Steven Hopkins: Dear Sir, you are without any doubt, a rogue, a rascal, a villain, a thief, a scoundrel and a mean, dirty, stinking, sniveling, sneaking, pimping, pocket-picking, thrice double-damned no-good son-of-a-bitch. And you sign your name.
Benjamin Franklin: I’ll take a dozen right now.
A lot of things have changed since 1776, but the tendency to ascribe the worst possible motives to one's political opponents stands with death and taxes as things the world will never be rid of. Which makes it all the more fascinating that people on either side of the great political divide claim to be endlessly amazed that the people on the other side just won't be reasonable and see things their way.
Human beings are social animals, conditioned by thousands of years of evolution to band together to further their own goals, often at the expense of other groups of humans. The biblical tale of Cain and Abel resonates because, while the very first humans may not have immediately begun bashing one anothers' skulls in, it's a near-certainty it didn't take long for them to start. Survival is simply easier to accomplish when you are part of a group, and survival becomes easier still if your group can secure the elements of survival from other humans. You share the same needs, after all, and a group of raiders can secure food and other necessities much more quickly by stealing them from other humans who have gone to the trouble of growing crops, making clothing, and so on. Self-defense therefore required early humans to band together to defend themselves from raiders, if not to steal things themselves. In such circumstances, survival depended to a great deal on being able to trust the people in your group, often comprised of one's extended family. Leaving that group therefore was extremely difficult, because individuals had built up bonds of trust between one another and were accustomed to not trusting people belonging to other groups.
While we may be a long ways from those days in terms of our history and current circumstances, from an evolutionary perspective we're still generally built for those days. Joining a political party is therefore a lot more than just checking a box on a voter registration card. Emotionally we tend to identify with groups we've joined, often even after we are no longer members. Although I have not actually been a Republican for over a decade, I still often find myself becoming annoyed when I read people claiming that Republicans think this or Republicans are that. It is illogical, but quite natural: at one time in my life I identified as a Republican and as a part of that group tended to be suspicious of Democrats. (Indeed, I still am, having only extended that wise suspicion to Republicans as well.)
It would be nice, of course, if people were wholly logical. (Or perhaps not, but that's an argument for another time.) If we could all just weigh the evidence and come to a common conclusion, the world would be much simpler and easier to get along in. But people are not, and never will be, wholly logical. When people are faced with a problem, while they can apply their intellect to it, their gut automatically gets involved as well. And, because when man was living as a hunter-gatherer decision making often needed to be made quickly ere the decider ended up dead, a handy shorthand for making decisions has always been what others in our peer group are doing. This is instinctive; it is built into our basic genetic code, and will doubtless reside there long into the future, a reminder of where we came from. But what could be helpful in a more primitive society can be problematic in modern times.
As a case in point, consider the treatment accorded to President Clinton and Judge Clarence Thomas in the 1990s. (Please note that my intent here is simply to illustrate tribalism and not to try and present two precisely equal cases, so please set aside fears of equivalence for a few moments at least.) Judge Thomas was accused of sexually harassing a subordinate, Anita Hill, and was pilloried for his presumed transgression by feminist groups. The common refrain at the time was that women don't lie about such things, so it could safely be assumed that Thomas was guilty of the infractions he was accused of. Those same groups sang a very different tune later in the decade when President Clinton was accused of sexual harassment, arguing for, among other things, a 'one free grope' rule [correction: the argument was put forward that if someone's sexual advances were rebuffed and the person did not further pursue the issue, that was acceptable; this was christened the 'one free grope' rule, but that was not what its advocates called it.] that would have been unthinkable for Judge Thomas. Why the difference? Judge Thomas was a Republican, President Clinton a Democrat, and most feminist groups are Democratic in fact if not in name. President Clinton was therefore considered a member of their tribe and worthy of protection, while Judge Thomas belonged to an enemy tribe and therefore a target. I realize that there were many Democrats who condemned both Judge Thomas and President Clinton and that this is a very simplified recounting of events, but I believe it well illustrates the point: many Democrats' principles came in second place to their tribe when push came to shove. A similar example can be seen among Republicans here in the 21st century, where many Republicans who decried excessive spending and deficits less than a decade ago now eagerly note that the deficit isn't so bad relative to GDP and that government spending can accomplish good goals if used properly, etc.
Emotions can be overcome, and often are. But I suspect that, if we're honest with ourselves, we would admit that when we hear people we agree with saying something, we look for reasons for it to be true, while we look for ways to discredit the words of those we disagree with.
Why, then, would anyone be surprised that many Republicans continue to look for reasons to vote Republican? A simple thought experiment for the Democrats in the audience: suppose (again, this is a thought experiment, so we can be very farfetched here) that 20 years from now the Democratic Party, having taken power in 2008 after the disasters of the Bush administration and the Republican Party became common knowledge, has become disturbingly corrupt. The Republican Party, while not obviously corrupt, appears to generally espouse the same beliefs you always hated: trimming government aid to the poor, cutting taxes, helping business, etc. But the Democrats have reached a point where they're no longer doing what you like, either: they're selling legislation to favored constituencies, and their sole goal appears to be to retain power rather than to accomplish their stated goals as a party. How difficult would it be for you to cross the aisle and vote Republican? Could you do it?
I'll bet you $100 right now that many Democrats reading this have already thought to themselves that this could never happen and that I'm spinning a fantasy. Hell, maybe they're right; my intent is not to suggest that this is the inevitable result of Democratic rule. But that reaction is, I think, illustrative of the power of tribalism, the instinctive need to defend that to which you belong, and to attack those groups that oppose your tribe.
Tribalism is not destiny, else we would never have created the world in which we live today. But it is not an easy thing to overcome, either. Some people never are able to get past it; I'd guess that at least 25% of voters would vote for their party regardless of who was on the ballot. But even those who are able to get past tribalism will not find it easy. Leaving behind a group where one is accepted and that nominally shares your goals is difficult, made more so when the alternative is a group that derides your beliefs and shows little inclination to welcome you to its ranks.