We often think we choose our political team based on our policy preferences. However, research has found we often choose our political team primarily for social and emotional reasons. This is because the people we love are on a certain team, the team gives us a sense of belonging and our self esteem is tied to our social standing within that team.
When this happens, we value being part of that particular team more than the results of policy. In order to signal to others around us that we are part of the ‘team’, we support what the team supports.
Team over policy
Research has found Democrats will actually support Republican policies when they believe those policies are supported by Democratic leadership. They found Republicans will do the same when roles are reversed.
The more you think, the more you follow
Researchers measured the tendency to value team over policy in two groups of people. First they used a series of tests to determine how much people cared about their identity with their political team. Then they took all the people who cared a lot and sorted those people into two groups. They separated people who think a lot to make decisions (“systematic thinkers”) from people who rely more on their intuition to make decisions (“gut people”).
They expected gut people would be the most likely to follow the party line regardless of the underlying policies. Instead they found the opposite. Systematic thinkers more often supported whatever policies they were told their party favored.
The reason systematic thinkers more often follow the party line is because of their ability to comprehend and create complex stories. They create a complex rationalization about why they favor whatever policy their party supports. Because they go through the additional cognitive process to develop that story, they believe more deeply in that story. In contrast, a gut person who didn’t go through all that effort is less attached to their position.
What does this all mean?
We tend to assume political elites, party leaders and partisan intellectuals are more rational actors than the rest of us. However, this research suggests identity, social standing and emotional attachment are much larger parts of their partisan identity than we think.
Knowing more precisely why political elites are amongst the most emotional and tribal of us all gives us better information to develop more targeted solutions in our fight against toxic partisanship.