Why People Choose Party Over Principle


I imagine you, like I, have noticed that recently, the leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties are taking positions they used to oppose, with no apparent sense of irony. The most recent example concerned the government shutdown in mid-January. Back in 2013, the Democrats accused Republicans of threatening a government shutdown to reargue a non-budget issue (Obamacare). As Chuck Schumer said to CNN in 2013, “What if I persuaded my caucus to say: ‘I’m going to shut the government down; I’m going to not pay our bills unless I get my way?’ It’s the politics of idiocy, of confrontation, of paralysis.”

In 2018, the parties flipped the script. The Republicans accused the Democrats of shutting down the government to force discussion on a non-budget issue (DACA). Mitch McConnell said on the floor of the Senate that the failure of the Democrats to get their way on this unrelated issue would deprive children of health care, threaten benefits to veterans, and their families and would interfere with other government functions: “To most Americans, those sound like fundamental responsibilities. To the Democratic leader, they sound like hostages ripe for the taking.”

This sudden role reversal occurs regularly, even when the parties are sharply opposed on a high-stakes issue. Pick an issue, watch the parties draw an unmovable line in the sand … and quietly look back just a few years and notice the parties have switched sides.

Naturally, as Republicans took up the principled stance the Democrats once held on the government shutdown, we saw a mass migration of Democrats to the Republican party. That massive change was similar to the millions of Republicans switching parties last December when the Democrats became deficit-hawks, previously a Republican priority, arguing that the tax plan would be fiscally irresponsible, exploding to the deficit.

Wait, that didn’t happen?

Obviously, budget shutdowns aren’t the issue that drive most people’s political affiliation. Whether it's about a government shutdown, or deficit policy, or international trade - you can fill in the blank with almost any divisive issue, when parties change course on fundamental beliefs, mass party-switching doesn’t seem to happen in real life. But why not? As principles switch, why don’t people switch parties?

Intuitively, it feels like we choose our political party affiliation based on our beliefs about important issues. Therefore, if, subsequently, the party significantly shifts away from those principles, we would leave the party (or at least seriously consider changing our affiliation). In other words, we would like to think our principles drive our political-party affiliation, rather than our politics driving our principles. But recent examples like the government shutdown and response to the tax plan suggest that our party affiliation does drive our principles.

So what gives?

Humans are tribal by nature. And, it turns out, tribe trumps principles in terms of defining our identity, and political parties feed that tribal nature. Recent work by Jay Van Bavel, a psychology professor at NYU (with colleague Andrea Pereira), shows that people use their political affiliation to define themselves and that political party supersedes principles in defining our identity. This politics-over-principle might not be such a problem, except we will do mental backflips to protect our identity. In other words, once we incorporate Democrat or Republican into our identity, “The tribal nature of the human mind leads people to value party dogma over truth …. This model describes why party affiliation exerts such a strong impact on people’s judgments that they often abandon cherished values and beliefs in favor of party loyalty.” Van Bavel's and Pereria’s findings explain how, as the parties shift their principles, voters follow along.

To be clear, our own beliefs might count for something: they may drive our initial party affiliation. Depending on how we feel about trade or regulation or government spending, we are sorted as Democrat or Republican (or Gryffindor or Slytherin, for that matter). But even if the initial sorting might be belief-driven, thereafter party affiliation is in the driver’s seat. We do whatever it takes to maintain our “Republican-ness” (or “Democrat-ness”) because the party has become our tribe. This explains people’s willingness to fight their party’s battles even when the parties take stances contrary to principles that may have motivated them to join the party in the first place.

We see a lot of commentators, as a rhetorical device, taking something Trump says or does and asking, "How would you react if it were Obama who did that?" The expectation is that someone outraged by Trump would re-examine their opinion upon realizing they’d have reacted otherwise if it were Obama, or vice-versa. That tactic is powerless in the face of tribalism.

Recent events confirm: Politics is not about the principle. It's about the tribe.