Iowa Source October Article

The Iowa Source  October 2018  

Tribal Politics:
"We're right, you're wrong!"

For some time, I’ve been troubled by the political divisiveness in our country and our community. I have friends who can’t talk to loved ones about political differences without it escalating into a fight. Others admit to sidestepping anything political for the sake of keeping certain friendships, while some have stopped talking altogether to friends from the opposing political party. I’ve seen indignation simply for suggesting that the opposite side may have a valid perspective. And still others persist in emailing and posting articles that find fault with the other side. It’s disheartening.

by  Julia Mandarino Ph.D.

Our political polarization, as marriage therapist Bill Doherty [1] has pointed out, is like a couple in crisis. From my own work with couples, I know that a hallmark of distressed couples is a breakdown in communication, with each partner spinning a one-sided story and blaming the other for their problems. If I listened to only one partner, I’d form a distorted picture of the relationship. Yet this distorted picture is what each partner tells their friends, who usually support their story without hearing the other side. If the couple separates, their circle of friends also separates into what’s called a “community divorce.”

Similarly, Americans have divided into opposing political groups, each blaming the other, and neither listening to the other. The resulting “social divorce” pits political groups against each other, with members associating exclusively with their own group. Yale law professor Amy Chua labels this mutual blaming and isolation as tribal: “. . . America is in the grip of political tribalism. We lament and condemn this phenomenon even as we voraciously engage in it.“ [2]

Psychologists have studied tribalism, a.k.a. “inter-group relations,” extensively.[3] Forming groups, or tribes, is a natural human instinct. But distrust between tribes is also instinctive. Our tribe protects us; theirs threatens us. In this “us-versus-them” dynamic, each tribe maintains, “We’re right, they’re wrong. We do good, they do harm.” Further, tribal unity is strengthened by scorning the other group, along with anyone who speaks favorably of them. Without positive contact, stereotyping and prejudice are inevitable. [4]

History has shown how tribes can then spiral into bigotry, discrimination, and persecution.

Signs of political tribalism in today’s society are inescapable. Partisan media present one-sided stories, portraying their political opponents in a negative light. Meanwhile, social media enable us to isolate ourselves by blocking opposing viewpoints and anyone who holds them. People freely denounce and make jokes about members of the other tribe. Moreover, instead of acting to unify differences, some of our leaders have exacerbated tribal allegiances. We are segregating ourselves—not on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity, but by political affiliation.

One ramification of tribal politics is that party loyalty supersedes issues. Recent studies by Lilliana Mason [5] show that people override evidence and even their own preferences on issues to support their party’s position. Our side must win. More importantly, according to research, the other side must lose. When each tribe is out to beat the other, productive political discourse—working together toward compromise and consensus—is a casualty. It’s like two angry spouses who are more invested in defeating each other than in resolving their differences. Under such contention, they are unlikely to communicate well or achieve any meaningful resolution.

Likewise, the rancor between our political tribes hampers our ability, let alone our willingness, to handle national issues. That’s why, in my opinion, political tribalism is our number one problem. Like the angry couple, we can’t seriously address our issues while each tribe is striving to defeat the other.

In couples therapy, I would guide them to listen to and understand one other. As mutual understanding dawns, connection and good will start returning. This good will is the basis for facing their issues. In the same way, the Red/Blue Workshops developed by Bill Doherty (offered through the Better Angels organization [6] free of charge) have helped opposing political groups engage in open, productive conversations. Doherty realized that the same tools used with couples can be adapted to the nation at large. His objective is not to debate or change anyone’s views, but to listen, learn, and find common ground.

Even while we disagree, we can move beyond our current tribal politics to regain basic good will and respect for one another. Abraham Lincoln’s address to our nation is as relevant today as in 1861, when we were on the brink of tribal warfare—civil war: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” [7]

Email Joe and Julie at For more information, see


[1] William Doherty, PhD, is a professor and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project and the Citizen Professional Center at the University of Minnesota.

[2] Amy Chua “The Destructive Dynamics of Political Tribalism” New York Times Op-Ed, February 20, 2018.

[3] For a comprehensive review, see Lilliana Mason, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. University of Chicago Press. 2018. 

[4]  Nelson Mandela (In His Own Words, 2003, NY, NY: Little Brown) wrote:

When we dehumanise and demonise our opponents, we abandon the possibility of peacefully resolving our differences, and seek to justify violence against them. 

[5] Lilliana Mason.  “Ideologues Without Issues: The Polarizing Consequences of Ideological Identities.” Public Opinion Quarterly 82 (S1): 280-301. 2018.


[7] Abraham Lincoln, March 1861.  The full quotation is “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

The idea of recognizing something that’s shared with the other – even in moments of fierce conflict – is beautifully reflected in Abraham Lincoln’s use of the term “better angels” in his First Inaugural Address in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War. William Seward, who would serve as Lincoln’s Secretary of State, had suggested that Lincoln close his speech by calling upon the “the guardian angel of the nation.” Lincoln changed it to “the better angels of our nature.” In Seward’s version, what was needed would come from outside us. In Lincoln’s version, it would come from within us, something “better” in the “nature” of both Northerners and Southerners.  [Reproduced here from the website.]

3 thoughts on “Iowa Source October Article”

  1. Today’s political tribalism (as you illustrated above) is called “Common-Enemy Identity Politics” by Jonathon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in their new book: The Coddling of the American Mind. In their words, “Identifying a common enemy is an effective way to enlarge and motivate your tribe.” So much of political commentary these days seems to be reinforcing the idea that politics is a battle between the good (us) and the bad/evil (them).
    By the way, Haidt and Lukianoff contrast this polarizing style of politics with “Common-humanity identity politics” where leaders humanize their opponents and appeal to their humanity while applying political pressure in other ways. Obvious examples of this style are Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

    • Thanks for the reference.
      There are many negative consequences to our current tribal polarization (the common-enemy politics). We are all aware that much of the political conversation/communication today (either in person, in print or social media) focuses on finding fault with and demonizing of the other political tribe. When two people of the same political tribe communicate in this style, what transpires is not an exchange of ideas but a mutual confirmation of bias and even bigotry, as same-tribe members are encouraged to signal that they are good members of the tribe by adopting the most extreme views of their tribe. Unfortunately, this happens on both sides of the political spectrum.

      Fewer, I imagine, have experienced the surprise of a meaningful conversation with an open-minded person with different political views. In such a meaningful conversation, a consensus around an issue or issues is likely to emerge that is different from what any one person themselves could have crafted.
      Contrast this with the polarized name-calling that you see on Facebook, and you will see the difference between the collective wisdom of differing points of view and the group-think/mob mentality of tribalism.

      Therefore, it is for the very reason that we find inter-tribal political conversations difficult that we suggest that they are vital to seek out and learn how to participate in. And that is the mission of the Better Angels organization.

  2. “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties.”
    — John Adams
    I think a force that is driving the intensity of the division is the two party system. The nation is, to a large extent, divided into two warring camps. Unfortunately, the structure of our elections tend to encourage a two party system, and we have fallen victim to that division. Our elections require only a plurality to win. Any third party candidate that gets any significant number of votes only succeeds in throwing the election to the opposing party that they favor least. (Google “Duverger’s Law” and “Bull Moose Party”.) But I’m encouraged by the beginnings of change. One change, currently being used in the state of Maine, for example, is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). In RCV, a candidate must have a majority, not merely a plurality, to win. For details on how it works, see . This allows a larger selection of candidates and parties, and provides an incentive to candidates to be civil with other candidates since they may be a second choice of a voter who likes one of those other candidates. It gives candidates an incentive to appeal to a larger swath of the electorate rather than merely a “base” that will provide them with a sufficient plurality to win even if they have a minority of the votes. And it gives a voice to more voters who may not want either the two main parties as their first choice.


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