I’ve half-joked for years that Washington D.C. has too many Democrats, too many Republicans and far too few Americans. It’s not that our leaders aren’t patriotic. Instead, strong party identification itself is more hazardous to national governance than most suspect.
In Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them, Harvard Professor Joshua Greene delves into the problems created by tribally influenced public policy decisions. Throughout history, our moral intuitions are heavily influenced by human desire to remain in solidarity with our identified tribe (or political party). Human instincts frequently align with protecting the tribe rather than solving the problem. We’ve certainly seen this behavior in Washington expand exponentially since the early 1990s.
To make matters worse, even when political leaders engage what Greene refers to as their “manual mode” to more deeply reflect on ideal solutions, they are increasingly disoriented by the selective information sources that shape their views. Few elected officials have the time or political incentive to do what should be their most important work of studying why they might be wrong and whether alternative solutions exist outside of mainstream party policy.
There may be reason for hope. Recent Pew Research Center polling data shows that half of all Millennials now consider themselves political independents. This is the largest and fastest-growing generational party independence. If Americans move away from strong party identification toward issue-by-issue and person-by-person judgment of our elected leaders, we may be able to nudge our political leaders toward less tribal approaches. Of course, we will also need to enact political reforms, such as California’s recent move toward open primaries, to make it more likely that politicians who stray from their tribe on an issue can survive politically.