Humans are tribal. We tend to form groups with common interests. Each of us experiences a life-long tension between our desire to individuate and our desire to belong. We may form or join a group, and eventually the group will get a name, a label, to distinguish it from other groups. Thus is born the concept of us versus them.
We are born into some groups. Religion, nationality, family, ethnic or racial groups are examples of these. Our families are given to us, but we choose our friends. At different times during our lives we may identify more strongly with groups we have joined by choice than those we are in as an accident of birth. We may abandon family ties, or change religions, or become citizens of a different country. Such conversions usually include some rite of passage, some ceremony publicly indicating that we are now a part of this group, and have severed our relationship with that group. There may be a baptism, or a taking of an oath, or even a marking of our body in some way. We publicly take on the name or label of our group, and we usually want the world to know of our new means of self-identification.
Over many years or generations, our long-standing association with a certain group may become a matter of great pride to us, a time-honored tradition. We may no longer even know why our ancestors originally joined this group, but our own membership has been integrated into our sense of self. For some, the question of why you are a Catholic or a Democrat or Republican may seem incomprehensible, like why is there a moon in the sky? It just is. There doesn’t need to be an explanation. Our membership is marked by certain traditions, rituals, ceremonies, festivals, and of course, friends. Over time the why of our membership becomes less relevant.
As the traditions and creeds of acceptable behavior and thinking for members of the group become entrenched, they are treated as behavioral norms, and breaches of those norms are considered deviations and their practitioners deviant. Deviants are treated differently, ranging from reduced status to outright eviction from the group. In every religion for example, there are the orthodox devout and there are the cafeteria believers, those who pick and choose which of the rules and beliefs they will actually adhere to. Most groups will tolerate deviant behavior, particularly if the group continues to receive financial support from the slackers. What cannot be tolerated is assimilation or loss of group identity, any weakening of the us versus them. Demonizing the enemy builds cohesion in the home tribe.
In time all groups degenerate into power struggles, and joining a group allows us to participate in the power struggle either directly or vicariously. Take for example our fondness for identifying with certain professional sports teams. We may root for the Baltimore Boas because they have an incredible pitcher and a powerful batting line-up. But if over the years those special players get traded to other teams, our loyalties do not follow the players, but generally remain with the local team. And if, God forbid, the owner of the Baltimore Boas uproots the entire team and relocates them to Baton Rouge, we will abandon our beloved Boas and switch loyalties to the new replacement Baltimore Pythons. So what exactly are we doing here? We have not attached to a coach, or the players, or any specific group of players. We have attached to a label. To a brand. We exult with their triumphs, and we share the agony of their defeats, and we will argue endlessly and passionately about what they could have or should have done. We belong. We are a part of things. This is our team. As individuals, we are faceless fans; in the aggregate we fill their stadiums.
We identify with political and religious labels in much the same way. For example, am I a Democrat or a Republican? Suppose for example I see myself as a Democrat. What exactly does that label mean to me? Does it mean I espouse every plank in this year’s national or local election? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps I believe a woman should have the right to her own body, but I am fiscally conservative and do not agree with bailouts of the big banks, or of our nation’s myriad undeclared wars and projection of force on people who want to self-govern. Or vice versa.
A hundred fifty years ago, the Democratic Party politically controlled the South, creating and implementing Jim Crow racist laws to maintain white supremacy in post-Reconstruction. The Democrats were the conservatives of the era, in the sense that their intent was to preserve the status quo power structure, the aristocracy of the slave-holding South. The Republican Party as we know it today was formed in reaction to this. At their first convention in 1880, they stated: “Resolved: That in view of the necessity of battling for the first principles of Republican government, and against the schemes of aristocracy [the slave-holding South] . . . . we will . . . be known as Republicans.”
Over the following century, the Democratic Party did an about-face and became the major political force behind the Civil Rights movement. Would a 1960s Democrat have been proud to call himself an 1870s Democrat? Probably not. By the 1960s the parties had flip-flopped and the Republicans had become the conservatives. Eventually the Democrats lost political control of the South. The labels changed meaning. For some Democrats, nothing ever changed. They were cafeteria Democrats. They approved of some things their party stood for, and disapproved of other things. But they were still Democrats.
The same of course is true of Republicans. They may see themselves as fiscally conservative, but social liberals. They don’t care if you are gay or not, but they don’t think their government should recklessly forge ahead with more and more debt. They may strongly disagree with certain elements of their party platform, but to get their team elected they will have to put up with disagreeable content in their party’s platform. And of course those wanting to lead the parade have no choice but to pander to all significant subgroups. After the election is over, let the infighting and the scrambling for positions in the power structure begin. Again, the group will tolerate dissidence, particularly if the financial support of the group continues. Leadership of groups comes at a price, and clarity of purpose (other than winning), transparency and integrity are the first values to be sacrificed. The benefit for members is that they get to belong. Our team. Our triumphs and our defeats. Our iconic leaders. As individuals we are faceless voters; in the aggregate we put leaders into power.