Chester Spell

Chester S Spell Ph.D.

Team Spirit

Elections and Teams

A divide too deep to cross?

Posted Nov 28, 2016

The election is over, and while this year was by all accounts an “unconventional “contest, the reaction to the results might be the most interesting part. College campuses (both of ours included) have held everything from rallies protesting the results to declarations that the campus is a sanctuary for immigrants and international students to counseling sessions for students upset at the prospect of a Trump presidency. Such reaction is not limited to college campuses; the TNT network’s basketball analysts took time away from normal sports programming to devote several minutes of post-election reflection from former NBA players Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley, in addition to moderator Ernie Johnson, none of them political pundits. So what does all this have to do with groups and teams? Maybe a lot, actually.

Look at it this way. Think about all the people that you know or have read about who say they simply can’t see how “…anyone, under any condition, could support a racist, xenophobic, narcissistic, misogynistic person like Trump.” Likewise, think about all the comments made by celebrities, perhaps people you know as well, that they “could not understand how any rational person could vote for someone as untrustworthy, who needs to be ‘locked up’ as Clinton. One side, at least for the most committed supporters, simply cannot understand how the other feels that way.

True, not everyone thinks this way. There were large numbers of undecided voters late in the election, you may say. But undecided does not mean they didn’t feel strongly about the candidates. Clearly, the type of strong words and accusations dominated the way the media framed the contest. And the way the media frames an election matters a lot, as we have seen very clearly in this election.

This election illustrated a glaring, raw, salient fault line in America. This fault line, or split in a group of people into smaller subgroups, is defined not only by demographic differences but by how you see the world. Yes, everyone has heard that white, non-college educated people supported Trump, but pollsters also tell us that Hispanics voted in significant numbers for Trump in some areas.  Some states that supported Obama for president in 2008 and 2012 supported Trump this time. So a simple argument based only on ethnicity, race or gender doesn't seem supported by the empirical evidence. A Pew Research Center poll last month found that, for example, Clinton supporters view racial and ethnic diversity as a positive, in contrast to Trump’s voters, and Clinton voters are twice as likely as Trump’s to say that women still face obstacles to advancement. A majority of Trump voters think children are better off if one parent stays at home, a minority view among Clinton supporters.

This sharp distinction between voters represents what can be called a population level fault line. Group research tell us that fault lines, especially those in small collections of people can be (but don’t have to be) bad. What’s good about a fault line? The sense of identity of being in a group of people defined by a fault line can be psychologically healthy. A recent set of experiments has shown that people that strongly identify with a political party (democratic or republican) are in general happier people- perhaps due to a heightened sense of belonging to something.

But fault lines, at least the type we see now in America, seem harmful in the long term. Intuitively most people recognize this and a result is that after every election there are the predictable calls to ‘come together’ by politicians on both camps, (including Donald Trump, by the way). So, can groups research, focused on up close studies of a few individuals, give us any clues about how to bring broad segments of the population together?  Emphasizing the things we have in common rather that what divides us is one way to draw attention away from perceived differences so fault lines will become relatively dormant, or deactivated. Thus, people focus on what we have in common rather than all those differences.  

Unfortunately, rather than blurring differences most political campaigns seem to be about sharpening them. Rather than making choices clearer, the result of this seems to be that many people simply don’t vote (close to half of all eligible voters opted out of this last election).  So what’s a voter to do? Perhaps the people to support in future elections are the ones who emphasize what they will do, not just for particular identity groups but generically, for all citizens, before the election, and not just after the score has been settled. Along these lines, some think Hillary Clinton should have focused more on jobs and other issues important to working class voters, Trump could have spent more effort on issues important to those in urban areas (and maybe he would have not lost the popular vote). While the harsh nature of todays' politics makes it seem unlikely, a politician that can truly reach out to different groups instead of a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy would not only follow what the science tells us would bring people together- it might just be a winning strategy.