An Outstanding Analysis of Political Views in the U.S.

Hidden Tribes is an excellent analysis of the things that divide us.

Posted Oct 19, 2018

If you want to understand the political landscape in the United States, read the report, Hidden Tribes, just released by the group More In Common. The group was initiated with the purpose of building communities and societies that are stronger, more resilient, and more united. They seek to “develop positive narratives that tell a new story of ‘us’, celebrating what we all have in common rather than what divides us” and to “connect people on a large scale and across lines of difference.”

To achieve this admirable goal, we need to understand who we are as a country and what defines our core identities. Toward that end, they developed the Hidden Tribes Report to help clarify “what is driving us apart, and what can bring us back together.” It is simply the best and clearest analysis of the political landscape in the U.S. I have ever seen. No matter where you are on the spectrum—and especially if you are feeling exhausted or disengaged with politics—I encourage you to read it, and use it to understand the situation we find ourselves in.

The report lays out seven different political-identity groups, and lists them in order from left to right on the political spectrum as follows:

1. Progressive Activists (8 percent of population): younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.

2. Traditional Liberals (11 percent of population): older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.

3. Passive Liberals (15 percent of population): unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.

4. Politically Disengaged (26 percent of population): young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial.

5. Moderates (15 percent of population): engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.

6. Traditional Conservatives (19 percent of population): religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.

7. Devoted Conservatives (6 percent of population): white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising, patriotic.

The heart of the report explores the beliefs, values, attitudes, and identities of these groups across a wide arrange of issues, such as (a) immigration; (b) racism; (c) personal agency/responsibility; (d) White privilege; (e) Islamophobia; (f) climate change; and (g) poverty. The report profiles each group in terms of their core beliefs, demographic and socioeconomic makeup, and core issues.

The central finding of the report is that our political institutions have been taken over by the extremes of the political-identity continuum. Both progressive activists and devoted conservatives are highly engaged and attempting to promote their versions of reality, which, as the report brilliantly documents, are completely polarized opposites. One group, the devoted conservatives, endorses the traditional ideals of a wealthy and largely white male-dominated America. The other group, the activists, wants to undo virtually all aspects of that traditional identity, and give power to other social identity groups.

It is essential for everyone to realize that, combined, these extreme groups represent less than 15 percent of the population. It is also important to realize that these groups are the elite power brokers when it comes to educational, financial, and political influence. Finally, it is important to realize they are the most secure in terms of wealth and education.

In sum, everyone should be aware that the root of the breakdown in our government is an ideological war and power struggle between wealthy white conservatives trying to preserve their history and power, and highly educated, mostly white, financially secure intellectual elites who are insisting that people go global and make amends for sexism and racism, both historically and currently.

This battle is what is driving our polarized political climate and the “us-versus-them” tribalism that is tearing at the fabric of our country. As the report notes: “Debates about racial equity, police brutality, white privilege, affirmative action, religious liberty, feminism, immigrant rights, and DACA are constant flashpoints for the polarization between Americans today. The us-versus-them dynamics of these debates have convinced many that Americans are divided on every front: by race, gender, class, religion, age, identity, political party, and ideology.”

Crucial to the report is the finding that over two-thirds of the population fall into “the Exhausted Majority.” This includes the moderates, politically disengaged, passive liberals, and traditional liberals. (Interestingly, traditional conservatives are not part of this group, as they remain engaged).

Although the Exhausted Majority have a wide variety of different viewpoints, they are characterized by greater ideologically flexibility and a willingness to compromise. The also feel fatigued by U.S. political tribalism and forgotten in political debates. They range from very well informed to largely uninformed about political issues. They have complex and varied views on the contested issues that divide the extremes. For example, consider their attitudes toward racism and racial justice. In contrast to conservatives, the Exhausted Majority overwhelmingly agree that problems of racism are at least somewhat serious (87 percent). They also see racist acts as being at least somewhat common and are concerned about a growing threat of white supremacy. At the same time, unlike the progressive activists, they are mixed in their support of Black Lives Matter protesters (48 percent) and the meaning of Confederate monuments (59 percent of the Exhausted Majority view them more as symbols of Southern pride than as symbols of racism).

The ultimate take-home message of this report is crystal clear: A relatively small percentage of the American population has taken hold of our political institutions and are engaged a polarizing ideological civil war that is paralyzing our governing structures and forcing us into a tribalism most people don’t want and don't agree with. Two-thirds of the population, the Exhausted Majority, find both versions of reality to be unworkable extremes. Unfortunately, there is no clear ideological center for the majority to rally around. Rather, the country's power brokers and information sources are increasingly located in the elite extremes. These extremes are intent on feeding polarizing narratives that force a choice about which side to take. Of course, this only leads to more and more problems, as neither side can “win.” The majority needs to recognize that both sides benefit from the existence of the other. They are defined against each other and, through an increasingly polarized media, their battles drive the country’s attention.

What is needed for the good of the majority is a new political-identity narrative, one that tells the story of us in a more positive and unifying way.  

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