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The Journal Gazette

  • Majumder

Friday, June 08, 2018 1:00 am

The tribe over the truth

Schism sends us on alarming path

Sreenath Majumder

Sreenath Majumder, a native of Calcutta, India, is associate professor and chair of the Department of Economics at Manchester University in North Manchester.

The current American political atmosphere might seem disturbing to many, but it is déjà vu to me.

It reminds me of my home country, India, where social and political discourse revolve around caste and religious identities as opposed to economic policies.

Politicians spend time and energy convincing masses that they share a common identity and, in case of the opposition's win, their existence will be threatened. Their only messiah could be leaders sharing the same caste/religious identity.

Therefore, no matter how these politicians perform during their time in office or whether they are convicted in court, nothing deters them from being elected.

Tribalism or vote bank politics originates from fear.

Voters, like consumers, shop from different political candidates (sellers) who offer a variety of promises.

Under threat, we tend to go back to something time-tested and basic rather than exploring policies that demand change. So when voters vote under stress, they focus only on hedging against fear.

Referencing Sherwin Rose's 1981 article “The Economics of Superstars,” Paul Krugman said: “Modern communications technology, by extending the reach of talented individuals, [is] creating winner-take-all markets in which a handful of exceptional individuals reap huge rewards.”

In America, with high income and educational inequality, a large part of the population is increasingly finding itself excluded from the new technology-driven ecosystem.

The drive toward automation and the shrinking market for traditional skills result in anxiety, fear, anger and nostalgia in the minds of people who blame “change” for their problems.

On the contrary, people possessing newer skills participate in the economy not just as consumers but also as sellers in the high-paid workforce.

For them, the new world opens possibilities of enhanced knowledge, challenge and prosperity, expanding their social, financial and intellectual prowess to the global audience, reinforcing their identity as global citizens.

These two fundamentally different groups with diametrically opposite and mutually incompatible preference, outlook and aspirations make the atmosphere ripe for tribalism.

Interestingly, both are correct in their own world. Turning the clock back to embrace the coal era will shatter the existence of today's intellectuals who rank environment as their No. 1 priority. But moving down the path of green energy seems hardly promising to the coal miners of Pennsylvania.

Therefore, elections end up being a choice between the past and the future.

Eventually, the age-old mantra “when there is demand, there ought to be supply” takes its own course. Politicians target the insecurity to create their comparative advantage over opponents.

As the traditional workforce keeps getting displaced, politicians encourage them to fight for their identities by going back to their roots and retracing the path of God.

This reinforces Say's law, which states that supply also boosts demand.

Norman Ornstein correctly wrote: “Tribalism is an approach where if you are for it, I am reflexively against it – even if I was for it yesterday.”

Steve Bannon warned an audience that “if they can destroy Roy Moore, they can destroy you.”

These existential threats deprioritize any and all social sins that were once universally condemned.

This increasing divide leads political leaders, preachers and media outlets to believe they have secured loyal consumer bases.

Brand loyal and addicted consumers, these voters do not switch camps.

Leaders can announce they could shoot someone in public without tarnishing their popularity. Judges can ignore the Constitution and continue to prosper by demonstrating their allegiance to their respective tribes.

As society embraces skill-based labor, the tribal cleavage keeps exacerbating.

I will not be surprised if soon a day comes in America when voters find their leaders among convicted felons just like they do in India.

After all, the very system that punishes their leaders must be fake, partisan and a conspiracy of the “crooked” opposition.

Surrounded by a “basket of deplorables” or “enemies of God,” truth is not only subjective but also of lower priority.