Does tribalism breed extremism?
By Scott Sumner
Imagine that 80% of voters prefer normal sensible candidates, and 20% prefer wild extremists. Who would come out ahead under a democratic system of government? It might seem like the sensible candidates had the advantage. And that was certainly the case when I was young. Politicians that were perceived as extremists, such as Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, lost elections by huge margins. The same was true in the recent French presidential election.
But this was not the case in the 2016 US election and the recent British election. Of course Donald Trump won and Jeremy Corbyn lost, but in a deeper sense I see the outcomes as being quite similar. Both lost the popular vote by about 2%. Both did better than the experts predicted. Both were dismissed by the elites as being deeply unserious candidates. And while Labour did not win the election, they denied the Conservatives the majority that most pundits expected, dealing a major setback to Theresa May.
Think about the following stylized model. Let’s assume that 40% of voters are now “yellow-dog Democrats”, who automatically pull the D lever. Another 40% are reliable Republican votes. And 20% of voters are totally disillusioned with the system, and prefer extremists who promise to shake things up. In that case, political parties would have an incentive to nominate an extremist, even though (by assumption) 80% of the public would prefer sensible candidates.
Just to be clear, this is an unrealistic example and the real world is far more complicated. Obviously Trump and Corbyn did not win 60% of the votes, or even 50%. But I do think this example gets at something about modern politics, which is much more tribal than when I was young. Polls show that the public is increasingly likely to despise people merely on the basis of their political affiliation. That was not true when I was young. Voters are increasingly partisan.
When Bernie Sanders was running, I was puzzled by polls showing that he would do better than Hillary Clinton. I thought to myself “surely a self-avowed socialist would lose big, in a George McGovern-style blowout.” Looking back on the election, I suspect the polls were on to something. This means that we can expect more extremists in the future.
This does not mean, however, that actual governance will become more extreme. Most people exaggerate the extent to which elections determine policy. If 80% of the public wants sensible governance, then an extremist who gets elected will run into difficulties trying to implement their agenda. Trump is having difficulty with both Congress and the courts, which tend to reflect the views of that sensible 80%. And Corbyn would have trouble implementing a Venezuelan-style policy regime in the UK.
PS. Just to be clear, I am not using the term ‘sensible’ in a normative sense. Indeed I’m something of a libertarian extremist on many issues. Rather it’s simply a descriptive term for the views of an average group of well-informed people.
PPS. After the Brexit vote, I pointed out that if young people had turned out to vote then Brexit would have failed. Some commenters told me that the views of the young don’t matter, as they don’t vote in large numbers. On Thursday the young did turn out, and they exacted their revenge against the “hard Brexit” Tories. This graph shows that what was previously a small tilt toward Labour among the young, ballooned into a landslide for Labour, especially among the very young (where the gap was 51%!)
On issues such as taxes and spending the young become more conservative as they age. On other issues, such as gay marriage, their views reflect the times they grew up in and are likely fixed for life. It will be interesting to watch how British views on the EU evolve over time, as the very pro-EU younger cohort replaces older Brits who were skeptical of European integration.