Political tribalism and the prisoner’s dilemma

Joe Biden
Associated Press/Evan Vucci
President Joe Biden speaks during the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate at the White House on June 17, 2022. A growing majority of Americans say the U.S. is heading in the wrong direction, including nearly 8 in 10 Democrats, according to a poll that found deep pessimism about the economy.

Perhaps one of the only things about which observers across the political spectrum might agree is that we live in a highly polarized political era. The two major American political parties at the federal level are increasingly dominated by their respective ideological extremes, much to the frustration of many voters who feel the need to hold their noses before casting a vote for one or the other.

Defining what constitutes a political “fringe” is in the eye of the beholder, and pundits are all over the map in sizing what constitutes the sensible center — is it a 30/40/30 ideological spectrum reflecting a “chunky” middle with extremes to either side, or is it 25/50/25, 15/70/15, or something else? Regardless of magnitude, many commentators have called for this “moderate middle” to wrest control of the political process from the extremes, either by reforming the two-party system or supplanting it through the creation of new political parties.  

The idea is not a new one — organizations such as No Labels have existed for years and work to craft bipartisan, centrist policy outcomes, although the efficacy of these limited efforts is questionable — but the sense of urgency about ideological extremism feels much greater in an age of rising populism on the right and collectivism on the left, each of which risks alienating the median voter from the democratic process.

No matter the exact percentage of disaffected moderates, it seems certain that were a centrist coalition or political vehicle to arise in service of “bipartisan” policy objectives, it would shift the political center of gravity and find itself constituting a majority, or at least be sufficiently substantial to deny one to the political extremes (or the legacy political parties animated by them). To actually create a durable centrist movement, however, is far harder than it seems, for myriad reasons — but one in particular.

That reason is political tribalism. Our innate desire for affiliation is hard-wired within our natures  and has been put to use for causes both good and ill for millennia. Even the most behaviorally sober, milquetoastian sensibilities can be riled up in service of some larger objective, which political entrepreneurs have learned to exploit to great electoral effect. 

Polling shows that even self-described independents and moderates typically lean toward a party or side of the aisle (as they practically must in a well-established two-party system). Centrist voters within each party, along with left- or right-leaning independents, have three choices when they have become so attenuated from their customary “side” that they will consider making a change: sitting out, crossing over (even if only for a specific election), or forming a new grouping with their centrist confreres across the aisle. But how does this play out in practice?

Sitting out negates the democratic process and neither rejects the party one is leaving behind (although it suppresses its expected vote), nor directly supports its opponent. Moreover, any vote should be thought of as intrinsically transactional — a candidate or party offers positions on issues and policy prescriptions in exchange for voter support. By abdicating one’s role in the electoral process, the non-voting citizen receives nothing in exchange for his or her indirect support for a given candidate or party (by not voting for the candidate or party such voter would customarily support).

To remain engaged and to act to greater effect, a moderate voter can consider “crossing over” if he or she believes that his or her “home” party is in thrall to — or has been captured by — fringe elements. In practice, this manifests as right-of-center or left-of-center “normies” voting for the other party on the premise that they can’t abide their own tribe’s extremism and assume the other side will reward their support by honoring the bargain and craft its policy messaging accordingly — or otherwise make concessions to the reasoned centrism of such crossover voters.

Unfortunately, recent history suggests this is a shaky proposition. An election-tilting number of registered Republicans and independents were sufficiently repulsed by the prospect of President Trump’s re-election to have crossed the aisle in a quest for a return to normalcy and, as promised, to put the “grown-ups back in charge.” The Biden administration’s unrestrained woke leftism and feckless, unserious incompetence on countless issues have resulted in record-low approval ratings and a palpable degree of buyer’s remorse.

In fact, the catastrophic first 18 months of the Biden administration may be the perfect demonstration of the “prisoner’s dilemma” underpinning voters’ tribalism. A very real fear of switching over (or sitting out) and then finding oneself to have been sold a bill of goods causes centrists of the left and right to prefer huddling with “their” wingnuts — which is exactly what the prisoner’s dilemma would predict: While cooperating, or trading one’s vote in exchange for the other side’s moderation, may be the optimal outcome, the risk of betrayal — that is, crossing over and being sold out, the worst outcome — causes centrists to remain loyal, which sustains a sub-optimal condition.

But what of the option of forming a new, centrist party, akin to Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique en Marche (now Renaissance) party in France? Unlike France, with a history of serially refounded republics, party shape-shifting and coalition politics, the U.S. has no recent history of durable third (or fourth) parties making the electoral scene. And the risks in attempting to form a No Labels-style centrist party or parties are not dissimilar from that of individual voters simply crossing over: unless a critical mass, evenly straddling the political divide, decamps from both the Democratic and Republican parties, the side that leaves behind its own erstwhile affiliation risks further empowering the other side, and by extension the fringe that controls it — the exact opposite of the desired outcome.

Understanding how the prisoner’s dilemma reinforces the instinctive appeal of tribal loyalties diagnoses an affliction but offers no cure. Early research on the prisoner’s dilemma found a systemic bias towards cooperative action, in which the subjects trusted each other to act in a manner consistent with the parties’ mutual best interest, in contrast with the rational, self-interested behavior one would expect. 

Engendering a level of mutual trust among millions of anonymous voters may seem a bridge too far, but perhaps a compelling message conveyed by trustworthy messengers — free of litmus-test cant, and as ideologically heterodox as are the American people — has a chance in troubled times of breaking through.

Richard J. Shinder is the founder of Theatine Partners, a financial consultancy, and a frequent lecturer, speaker and panelist on business and financial topics. He has written extensively on economic, financial, geopolitical, cultural and corporate governance-related issues. Follow him on Twitter @RichardJShinder.

Tags crossover voters Middle America moderates political tribalism

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