Elections and Tribalism

I’ve been reflecting on our provincial election, which has resulted in these thoughts. Though I’m not a huge sports fan, I follow enough and am emotionally engaged enough to care about who wins in particular settings (realistically, mostly in tennis). At some level, I realize how completely ridiculous this is. It is bizarre that my emotional state of mind can be effected, sometime quite substantially, by whether or not some overpaid young person hits a yellow ball more consistently and accurately than another on a particular day halfway across the world. But I have identified with the fate of particular players; they are my players, I am their fan. I am pleased if my players win and disappointed if my players lose.

For the purposes of this little piece, I’m going to use the term `tribalism’ to refer to the emotional attachment to the success of a particular team against another. Team, of course, can be interpreted very, very broadly here. In other blogs I read, the term is used as a criticism of religious; a religious tribalism seeks the cultural domination of its particular brand of religion. One of the main things I hope to learn from religion (through a theoretical understanding I borrow from Ken Wilber) is precisely the opposite of identifying with a team of any sort. Instead, religion should seek to break down the barriers between people. In religious development, a person’s sense of who ‘their people’ are should be expanded in greater and greater circles until it encompasses the entire human race.

There is a temptation to view a democratic election as a kind of sporting event, which leads to tribalism of political parties. A political party, much like a religious group, breeds group identification. One a party is `our team’, we want our group to win, campaigning is strategy, points are scored, and so on.

Elections as sporting events and party affiliation as tribalism are problematic. The point of an election is not that my party wins. Rather, the hope (idealistically) is that representatives are chosen who will make the best decision for the governance of the community. (I would add a slant towards the more vulnerable and at-risk portions of the community, which I realize is a political position in itself). I realize that a simple response is just this: “I believe that my party has the best representatives.” I’m sure most voters believe this, and most party affiliations begin for precisely this reason: because we believe the party has the best approach to governance. But if identification with a party become emotionally strong enough, it become the primary goal. This is where, as far as I can observe, it become problematic.

Several observation lead me to this reticence towards party affiliation. Parties change and morph, both quickly with leadership changes and slowly over the demographic shifts of generations. Loyalty to a party which began out of simple agreement with their principles can override the need to reconsider those principle. This is where the emotional tribalism of party affiliation becomes problematic; when emotionally connected, it’s much harder to reconsider loyalties.

Party affiliation and tribalism also make cooperation much more difficult. I my vision of a healthy democracy, parties and subgroup of parties should be cooperating frequently; basically, anytime there is a share set of values, principle or goals. Our political system should encourage party cooperation for the purpose of good governance. The adversarial nature of tribalism in politics make this cooperate much more difficult, and our governance suffers for it.

Parties often tend to govern differently from how they campaign. I don’t necessary think this is a huge problem, since the details of governing are infinitely more complicated than the simplicity of campaign slogans and promises. However, a huge part of the difference between campaigning and governing is the fact that power changes people. Most parties and leaders, regardless of their original motivations, govern at least partially to maintain power. That impulse is often at odds with the general good, particularly for vulnerable populations. This is the old adage that power corrupts: in my experience, this adage holds true and most people fail to take it serious enough.

I don’t expect salvation from political leadership. Simplistically stated, I tend left-of-centre (as much as I detest the left/right dichotomy in political discussion and analysis), but should a left-of-centre party win my provincial or national election this year, I don’t expect radical change. I hope for marginal change in a positive direction. That kind of limited and reticent optimism is difficult start to build a enthusiastic party endorsement and I am grateful for it.

In particular to the Alberta election, lacking a strong party affiliation is particularly important. There are four somewhat left and centre/left parties in this current election: the Greens, the Liberals, the Alberta Party and the NDP. Identifying tribally with any of them is counterproductive, since the success of any particular group depends greatly on the position in their individual riding. (The problems with the current voting system are a subject for another time). Party identification prevents necessary cooperation between these groups to try and work within the current electoral system. The same can be said of Wild Rose/PC cooperation where their priorities overlap, as well as PC/Liberal cooperation over the broad centre of the political spectrum. As noted before, cooperation between parties should be a hallmark of a healthy democracy, but it is seen an anathema.