The Snare of Tribalism

The Snare of Tribalism

“Human beings are poor examiners, subject to superstition, bias, prejudice, and a profound tendency to see what they want to see rather than what is really there.” – M. Scott Peck

“I think the hardest part about being a fangirl is when you truly fall in love with your bias.” – Eunhyuk

Human beings are social creatures. Our ancestors wouldn’t have survived if they did not form tribes and give each other help and support. In some ways, we are wired to be tribal and associate ourselves with a particular group. But, if we’re not careful that same tribalism can cloud our judgment and it’s been on the rise in the United States and around the world. It would be hard to prove why, but various factors have been suggested that include a rise in negative campaigning, the emergence of viewpoint-based media, and the after-effects of targeted marketing, where we are inundated with information that are likely to reinforce our viewpoints.

Shanto Iyengar, Gaurav Sood, and Ypatch Lelkes – researchers from Stanford, Princeton, and The University of Amsterdam – demonstrated the extent of our increased tribalism in 2012. Relying on historical survey data in the United States, they concluded that dislike of people in the opposing party has been on the rise since the 1980s, but that this rise was in no way related to changes in policy differences. We just, more and more, dislike the other guy because he’s ‘with them.’ They wrote in their findings, “the mere act of identifying with a political party is sufficient to trigger negative evaluations of the opposition, and exposure to prolonged media-based campaigns only reinforces these predispositions.”

Ivengar followed up this research with a further paper co-authored with Princeton’s Sean J. Westwood in 2014. They wanted to see how strong political tribalism was compared to racial tribalism. Their findings showed that people’s reflexive preference for their own political affiliation was far stronger than their preference for their own racial affiliation and hypothesized that one factor explaining this was the social pressure against racism which is absent in political tribalism. Indeed, it is practically expected. Not only is polarization changing people’s perceptions about each other, but it is having real effects on generalized culture.

These trends towards tribalism are dangerous. While campaigning, President Trump famously said that he could walk out to Fifth Avenue, shoot someone, and not lose support. If he’s exaggerating, he’s not by much. It’s important to distinguish his support among his base as policy support versus support for the President. Someone could agree with Trump on his healthcare proposal or tax reform or trade policies and still grow uncomfortable with revelations that he disclosed classified information and fired the FBI Director to squash an investigation. But it no longer works that way. To Republicans, Democrats are the enemy and everything is subordinated to that belief. I wonder if Nixon were President today if he would be forced to resign. The tribalism of today well could have protected him.

We also do not see this phenomenon only in the United States. An op-ed in the The Wall Street Journal about Colombia illustrates this. It was written by Mary Anastasia O’Grady and titled, “A Colombian Shakedown in Washington.”

Ms. O’Grady has consistently voiced her opposition to the recent peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Marxist guerrilla group FARC, primarily on the basis that the penalties against FARC members were not harsh enough. I argued prior to the plebiscite in which voters were asked to approve that agreement that it was in Colombia’s best interest to vote in favor of peace. I also argued after the election that while the agreement was a good one, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was wrong to put the agreement before the Colombian Congress and not once again ask voters for approval. Despite the difference of opinion with Ms. O’Grady, this is not very troubling to me. Many held a negative view of the peace agreement on principled grounds.

What is troubling is the extent to which the growing tribalism already discussed so clearly colored her viewpoint and also countless viewpoints in Colombia.

The previous President of Colombia was Alvaro Uribe who first won the Presidential election in 2002. He was credited with making important strides against groups like the FARC and held to conservative political beliefs. The Constitution of Colombia banned him from running for a third term, so in 2010 he endorsed the eventual winner of the Presidential election, his Defense Minister Santos.

Santos would most properly be considered a political centrist. His family owned the largest newspaper in Colombia, El Tiempo, for many years. When it became clear that he wanted to chart his own course as President, a schism opened between himself and Mr. Uribe. Policy towards FARC was front and center in the dispute. Uribe was appalled that Santos felt the right path forward was to end the violence by negotiation. But the FARC was merely one policy difference. Mr. Santos also favored fiscal consolidation to tax cuts and when corruption charges came down on some in Uribe’s inner circle, allegations that the charges were politically motivated were made. Uribe’s supporters felt misled by Santos, who they saw as saying the right things to garner an endorsement and then turning away. Once the two personalities became entrenched in Colombia, the issue became much more a question of which tribe is yours and not what is best for the country.

Although O’Grady is not Colombian, few illustrations of this are more potent than her op-ed yesterday. If I did not have independent knowledge, I might have walked away from reading the piece believing that Santos is the devil incarnate. Three statements that Ms. O’Grady made in particular simply do not stand up to the slightest scrutiny.

“On almost all counts, Colombia is worse off than when Mr. Santos took the helm.”

First, Ms. O’Grady charges that the Colombian economy has been decelerated because of tax increases. We are lucky when discussing economics to have a plethora of data available to inform our viewpoints. After all, that’s a better way than tribalism to come to conclusions. Economic data in Colombia is pretty unambiguous: the country is better off economically than in 2010.

GDP growth in Colombia, Brazil, and the United States, 2002-2016.

It’s true that the rate of growth has declined somewhat, but Colombian growth is impressive over the period both in isolation and when compared to Brazil, the largest economy in South America, and the United States, Colombia’s largest trading partner.

Between 2002 and 2009, the simple average of annual GDP growth in Colombia was 4.4% and between 2010 and 2016, it was 4.2%. Relative to Brazil, growth was more impressive during the years Santos has been President, while the gap with the United States narrowed somewhat.

GDP growth by year and averages over selected time periods.

That is not to say that President Santos has a perfect record. Currently, both the budget deficit and the current account deficit are too high. But, a large reason for that has been declining prices for oil and other commodities. Most forecasters expect both deficits to narrow in 2017.

The budget and current account deficits in Colombia, 2007-2016.

Most impressively, Colombia has fared well in many development metrics. The poverty rate has fallen from 37% to 28% and while inequality, as measured by the income GINI coefficient, has not improved as much as it should have – from 55.5 to 53.5 – Colombia has seen steady growth in the United Nations’ human development index. That index is a composite of life expectancy, education, and per-capita income.

Measures of development in Colombia. Note that data is not available in all years.

Underlining Colombia’s progress, it is on track to join the OECD club of rich countries sometime in the near future.

Most long-range data also support the claim that Mr. Uribe was a good economic steward, but it simply does not comport to the claim that Colombians are economically less well off since Mr. Santos assumed the Presidency. In fact, it unequivocally contradicts that claim.

“Mr. Santos has presided over a corruption boom.”

The evidence cited for corruption allegations is rankings from Transparency International and political donations from Brazilian company Odebrecht to Santos’ campaign.

Transparency International measures perceptions of corruption within a country through polling data, which has both advantages and disadvantages. It is a convenient way to measure a very complicated factor. It is true that between 2010 and 2016, Colombia’s ranking in the world fell from 78th to 90th. But, it is also true that the actual score Colombia was given by Transparency International also increased from 35 to 37. The worst, then, that can be said is that the country has not reduced corruption at the same rate as the world has. Much more has to be done, Colombia has far too much corruption. But, it’s quite a stretch to say that Santos has “presided over a corruption boom” or to insinuate that he is personally corrupt.

Colombia’s global rank in corruption and raw score according to Transparency International. A lower ranking indicates less corruption, while a higher score also indicates less corruption.

Political opponents of Santos point to the Odebrecht investigation as evidence of the President’s corruption. Odebrecht is a Brazilian construction company that paid bribes for years to win business. There is no question that Santos was wrong in the matter. His campaign illegally accepted contributions and all foreign contributions are prohibited in the country. He said he had no knowledge of the donations and asked the country for forgiveness. Is he sincere? I have no idea, but it does not strike me as evidence of a boom in corruption in a country with Colombia’s history. Nor should it be assumed that corruption was absent while Mr. Uribe was President. Quite the opposite was the truth. Human rights also took a blow when it was discovered that the military was killing civilians and dressing them in rebel uniforms in order to receive rewards and promotions during his tenure. About 2,000 people died. As Minister of Defense at the time, Santos bears responsibility along with Uribe.

But, then there are Mr. Uribe’s curious ties to right-wing paramilitary organizations. A front-page story in The New York Times from September 10, 2016, discusses an event in 2008 when imprisoned paramilitaries were flown out of Colombia in the middle of the night and extradited to the United States. The United States had pressured Colombia for years to extradite certain prisoners wanted on drug trafficking charges, but Colombia consistently refused. Why did Mr. Uribe have a change of heart? It seems that the paramilitary leaders were not only confessing their own crimes but openly discussing their ties to Uribe and his family.

This history exposes another point of confusion for Ms. O’Grady. She says that in Colombia you are now arrested if you oppose the President and cites Uribe’s brother Santiago as an example. Except that Santiago Uribe is no political prisoner. It seems foolish to think that arresting him on trumped on charges while his brother is a Senator would actually accomplish anything. He is in prison because of his involvement with a right-wing death squad called “The Twelve Apostles.”

Ignoring the crimes of right-wing leaders and lambasting those of left-wing guerrillas seems pretty tribal to me.

“But Colombia is no longer the ally it was under Mr. Uribe. Mr. Santos’s friends are Cuba and Venezuela.”

This statement, that Santos values the friendship of Cuba and Venezuela above that of the United States, is an extremely puzzling one. It is true that for most of his Presidency Mr. Santos has been cordial to Venezuela and seemed to be hesitant to involve himself in a conflict. It is also true that he wanted the country’s help in ending Colombia’s war with FARC. But, that is very far from being their “friend.” Just last month Santos publicly stated that the “Bolivarian Revolution” has failed. He has also recalled Colombia’s Ambassador from the country, thus essentially ending formal diplomatic relations.

Cuba and Colombia have traditionally had a close relationship and Mr. Santos’ style is one of being an interlocutor. As a result, he has at times attempted to be an intermediary between Cuba and the United States. In 2012 he convinced Cuba to drop its invitation to a regional gathering in order for United States President Barack Obama to attend.

Santos is an American-trained economist. Saying that he no longer views the United States as an ally, doesn’t even pass the smell-test.

All around the world in places like Colombia and the United States people are losing their objectivity. We need a sense of community and we need to feel we are part of a larger group at times to have fulfillment. That does not mean that we need to lose all objectivity. When President Trump in the United States pressures the head of the FBI to drop an investigation concerning him, that is objectively wrong regardless of your tribe. When Santos deviates from the path you would take as leader of the country, judge him on his merits and results – not pre-formed conclusions.

It is likely that Ms. O’Grady is a very decent person. But, in citing the record on the economy, corruption, and foreign policy she gets the facts objectively and clearly wrong. Too many of us fall into the same trap of tribalism that she did. Former President Uribe did many good things and will likely be remembered fondly by history. He was involved in some questionable ones too. It may also be true that President Santos did deceive Mr. Uribe and members of his party in order to gain their endorsement. But, as President of a sovereign country, he gets the right to set his own course and he deserves to be measured on objective criteria, not the criteria that gets concocted because you feel a greater affection for Uribe and conservative politics.

We have to continue to challenge ourselves based upon evidence, rather than picking our side and then cherry picking information that best suits that position. It’s the basis for progress in every country and the world.

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