Enough is enough. Both venerable political parties are on the road to self-immolation by enabling our politics of division demographically, ideologically, and regionally. And it simply is not working. Voter turnout in 2016 actually declined, especially among younger voters, and the splits within both parties render them almost useless as problem solvers and policymakers. It is very difficult to see any political agenda – from the left or right – having any chance of being fulfilled. It has become policy only to oppose and obstruct, investigate or call news conferences to demand more investigations, not propose and construct. This situation only further fuels the rage we see now coming from all sides.
The nonstop hammering of identity politics from both political parties is a top-down phenomenon and only serves to exacerbate an already tense and unproductive atmosphere. Unlike State Senator Barack Obama’s charge to the 2004 Democratic National Convention that there is “only a United State of America”, we are now balkanized into fragments and no longer engaging in a political discourse that respects each other. This situation cannot last. Fortunately, I believe there is a way out of this mess. There is a new paradigm for understanding the American people – the attributes, personality types and sacrosanct values that characterize us as separate “neo-tribes”, yet also highlight shared characteristics that offer a way to build bridges between these neo-tribes. I call these “tribal border crossings” and there is plenty of evidence to show that even the members of seemingly very divergent neo-tribes have the potential to work with, believe in, show support for, and vote with each other.
My sons, staff and I have been working on a process we call “tribal analytics” since 2009. Essentially, it is detailed polling of thousands of Americans, allowing them to tell their own story, share with us what is really important to them, describe who they really are, and ultimately name their own “neo-tribe”. From detailed open-ended surveys that allowed these new cohorts to develop, we conducted interviews with over 8,400 Americans to further refine what we were told and validate the actual neo-tribes. What has emerged from all of this work are 11 distinct neo-tribes:
Persistents—persevere over life’s struggles and adversity
Happy Hedonists—seek to have fun and live adventurously
God Squad—live to serve God and their faith
Self-Perfectionists—seek to be authentic and genuine but not necessarily appreciate in others
Adventurists—non-stop desire to travel across the highways and byways seeking kicks at every turn
One True Path – authenticity, duty, and family, and call to a higher mission to save their community and globe
Land of the Free—duty and responsibility, simplicity, and no frills, patriots to the end
Dutifuls—to live a life that is authentic, family-oriented, and duty to a higher authority, never break the rules
Outsiders—the ultimate individualists on the fringes
Creators—rebellious, authentic, adventurous, and creative
Go With the Flow—strive for balance, moderation, and zen
While talk of tribes is often synonymous with disunity, our “neo-tribes” reveal a unifying potential. “Neo-tribes’ teach us more about the values, attributes, interests, priorities, and personal stories we share and how we generally overlap. Thus, while Happy Hedonists identify themselves 3 to 1 as Democrats and the Dutifuls are significantly more likely to see themselves as Republicans, 25% – 33% are independents, they both prefer shopping at Target, and they have a significant overlap in identification with the God Squad. All three groups identify global warming as an important problem: Happy Hedonists say it is likely to keep them up at night while the Dutifuls and God Squad fret over “man’s stewardship of God’s Earth”. They all substantially favor Dunkin Donuts coffee over Starbucks and have crossover supporters of gay marriage, are two to one more likely to see God as “Creator than as Watchmaker”, and own a gun. There are differences, to be sure, but the overlaps are much more intriguing and potentially fruitful.
There are plenty examples of these “tribal border crossings” in my book, We Are Many, We Are One: Neo-Tribes and Tribal Analytics in 21st Century America (2016). Neo-Tribes can offer a newer look at America, moving away from one-dimensional, top-down demographics towards how people really live, think, feel, value, and what they aspire to be. There is a way out of our mess but it requires such a fresh look and, above all, a strong will to lead based on commonalities and not playing into fears and rage.
I will layout scenarios on how this works in a series of columns. A key point will emerge: a bottom-up approach to understanding how and why people bond is far superior to top-down manipulation of people’s fears by party elites. Narrow identity politics are a dead end for both political parties.