Elections and counter-tribal signaling

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It’s no secret that politicians make a lot of campaign promises that they don’t keep. Bush Senior promised not to raise taxes; Bush Junior promised not to engage in nation building; Bill Clinton promised to give everyone health care; Ronald Reagan promised to abolish the Department of Education and not to deal with terrorists–like Nicaraguan Contras.

(Reagan apparently also once stated that “Trees cause more pollution than cars,” which makes me seriously concerned about the judgment of the American people.)

And Obama made promises like, “If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor. Period. If you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan. Period. No one will take it away. No matter what,” and “I don’t want to pit Red America against Blue America. I want to be the president
 of the United States of America.”

Obviously there are many reasons campaign promises get broken, from outright lying to naive overconfidence in the president’s powers.

But I was thinking today about campaign promises–and arguments–that people voting for the candidate outright treat as false. For example, when Bush Jr. promised not to engage in nation building, Republicans did not rear that he would actually refrain from invading other countries. To the extent that anyone thought much about this promise at all, it was probably taken more as a claim to dislike the way Bill Clinton went about intervening in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. (Interesting that in all three of these cases, Clinton intervened on behalf of Muslims,) rather than the entire idea of invading other countries.

Anyone who seriously believed that Al Gore would have been a country-invading hawk and Bush Jr. an isolationist dove based on “the legacy of Clintonian nation-building” vs. Bush’s campaign promises must have been sorely disappointed–but I have never met anyone who claims to have held such views.

More recently, I’ve seen Democrats arguing that Hillary Clinton is a “conservative hawk” for her support of the Iraq War and other military interventions in the Middle East, and “a Republican” for her speech on “super predators” during the ’90s crime wave, her support for anti-crime policies that lead to the mass incarceration of African-Americans, and ’90s support of DOMA,

Meanwhile, the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, claims to have been against the Iraq war.

As I mentioned two posts ago, you can construct all sorts of “liberal” arguments in favor of Trump. “SJWs have been suppressing freedom of speech by suing bakers for refusing to bake gay marriage cakes, so Trump will restore free speech.” “Population growth => environmental destruction, and American population growth is being driven almost entirely by immigration. Therefore, if you care about Global Warming, we must Build the Wall.” “Racist, exploitative employers would rather hire illegal immigrants whom they can force to work at less than minimum wage without any benefits or safety precautions than hire blacks, whom they hate. Immigration has destroyed jobs and wages for America’s poorest and most discriminated against minorities so the 1% can get richer. Build the Wall!” “Jeb Bush wants to get into WWIII with Russia. Hillary Clinton supports the Iraq War. Only Trump will save us from nuclear armageddon!” “Amnesty for illegal immigrants punishes all of the legal immigrants for obeying the law.” “Muslims tend to favor very conservative stances on free speech, abortion, gay marriage, women, etc., so Trump’s plan to halt Muslim immigration is really in defense of liberalism.”

Of course, no one actually buys these arguments; certainly Trump’s supporters have no fear that he is secretly a raging SJW whose true concerns are the environment and African Americans. Likewise, no one on the liberal side is really afraid that Hillary Clinton will actually act like a Republican, launch Iraq 3 and promote an anti-gay and anti-black agenda. No one was really afraid that Bush Jr. would be a dove or that Obama wouldn’t help his fellow blacks. Come election day, Bernie Bros will turn out for Hillary, and Ted Cruz’s supporters will line up for Trump.

Why this disparity between what candidates say (or what people say about them) and what we actually believe?

I propose that the answer is fairly simple: tribalism. Once a candidate has established their tribalist credentials (or has the tribe securely arrayed behind them,) nothing they can say will convince members of the other tribe to vote for them, even if they are actually saying things that are explicitly meant to.

Die-hard Democrats aren’t going to vote for an evil Republican just because he happens to spout a few transparently glib platitudes on liberal values, nor will die-hard Republicans vote for an evil Democrat for the same reason.

But moderates can be swayed.

During the primaries, a candidate has to convince members of their own party to vote for them. At this stage, we should expect debates over who is the “true” liberal or “true conservative” as candidates try to outdo each other in a bid for their party’s dedicated, die-hard voters.

By the general election, candidates assume the support of their own party; they are now fighting for the nation’s moderates.

So Bush Jr. downplays his conservatism (branding himself a “compassionate conservative” and promising to eschew nation building,) in order to sound more like a moderate. The Gore campaign did similarly, leading Ralph Nader to loudly assert that there was no real difference between the two. Of course there was; in retrospect, it is almost unimaginable that a Gore presidency would have turned out identical to Bush’s.

Obama also campaigned as a moderate–he did not need to explicitly vow to pursue a pro-black agenda to get 99% of the black vote. Blacks already knew he was on their side; only moderates needed convincing.

Trump can take a position that is significantly more dovish than both the other major Republican primary candidates and Hillary Clinton and pundits still act like they think he is the most likely candidate to get into a major war, just because his personality yells “I will bomb my enemies back to the stone age.” (Meanwhile, no one takes seriously the other Republican primary candidates’ promises to get into WW3 with Russia–everyone assumes they are just lying to shore up support from their own side.)

Trump is not playing the primaries; as the front-runner, he is playing the election.

This brings us to the interesting dynamics of the Clinton/Sanders race. At the beginning of the primaries, Clinton likely believed, quite reasonably, that she was a shoe-in for the Democratic nomination. So Clinton has been playing her endgame for some time, trying to build up a record and reputation as a moderate–even a hawk–who can appeal to moderate conservatives.

Then came Sanders, who suddenly made her actually fight for the nomination. Sanders positioned himself as the “true liberal”–even a socialist–against Hillary’s supposed “conservatism.” The tactic has worked well for him; since Hillary can’t out-socialism Bernie, she has been forced to become more explicitly SJW as a result:

“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow — and I will, if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will — would that end racism?”
“No!” shouted her audience.
“Would that end sexism?”
“No!”
“Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community?”
“No!”
“Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”
“No!”
“Would that solve our problem with voting rights, and Republicans who are trying to strip them away from people of color, the elderly, and the young?”
“No!”

This isn’t Hillary claiming not to favor socialism so much as claiming to be even liberaler than Sanders.

Likewise, the Republican party establishment, before Trump entered the race, assumed that one of their front-runners would get the nomination, and so put their money behind three candidates with Hispanic credentials (Cruz and Rubio are actual Hispanics; Jeb is married to one and speaks Spanish,) in order to play the general election endgame and try to win the Hispanic vote away from the Democrats. This failed, however, to inspire Republican voters, who are rather crucial for wining the primaries.

Thus the eternal debate between candidates who appeal to their bases, and candidates who appeal to moderates. The more explicitly tribalist (Red Tribe or Blue Tribe) candidates motivate their base to turn out; the moderates attract more mainstream and cross-aisle votes.

Has anyone done a study on whether candidates with stronger support in the primaries (folks like Dean or Sanders, had they gotten the nomination,) do better or worse in the general election?

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7 thoughts on “Elections and counter-tribal signaling

  1. Your theories rest upon the ideas that (1) the two major American parties are competing against one another, (2) the candidates decide what they will say in their speeches, and (3) Presidents decide what actions their administrations will take. Did I read you correctly?

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    • 1. In the national election, yes (though not in the primaries, and not so much in states that are solidly Red or Blue). The system is designed this way.
      2. Someone decides. Doesn’t have to be the candidates themselves, I suppose.
      3. I don’t think this one is necessary, but I think most people believe it.

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  2. This sort of analysis (tribal signaling, etc) is roughly spot on. There’s a lot to agree with here.

    I think you misinterpret Trump and his various “moderate” comments (being opposed to the Iraq War, supporting Planned Parenthood, etc). He is not a cunning schemer. He is instead closer to the average Joe who says what is on their minds, ie “what everyone knows”, common sense, etc. “Everyone knows” that immigrants are a problem, PC has gotten out of control, and the Iraq War was an embarrassing blunder, etc. He has no filter, so he says these things, and large parts of the public see “a guy who’s telling it like it is”. Being against the Iraq War isn’t contradictory to his tribal signalling — it’s part of his tribal signalling, the rebellion of “common sense” against the out of touch elites, etc.

    (Of course, such common sense is often wrong and even contradictory when studied too closely. Which is why Trump gets caught up in contradictions and complications whenever anyone investigates his opinions. It’s like expecting consistency from a schoolyard of yelling kids.)

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    • I have a hard time believing that Trump is merely a common sense guy. New York real Estate seems like the sort of market that is unkind to common sense.

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  3. I will make a prediction. #1 Trump is either the real thing saying what he thinks or #2 he’s the Jews guy in which case he will blame 9-11 on Bush and the Saudi’s as an inside job while not mentioning the Jews.

    Trump will win either way.

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    • Problem: mentioning the Saudis is mentioning the Jews, since the House of Saud is Jews employing crypsis to control Mecca. America and ISIS have been thrown against all of Israel’s enemies, only failing to destroy Iran so far because of Russian intervention. If Trump is the Jews’ goy, he’ll help alleviate some of the residual anger at Saudi Arabia while keeping Jerusalem and Mecca in (((their))) hands.

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