In the Review Section of Saturday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, the lead article was entitled “A Truce for our Tribal Politics”. It was written by Dr. Haidt – a social psychologist at New York University Stern School of Business and Dr. Iyer – a social psychologist and data scientist who is the executive director of CivilPollitics.org. Their analysis of this years political race is that the country is divided and hostile to each other because the hotly contested race for president has spawned a return to humanities tendency to form tribes that result hostility. Their first quote is a Bedouin saying, “Me against my brother, my brothers and me against our cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers.” In other words even though we may be related, we are often on opposite sides. Then they talk about some ways of dealing with each other that could minimize the hostility. The way things are going at this point, they say it’s likely that by Wednesday of this week, nearly half the voters will wake up and think we’re doomed.
With this blog, I tried to stay out of politics, but given where we are this election day and the article in the Journal, it’s hard not to make some observations. The article made me think about the candidates and political comments I’ve seen on TV and in the paper, along with conversations that I’ve had with my friends on both sides of the aisle. All of this confirms what the polls seem to be saying – the two candidates we have for president are two of the least liked candidates in our history. All of which would seem to indicate that people are going to vote for whoever they dislike the least rather than the one they like the most. So what’s going on here?
The first problem is that no one seems very happy with where the country is and where we have been in the last several years. The economy is still not good, terrorism is worse, the media has talked a lot about gridlock in Washington, and the current president has pushed the limits of presidential and administrative authority. And there has been a lot of reports in the press about changes in income distribution. We have a lot of reason for fear in our land, and fear probably drives tribalism. With one party there were two candidates, one was known and the one who was not so well-known, but wanted to change significantly the country. We git the better known, less fearful one. On the Republican side there were so many candidates that initially the votes were split. But one got the most media time because he made a lot of statements which were not standard political comments and probably played on people’s fears. He promised a lot of things that would be nice if he (or anyone) could deliver them. So we ended up with two people with extremely large egos, promising things that most of us don’t believe they can deliver. A lot of people who I know don’t like either candidate, but are going to vote for the one from their party (Tribalism?).
My definition of “leadership” has been that it is the ability two bring people together and have open, productive discussions that lead to solution alternatives that maybe no one had thought of initially. Ideally the solutions would be “win-win”, but at least you end with one that everyone “can live with”. The media seem to have a definition that says good leaders are the ones with the “best ideas” that can be sold to the majority. Selling ideas can result in something good or bad, depending on the person and how it’s sold, but it is hard for me to believe that one person’s idea is better than a group could come up with in an open productive discussion. I’m not alone in thinking this, it’s fairly common in management/leadership circles, the most popular – but not the only spokesman for this idea – was Stephen Covey.
But that type of leader is not who we have running for president this year. We have two people with big egos who don’t like to be disagreed with. They both seem to think they have the best ideas and should be allowed to go forward regardless of who might disagree. They don’t like people who disagree with them, but they have different ways of dealing with disagreeable people. One seems to combat disagreement with intimidation – public statements that attack them and are either un-truthful or at least exaggerate the truth. The other address this more from a back room manipulation and conspiracy process. Neither is good leadership from my point of view. They are both a little scary, but for different reasons. The public intimidation approach I believe drives people into tribal hatred. The back-room manipulation approach is not as obvious, but if it’s ever discovered by the media, can become a big deal with the public from a trust standpoint. But I think the public intimidation approach is potentially a bigger problem, because it almost guaranteed to drive us to “tribal politics” – both internally and externally. It is probably not going to get us into outright civil war, but it could hurt us internationally.
So who does one vote for? The people I know who are going for the intimidator are assuming are hoping that once elected he would calm down his public statements. and would represent fairly the party’s policy positions. But who knows, there have been almost no policy discussion in the campaigns, so we don’t really know what he will do with respect to the issues, we only know that he is carrying one tribes name. The other candidate has a public record, so we have some idea of where she would probably go with policy decisions. But she doesn’t seem very trustworthy and she could do some “back room stuff” that no one would like or if the media ever got hold of it – it could be disaster. If she were elected, with a congress from the other tribe, nothing might get done – which could be good or bad. The other candidate represents a “crap shoot”. One doesn’t know what he would do from either a public or a policy point of view. If he calms down, and respects the opinions of congress from both tribes, it could be great, but that isn’t a sure thing.
I don’t think – like the writers in the Journal article that we have to have tribal politics. The good news is that we all pretty much have the same objectives – we want a better economy, with enough jobs for everyone who want to work, we’s like to think our children and grand children would be at least – if not better – off than we were in terms of standard or living. We’ d like to help people who need it through no fault of their own, or even to get back on their feet if they have made mistakes. And we’d like to continue to have a democratic – republic and “peace in our time”. Most disagreements are not with “what we’d like to accomplish, but “how”. With most groups of people in my experience, if we have agreement on “what”, we can have civil, non-tribal, discussions of “how”. But to do that we need to be able to ask “why” other people believe in the “how” they are suggesting. Good leaders should be able to lead those discussions. But it can’t be done in 10 second sound bites that we get from the media.