Being denounced by your own tribe is disorienting and it hurts. I can imagine how Jennifer Walmer, lifelong Democrat and state director of the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform felt when she was booed at the Colorado Democratic State Assembly on April 14. Although DFER supports mainstream education policies like national standards, public charter schools, and increased education funding, delegates voted to strip the word “Democrats” from the group’s name. Although impossible to enforce, the amendment has become part of the Colorado Democratic Party platform.
I’ve been there. I remember walking on stage to applause and smiles and stepping off to glares and crossed arms. From the moment I said, “I can’t vote for the Republican nominee, Donald Trump,” I became an apostate despite having served as a GOP precinct leader, donor, and volunteer for more than two decades. I was a Republican and a talk show host back then. The angry callers, vicious tweets, profanity-laced emails, and efforts to have me taken off the air taught me a hard lesson.
Like a lot of people, I once believed my political tribe was a little more virtuous than the other side. I thought we were less likely to silence a viewpoint, to vote for an immoral leader, to use inflammatory rhetoric, or to justify means by ends. I was wrong. Ethics are a matter of convenience, dispensable in the pursuit of power, whatever one’s party. Elections are about winning, nothing else. If Bill Clinton had put an R by his name, Republicans would have voted for him and if Donald Trump had been the Democratic nominee, he would have gained their support.
Ideals matter about as much as character. Most people, as it turns out, are more attached to their political party than any ideology and are willing to change policy preferences to stay in line with the pack. Researchers Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe, authors of “Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public” (2017), found most Americans don’t choose their political party because it aligns with their principles; they choose their party because it was how they were raised and where their friends are. It’s their tribe and they accept its policy preferences as received wisdom.
This explains why party platforms are a hodgepodge of conflicting ideologies, interests, and policies that change over time, but few party members are bothered by the inconsistencies. Over the past 150 years, the GOP and Democratic Party have taken turns as the champion of free trade, business regulation, immigration, military intervention, and federalism. Today, a party leader can praise a balanced budget amendment while passing a deficit-exploding tax bill and boosting spending for the military. Another can extol freedom to choose but oppose parental choice in education, choice in health insurance plans, and the choice not to join a union as condition of employment. No one questions the contradictions.
Tribalism binds and blinds us. It discourages self-criticism while amplifying the flaws of opposing tribes. Tribalism isn’t all bad. The ability of unrelated humans work together to accomplish tasks is unrivaled in the animal world. It’s how we built civilization. But tribalism has a dark side: group think, identity politics, enmity towards out-groups, loyalty tests, intolerance, booing crowds at assemblies.
Sometimes you have to leave the tribe. The number of unaffiliated Colorado voters now surpasses the membership of either party. Being an exile frees one to evaluate ideas and leaders based on merit and principles not party dogma or cults of personality. Among the tribeless, there are no shibboleths, no oaths, no litmus tests, no partisan filters. One can appreciate both Congressman Mike Coffman (R) and Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and criticize President Trump (R) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D) without betraying a team. Ideas and character matter more.
Do I recommend leaving one’s party, Jennifer Walmer? Most days it feels liberating. Some days, though, I can’t shake the feeling I’ve left a familiar shore, the smoke of the tribe’s hearth receding behind me, unchartered waters ahead and I’m alone at the rudder.