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Exploring the dynamics and power of tribal partisan identities

In France, the majority of voters in the second round of the presidential vote were neither members of Tribe Macron nor Tribe Le Pen.

MinnPost file illustration by Jaime Anderson

Perhaps you’ve noticed that in most developed democracies there are more than two relevant parties. Not here.

Since the emergence of the Republican Party in the Lincoln era (replacing the Whigs as one of the two major parties), every president has been a Republican or a Democrat. And only once (in 1912, when retired Republican President Theodore Roosevelt attempted a comeback and ran as a Bull Moose Progressive and came in second) has any presidential candidate other than a Dem or a Repub even finished in the top nor anywhere near second (the most successful of these, in terms of popular vote, was Ross Perot in 1992, whose 19 percent of the popular vote netted him zero electoral votes).

In no other democracy have the same two parties retained such a stranglehold. Personally, I’m not a big admirer of this ironclad duopoly. I assume most Americans don’t think about it much or about why and how multiple parties are able to thrive more in other democracies or whether this makes the politics better or worse. I probably think about it too much. There’s no perfect system.

But Sunday’s presidential election results from France, following ours of last year, got me thinking about our system — especially about the dynamic between partisanship and identity.

A changing dynamic

Over the recent decades of rising partisanization in America, the degree to which Democrats and Republicans see their party affiliation as a core element of their identity is reflected in a poll question, used since the 1960s, in which Americans were asked if they would be upset if their son or daughter married someone from the “other” party. In 1960, the last year of the bland “I Like Ike” era, only 4 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of Republicans said it would bother them.

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In 2008, that number increased to 20 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of Republicans, according to a poll by YouGov. By 2010, that number had leapt to 33 percent and 49 percent, respectively.

It’s an impressive trendline. While the portion of Americans who said they would be upset if their son or daughter married someone of another race or religion went steadily down over these decades, the portion of Republicans who would be upset to have a Democratic son-or-daughter-in-law went up tenfold and the Dem number went up sevenfold.

And by the way, according to research by Shanto Iyengar, director of Stanford’s political communications lab, this feeling had almost nothing to do with a growing positive feeling by partisans toward their own party. It had almost everything to do with growing negative feelings toward the other party.

Consider the possibility, based on all of the above, that as a statement of their own tribalized partisan identity, more and more voters are casting a vote less in favor of their own tribe’s nominee but against the nominee of the enemy tribe.

Comparison with France

Hold that thought and let’s switch to the comparison of the recent elections in France and the United States.

Early last year, more than a few Democrats relished the idea that Donald Trump might win the Republican nomination, because they believed that he would alienate so many “normal” Republicans as to be unelectable. Starting in August, the Clinton campaign ran ads, targeted at Republicans, portraying Trump as so dangerous and so despicable that even loyal Republicans had to break party ranks.

If that strategy had worked, Clinton would have won not only the popular vote but the electoral vote as well. But it didn’t work. According to exit polls, the share of self-identified Republicans who crossed over and voted for Hillary Clinton (8 percent) was the same as the share of Democrats who said they voted for Trump (8 percent).

(I know that many who voted for Trump said they didn’t like him but believed he was better than Clinton. Personally, I think the negative stories about Clinton that so offended her detractors – Benghazi, her email server blunder, etc. – pale in comparison to the scandals, lies, policy incoherence, racism, sexism, predatory business practices, etc., that might have persuaded Republicans to break ranks on Election Day.)

You can dismiss that as my bias, fine. Either way, it fits with the argument I’m making here that tribal partisan identities are very powerful, and more and more Americans feel an increasingly powerful tribal partisanship as part of their identity.)

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Now to La Belle France for a moment:

No primaries

For starters, their system of choosing a president is quite different from ours. No primaries. Each party has an internal mechanism of choosing a presidential candidate. In most cases, the party leader who will be the party’s presidential candidate has been the party leader for a while.

The winner this year, President-elect Emmanuel Macron, is unusual in this regard because his party, “En Marche!” is a brand new party, founded by him for the purpose of his presidential bid. Under the French system, the general election, which is the only election, is a two-stage process with all party nominees on the first-round ballot and the top two first-round finishers facing off in a second round.

A couple of obvious points of difference with our system:

They don’t have a year’s worth of elections comparable to our primaries. Supporters of many parties have the chance to vote for their real true first choice in the first round without having to worry about the “wasted vote” argument that applies in U.S. politics, for example to the Green and Libertarian Party voters. And it is essentially guaranteed that the president-elect will have received a majority of the votes in the second and final round, which seems like a good thing for the legitimacy of the new president. Our system guarantees neither a majority nor even a plurality vote winner, and, at present, we have a president who won neither the majority nor a plurality of all votes cast.

11 candidates on ballot

In France this year, 11 candidates, the nominees of 11 parties, were on the ballot in the first round. In round one, seven minor parties divided about 15 percent of the vote (but, as I mentioned above, at least their supporters could vote for them in this round without “wasting” their vote on a hopeless cause, because they would get a chance to cast a meaningful vote on the second round).

The other roughly 85 percent of the total first round vote was divided fairly evenly among the four biggest parties. Macron led the first round with just 24 percent. The vital battle for second place was quite close. The National Front’s Marine Le Pen squeaked into the finals with 21 percent, followed by François Fillon of the center-right “Republican” Party with 20 percent and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (whose socialist-leaning party La France insoumise translates as something like France Unsubmissable) at 19.5 percent.

So those four parties totaled 85 percent of the vote. By a narrow margin, Macron and Le Pen won the right to face off in the final. Everything favored Macron in the finals; he ended up actually exceeding expectations with his landslide 66-34 percent victory.

Those numbers mean that of the roughly 55 percent of voters who voted for neither of the finalists in the first round, more than three-quarters of them voted for Macron. Macron was expected to win, but his margin exceeded expectations. There may be a lot of ways to explain the result, but I want to link up with the rant at the top about the connection between partisanship and “identity.”

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Republican identity

In the United States, the majority of votes in the Republican primaries were cast for a candidate other than Donald Trump. Of course, in a big field (17 candidates at one point), winning less than a majority in a field of 17 isn’t an insult to Trump. But given the dynamics of this race, the radical strangeness of Trump’s policy positions, many of which combined falsehoods, incoherence, inconsistency and deviations from Republican orthodoxy, and; considering that many party activists were trying to the very end to find a way to block his nomination, it’s reasonable to assume that many Republicans, at various points during the year, were horrified by the idea of Trump representing their party or as their president.

And yet, as mentioned above, 90 percent of Republicans, many of whom had viewed him with horror a few months earlier, voted for him. Why?

In the spirit of the argument I set up at the top, I would say that some portion of the explanation is that “Republican” is part of their identity, and it’s hard to vote against your identity. And the powerful pull of your political tribal identity will supply some explanation for sticking with your tribe, for minimizing your objections to your tribe’s new chief and maximizing your objections to the chief of the “other” tribe.

France’s final round: the dynamics

The same thing might be true in France, but there’s the big difference: The majority of voters in the second round of the French vote were neither members of Tribe Macron nor Tribe Le Pen. Their tribes didn’t have a candidate in the final round and so were freer to take more seriously Le Pen’s disqualifying qualities, the sort-of racism, the sort-of fascism, the radical nature of her statement and policies vis-à-vis immigrants, the Euro and French participation in the European Union. Almost everyone who shared her views on those issues was already in her party and voted for her in both rounds. A relative few, who presumably liked her message but voted for someone else in the first round, switched to her in the second round.

But the “tractor beam” of partisan identity did not exert its powerful pull on those roughly 55 percent of French voters who were aligned with neither Macron’s En Marche! nor Le Pen’s National Front. Free of that incentive to ignore Le Pen’s unsavory qualities, they switched overwhelmingly to the less objectionable Macron.

By the way, that “tractor beam” reference derives from a powerful magnetic force represented in science fiction, and was also a nod to my friend Larry Jacobs, the U of M political scientist, who used the idea of a tractor beam associated with partisan identity way back in May to caution against the idea that Donald Trump was unelectable, back when the unelectability of Trump was conventional wisdom.