Scott Alexander, the pen name of a cultural liberal and a psychiatrist by profession, writes a long, discursive, but compulsively readable essay on American tribalism. He noticed one day that he knows no conservatives. Not one. This, even though he lives in a conservative state governed by a Republican. It’s not as if he’s deliberately tried to exclude them — he says he hasn’t, and I believe him — but it just so happens that he has achieved almost total separation from conservatives. And this made him think about how intolerant his “Blue Tribe” is toward the Red Tribe, even though they (the Blues) pride themselves on their broadmindedness. Alexander writes:

If I had to define “tolerance” it would be something like “respect and kindness toward members of an outgroup”. And today we have an almost unprecedented situation. We have a lot of people – like the Emperor – boasting of being able to tolerate everyone from every outgroup they can imagine, loving the outgroup, writing long paeans to how great the outgroup is, staying up at night fretting that somebody else might not like the outgroup enough. And we have those same people absolutely ripping into their in-groups – straight, white, male, hetero, cis, American, whatever – talking day in and day out to anyone who will listen about how terrible their in-group is, how it is responsible for all evils, how something needs to be done about it, how they’re ashamed to be associated with it at all. This is really surprising. It’s a total reversal of everything we know about human psychology up to this point. No one did any genetic engineering. No one passed out weird glowing pills in the public schools. And yet suddenly we get an entire group of people who conspicuous love their outgroups, the outer the better, and gain status by talking about how terrible their own groups are. What is going on here?

His essay is an attempt to answer the question. As I said, it’s long, but it’s really interesting. He basically says the idea many liberals have of themselves as enlightened and tolerant is a sham. To be sure, he doesn’t say conservatives are any better, but then, he’s not a conservative, and he’s not analyzing the conservative mind. He’s a liberal who is trying to make sense of his own tribe’s way of thinking.

The result is exactly what we predicted would happen in the case of Islam. Bombard people with images of a far-off land they already hate and tell them to hate it more, and the result is ramping up the intolerance on the couple of dazed and marginalized representatives of that culture who have ended up stuck on your half of the divide. Sure enough, if industry or culture or community gets Blue enough, Red Tribe members start getting harassed, fired from their jobs (Brendan Eich being the obvious example) or otherwise shown the door. Think of Brendan Eich as a member of a tiny religious minority surrounded by people who hate that minority. Suddenly firing him doesn’t seem very noble. If you mix together Podunk, Texas and Mosul, Iraq, you can prove that Muslims are scary and very powerful people who are executing Christians all the time and have a great excuse for kicking the one remaining Muslim family, random people who never hurt anyone, out of town. And if you mix together the open-source tech industry and the parallel universe where you can’t wear a FreeBSD t-shirt without risking someone trying to exorcise you, you can prove that Christians are scary and very powerful people who are persecuting everyone else all the time, and you have a great excuse for kicking one of the few people willing to affiliate with the Red Tribe, a guy who never hurt anyone, out of town. When a friend of mine heard Eich got fired, she didn’t see anything wrong with it. “I can tolerate anything except intolerance,” she said. “Intolerance” is starting to look like another one of those words like “white” and “American”. “I can tolerate anything except the outgroup.” Doesn’t sound quite so noble now, does it?


Spending your entire life insulting the other tribe and talking about how terrible they are makes you look, well, tribalistic. It is definitely not high class. So when members of the Blue Tribe decide to dedicate their entire life to yelling about how terrible the Red Tribe is, they make sure that instead of saying “the Red Tribe”, they say “America”, or “white people”, or “straight white men”. That way it’s humble self-criticism. They are so interested in justice that they are willing to critique their own beloved side, much as it pains them to do so. We know they are not exaggerating, because one might exaggerate the flaws of an enemy, but that anyone would exaggerate their own flaws fails the criterion of embarrassment. The Blue Tribe always has an excuse at hand to persecute and crush any Red Tribers unfortunate enough to fall into its light-matter-universe by defining them as all-powerful domineering oppressors. They appeal to the fact that this is definitely the way it works in the Red Tribe’s dark-matter-universe, and that’s in the same country so it has to be the same community for all intents and purposes. As a result, every Blue Tribe institution is permanently licensed to take whatever emergency measures are necessary against the Red Tribe, however disturbing they might otherwise seem. And so how virtuous, how noble the Blue Tribe! Perfectly tolerant of all of the different groups that just so happen to be allied with them, never intolerant unless it happen to be against intolerance itself. Never stooping to engage in petty tribal conflict like that awful Red Tribe, but always nobly criticizing their own culture and striving to make it better! Sorry. But I hope this is at least a little convincing. The weird dynamic of outgroup-philia and ingroup-phobia isn’t anything of the sort. It’s just good old-fashioned in-group-favoritism and outgroup bashing, a little more sophisticated and a little more sneaky.

I’m reminded of something I read the other day, in which a white man who had grown up in a hardscrabble way, and who spent most of his adult life either poor or just barely scraping by, found himself in early middle age in an academic environment — and he was expected to deprecate himself and apologize for his Straight White Male Privilege. The guy is not particularly conservative, and in fact strongly identified with outgroups in American society, based on his real-life experience. But the academic culture in which he found himself consisted largely of white middle class members of the Blue Tribe, who couldn’t see him as an actual person, with his own history; rather, they had to express their tribal values by treating him as Other — and calling themselves virtuous for so doing. I think it’s easier for people like me — cultural conservatives who work in a culturally liberal milieu (or did work; I’ve spent most of my career in mainstream media newsrooms) — to pick out biases and hypocrisies among Blue Tribesmen, because that is the culture we come up against so often. It’s not that I believe conservatives are free of these things; it’s that in my own world, it’s usually the liberals who behave this way. If a liberal who worked in a culturally conservative environment spoke about her experience of the unconscious biases of the people around her, I would believe her, or at least not dismiss her. I move in and out of Blue Tribe circles and Red Tribe circles, and I have heard ignorant blanket dismissals of liberals by Reds, who know no liberals and who make all kinds of unwarranted assumptions. But here’s a difference I’ve picked up: the Reds don’t usually feel the need to morally congratulate themselves on the contempt with which they hold the outgroup (liberals). There’s that great Woody Allen quote from Annie Hall, in which Alvy Singer says, “Yeah, I’m a bigot — but I’m a bigot for the Left.” So it’s okay. At last night’s panel on religion writing at Boston College, I mentioned briefly that one of the challenges of writing about religion in a polarized age is that so many liberals assume that their point of view is normative; they don’t seem to be aware that it is also socially constructed. We didn’t really get into the implications of that, but this is something that an observant cultural conservative who moves in Blue Tribe circles sees all the time. All the time. And, of course, observant liberals surely see the same thing among the Red Tribe. But Red Tribesmen typically don’t congratulate themselves for hating the right people; they just do it. Scott Alexander’s piece is an admirable exercise is self-analysis, and I commend it to you (thanks to the reader who sent it to me). The thing is, I doubt it will do any good at all in helping Blue Tribesmen check their own biases. If these Alvy Singer Liberals discover that they are, in fact, bigots, they may well console themselves with the thought that at least they are bigots for the Left.

Why does this matter? Well, the story Scott Alexander tells about the Blue Tribe accounts for how its members exercise power against the outgroup. I have always hated the bullshit rhetoric about diversity you get from corporate managers and human resources drones. It’s not that I dislike actual diversity in the workplace; it’s that I loathe the Orwellian rhetoric these corporate power-holders employ to convince themselves that the discrimination in which they are engaged is either a) not happening, or b) is happening, but it needs to happen, because members of the outgroup come from a morally disreputable class. Alexander cites studies showing that hiring bias against people based on their race is a real thing, but its worse on the basis of political affiliation. On this point, Cass Sunstein writes:

To test for political prejudice, Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, political scientists at Stanford University, conducted a large-scale implicit association test with 2,000 adults. They found people’s political bias to be much larger than their racial bias. When Democrats see “joy,” it’s much easier for them to click on a corner that says “Democratic” and “good” than on one that says “Republican” and “good.”

To find out whether such attitudes predict behavior, Iyengar and Westwood undertook a follow-up study. They asked more than 1,000 people to look at the resumes of several high-school seniors and say which ones should be awarded a scholarship. Some of these resumes contained racial cues (“president of the African American Student Association”) while others had political ones (“president of the Young Republicans”).

Race mattered. African-American participants preferred the African-American candidates 73 percent to 27 percent. Whites showed a modest preference for African-American candidates, as well, though by a significantly smaller margin. But partisanship made a much bigger difference. Both Democrats and Republicans selected their in-party candidate about 80 percent of the time.

Even when a candidate from the opposing party had better credentials, most people chose the candidate from their own party. With respect to race, in contrast, merit prevailed.

Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that disturbing? I had a drink after dinner with a British academic, who said that one of the things he doesn’t like about American culture is how people here seem to be unable to have a robust debate about a controversial issue, and still remain friends. He’s right about that, but this data show why: we have moralized political and cultural beliefs to the point where we consider them a test of one’s basic decency. Our fellow citizens who disagree are not just wrong; they’re evil.

I see no prospect of this changing. Do you?