One of the defining characteristics of our age is emotional partisanship when Americans’ political and ideological self-identities are so emotionally powerful that they become the lens through which Americans view many nonpolitical aspects of their lives.
As I’ve written recently, the results of identifying strongly with a tribe reflect an inherent human desire for social solidarity. As we saw in Sebastian Junger’s fascinating book Tribe, there is great power in being part of a close-knit group with a common purpose and common threats. This, according to Junger, helps explain why military veterans miss combat and reenlist to go back to war zones, and why in U.S. history settlers captured by Native Americans infrequently wanted to leave those tribes and go home (and why few Native Americans fled their tribes to join settlers).
We have fewer opportunities for such real-world, in-person group solidarity these days (for a variety of reasons). Our political identity can thus increasingly become our tribal identity (even if most of the identifying comes about remotely). This process is aided and abetted by people and entities who benefit from tribalism, including media outlets eager for ratings and politicians eager for primary votes.
As noted, as our political identity becomes a dominant part of our self-identity, it can evolve into the dominant framework through which we view and evaluate what’s going on around us. This happens in part because the intense emotions that many Americans attach to their political identity are extraordinarily powerful. Recent research shows, for example, that people can adjust race, ethnicity, sexual identity and class labels to fit with their political identity.
Political identity is so powerful, it appears, that it can even result in changes in the way we view our religious lives. Dr. Michele Margolis of the University of Pennsylvania posits that one explanation for the well-known connection between politics and religiosity in the U.S. today is the tendency to adjust the latter to fit the former (as is evident from the title of her award-winning book, From Politics to the Pews). Margolis is careful to note that this relationship is complex. But her research emphasizes that for some people, rather than picking a political identity to fit with their underlying religion and religious identity, they choose a religious identity and level of religiosity that fits with their underlying (and powerful) political identity.
One might think that Americans assess the economy based on what they hear and read about the stock market, unemployment and indications of business vitality. But a persistent finding is that Americans’ views of the economy are substantially affected by their underlying political identity. When a president of a different political party takes over the White House, as has happened most recently in 2000, 2008 and 2016, Republicans’ and Democrats’ assessments of the economy change essentially overnight. In 2017, for example, it became cognitively inconsistent for Democrats to believe that the economy was getting better and in good shape with a Republican president in charge, so their positive views of the economy plummeted. Republicans suddenly became much more positive about the economy. As my colleague, Andrew Dugan noted in his analysis of 2017 Gallup data, “Republicans’ confidence in the economy stood at +46 in 2017, a 77-point improvement from 2016.”
The point here is that our political identity — which in today’s environment often centers on views of President Donald Trump — is a central lens in how we see the rest of the world. Humans seek cognitive consistency. If our political identity, bolstered by emotional connections, is our primary underlying self-identity, then we will adjust many of our attitudes and views to be cognitively consistent with that political identity.