When their tribe is thre­a­te­ned, as Mr. Trump ba­se­les­s­ly says they are, they rise to their tribe’s de­fen­se even when a de­fen­se is un­war­ran­ted or mo­ral­ly and le­gal­ly wrong. Hu­mans tend to choo­se lo­yal­ty to their tribe over ci­vi­li­ty and re­a­so­ned de­ba­te be­cau­se their own per­so­nal iden­ti­ty is tied up in their tribe’s pre­vai­ling over ot­her tri­bes.

The re­sult is a di­sas­ter for de­moc­ra­cy. “Ins­te­ad of going in­to the vo­ting booth and as­king, What do I want my elec­ted rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ves to do for me, they’re thin­king, If my par­ty lo­ses, it’s not just that my po­li­cy pre­fe­ren­ces aren’t going to get done,” says Lil­li­a­na Ma­son, a Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty po­li­ti­cal scien­tist. “It’s who I think I am, my place in the world, my re­li­gi­on, my race, the many parts of my iden­ti­ty are all wrap­ped up in that one vote.”

For­mer Pre­si­dent Trump’s con­ti­nuing po­pu­la­ri­ty in his par­ty can be exp­lai­ned by his re­pe­a­ted claims that the Re­pub­li­can tribe is thre­a­te­ned even more than he is by the many cri­mi­nal char­ges against him. It do­esn’t mat­ter that those claims are wild­ly fal­se. Tri­ba­lism has ta­ken over re­a­li­ty.

But have Ame­ri­can vo­ters re­al­ly ab­di­ca­ted res­pon­sib­le vo­ting to just cheer for their tribe? The re­sults of se­ve­ral ot­her U.S. elec­ti­ons af­ter the 2020 pre­si­den­ti­al elec­ti­on show that it’s not that simp­le. Tri­ba­lism may be per­va­si­ve but it alo­ne does not de­fi­ne Ame­ri­can po­li­tics and it does not exp­lain the deep po­li­ti­cal di­vi­de.

Is decision making flawed?

Anot­her ap­p­ro­ach looks at how Ame­ri­can vo­ters make de­ci­si­ons about who to elect and which po­li­ti­cal tribe to join. So­ci­al psyc­ho­lo­gist Ir­ving Ja­nis of Ya­le Uni­ver­si­ty first de­ve­lo­ped the con­cept of groupt­hink in the 1970s and 1980s. He exp­lo­red ext­ra­or­di­na­ri­ly foo­lish Ame­ri­can po­li­ti­cal de­ci­si­ons when key de­ci­si­on-ma­kers over­loo­ked see­ming­ly ob­vi­ous evi­den­ce. Such de­ci­si­ons were made by pe­op­le in groups who pri­o­ri­ti­zed the group’s ap­p­ro­val and co­he­si­ve­ness over the task at hand.

Pro­fes­sor Ja­nis took a scho­lar­ly ap­p­ro­ach to ana­ly­ze and ca­te­go­ri­ze such de­ci­si­on-ma­king pro­ces­ses, far bey­ond any over­ly broad talk of “si­los,” “ec­ho cham­bers,” “bub­b­les” or “cults”. He out­li­ned clear signs that groupt­hink was in play when a de­ci­si­on pro­cess was un­der­way:

* In­comp­le­te sur­vey of al­ter­na­ti­ves
* In­comp­le­te sur­vey of ob­jec­ti­ves
* Fai­lu­re to exa­mi­ne risks of each choi­ce
* Fai­lu­re to re­ap­p­rai­se ini­ti­al­ly re­jec­ted al­ter­na­ti­ves
* Poor in­for­ma­ti­on se­arch
* Se­lec­ti­ve bias in pro­ces­sing in­for­ma­ti­on
* Fai­lu­re to work out con­tin­gen­cy plans

When any pos­sib­le flaws in a de­ci­si­on ap­pe­a­red, de­ci­si­on ma­kers ea­si­ly fell in­to de­ni­al and re­sor­ted to lies to bols­ter bad choi­ces.

Groupt­hink – and the im­por­tan­ce of avoi­ding groupt­hink – has been ex­pan­ded and emp­lo­yed to exp­lain hu­man be­ha­vi­or when de­ci­si­on-ma­king re­sults in mo­dern-day po­li­ti­cal fi­as­cos (and there’s hard­ly any need to ela­bo­ra­te how most of mo­dern Was­hing­ton po­li­tics is one fi­as­co af­ter anot­her).

But groupt­hink ori­gi­nal­ly was about pe­op­le in groups ma­king spe­ci­fic de­ci­si­ons about a par­ti­cu­lar is­sue and what can go wrong du­ring that task. It’s high­ly re­le­vant to the bro­a­der qu­es­ti­on of Ame­ri­ca’s cur­rent po­li­ti­cal chasm, but it’s not enough to exp­lain it.

Is social media the culprit?

Twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry so­ci­al scien­ce has fo­cu­sed on the re­la­ti­ve­ly re­cent phe­no­me­non of so­ci­al me­dia. The same pres­su­res for con­for­mi­ty that un­der­lie tri­ba­lism and groupt­hink can now over­ta­ke eve­ryt­hing el­se through the ever-pre­sent smartp­ho­nes that rule mo­dern life.

So­ci­al psyc­ho­lo­gist Jo­nat­han Haidt of New York Uni­ver­si­ty has exp­lo­red the cent­ral role that so­ci­al me­dia plays in di­vi­ding Ame­ri­cans from each ot­her. He exp­lains that ini­ti­al pre­dic­ti­ons were that the in­ter­net com­bi­ned with 24/7 wi­re­less mo­bi­le ac­cess to in­for­ma­ti­on would ex­po­nen­ti­al­ly inc­re­a­se pe­op­le’s awa­re­ness of facts, as well as pro­vi­de them ac­cess to en­ligh­te­ned opi­ni­ons and al­ter­na­ti­ve view­points.

Ho­we­ver, rat­her than be­co­ming an inst­ru­ment for le­ar­ning and ex­pan­ding pe­op­le’s world views, so­ci­al me­dia be­ca­me a fo­rum for per­for­man­ce – where pe­op­le feel im­men­se pres­su­re to put on a show of how they be­long to cer­tain groups (whet­her they re­al­ly want to or not). They strive to be “li­ked” so they must avoid re­ve­a­ling any doubts or dif­fe­ren­ces about their cho­sen groups’ pre­for­med ide­o­lo­gies, es­pe­ci­al­ly when they don’t re­al­ly know or care about wha­te­ver that ide­o­lo­gy may be. It’s cru­ci­al to fit in and lit­t­le more.

The si­tu­a­ti­on is exa­cer­ba­ted furt­her by so­ci­al me­dia plat­form al­go­rithms that au­to­ma­ti­cal­ly drive like-min­ded­ness and fos­ter dist­rust of ot­hers, be­cau­se cre­a­ting an­ger inc­re­a­ses the num­ber of hits. Con­fir­ma­ti­on bias thri­ves (see­ing and se­arc­hing for on­ly what one al­re­a­dy be­lie­ves, whet­her or not it has any ba­sis in re­a­li­ty). So­ci­al di­vi­si­ons are en­cou­ra­ged, so so­ci­al me­dia users jus­ti­fi­ab­ly fear the ne­ga­ti­ve con­se­qu­en­ces of rai­sing any dis­sent. Comp­ro­mi­sing and qu­es­ti­o­ning are con­si­de­red we­ak­nes­ses.

These un­for­tu­na­te as­pects of so­ci­al me­dia are well do­cu­men­ted but bla­ming so­ci­al me­dia for all of Ame­ri­ca’s il­ls si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly as­su­mes that the USA has es­sen­ti­al­ly be­co­me a gi­ant high school pep ral­ly of va­pid tee­na­gers glued to their pho­nes trying des­pe­ra­te­ly to be cool even though they sec­ret­ly har­bor ide­as and dre­ams they don’t dare to exp­ress. That may desc­ri­be many mo­dern Ame­ri­cans, but it’s cer­tain­ly not true of much of the U.S. po­pu­la­ti­on.

Can the hard sciences help?

At le­ast so far, no one from the re­alm of hard scien­ce has come up with exp­la­na­ti­ons any bet­ter than those of­fe­red by so­ci­al scien­tists or any­o­ne el­se in the hu­ma­ni­ties. Not­hing in the air, wa­ter or ra­di­a­ti­on fre­qu­en­cies in the Uni­ted Sta­tes seems to exp­lain the ra­pid di­sin­teg­ra­ti­on of ci­vil so­cie­ty. But an ext­ra­or­di­na­ri­ly well-re­cog­ni­zed scien­tist poin­ted out one key fac­tor:

  "Two things are in­fi­ni­te: the uni­ver­se and hu­man stu­pi­di­ty; and I'm not sure about the uni­ver­se."
- Al­bert Eins­tein


Tom A. Lip­po is a Fin­nish-spe­a­king Ame­ri­can la­wy­er. Edu­ca­ted at Ya­le, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Jy­väs­ky­lä and Stan­ford Law School, he is the foun­der of FACT LAW, an in­ter­na­ti­o­nal law firm es­tab­lis­hed in 1985. FACT is the first law firm with of­fi­ces in both Fin­land and the Uni­ted Sta­tes. Tom has been a lawy­er in Was­hing­ton, DC ba­sed on Ca­pi­tol Hill for over 40 ye­ars.