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The call of the tribal

Jul 13,2020 - Last updated at Jul 13,2020

LONDON — Why do politicians make the choices they do? And why do voters then choose to support them? One possible answer is that voters prefer politicians whose principles they share, and will re-elect lawmakers who promote those principles while in office. Another view holds that voters support politicians who defend their economic or other interests, and will vote them out if they fail to do so.

These simple and intuitive models are at the core of modern political economy. But they seem useless for explaining today’s politics, particularly when it comes to conservatives in the United States.

Consider the politics of budget deficits in America over the last dozen years. In late 2008, as the world faced what was then the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, US president-elect Barack Obama’s advisers wanted a $1.8 trillion fiscal stimulus, but thought the figure utopian, despite their party’s control of both houses of Congress. In the end, the administration requested a $1.2 trillion stimulus, and Congress passed a package totalling $787 billion.

That stimulus was hugely unpopular among US conservatives. As John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker in 2014, “the Republicans, almost to a one, portray the […] American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 as an abject failure.”

But in March 2020, with Donald Trump in the White House, Congress passed a $2.2 trillion COVID-19 rescue package, the first of several to be enacted. The Senate approved the measure 96-0, with every Republican voting in favour.

The Trump stimulus is much larger than Obama’s and, unlike the 2008 package, will be spent over one year rather than two. And whereas the federal budget deficit totaled $1.4 trillion in 2009, the US Congressional Budget Office expects it to reach $3.7 trillion in 2020, pushing federal public debt above 100 per cent of GDP for the first time since World War II.

Yet, no conservatives today are railing against government giveaways or ballooning deficits, much less calling for austerity. Why? Because the pandemic stimulus was a Republican bill, signed by a Republican president.

Nor is this dynamic confined to budget politics. As Ezra Klein shows in his book Why We’re Polarised, US health-care debates concerning the so-called individual mandate, the government-dictated obligation for everyone to purchase health insurance, have followed a similar pattern in recent decades. The idea of an individual mandate, as Klein points out, was first proposed by conservative economist Milton Friedman, and was taken up in the early 1990s by powerful Senate Republicans, including then-Minority Leader Bob Dole. And it was then-Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, also a Republican, who first enacted the model in 2006.

That Friedman and free-market Republicans supported a government-imposed obligation is less surprising than it seems. If buying health insurance is purely optional, then the rich and healthy will opt out to avoid having to cross-subsidize low-income citizens and those likelier to get sick. Insurance premia for those left behind will be high, the very poor will probably end up uninsured, and many more will be underinsured.

Ultimately, then, the only way to make a health-insurance market work is to compel everyone to participate. Conservatives ought to prefer this approach to both a Canadian-style single-payer system, in which the government foots the entire bill, and a British-style national health service, in which the state both delivers the services and defrays the cost.

Presumably, therefore, the Republicans would reach out to those Democrats, the majority, who wanted to guarantee that everyone has health insurance, forge a broad cross-party consensus and change the course of US health care.

But, as Klein tells the tale, it was enough for Democrats to embrace the individual mandate for Republicans to turn against the idea. In July 2009, Obama declared his support for the policy, after some earlier hesitation, and made it the linchpin of what later became known as Obamacare. By December that year, every Senate Republican had declared the individual mandate “unconstitutional”, including six who previously had sponsored a bill including it.

Trump would later make abolishing Obamacare a central plank of his 2016 presidential election campaign. And healthcare will again be a major dividing line between Democrats and Republicans in November’s presidential contest.

Republican politicians’ repeated reversals on budget deficits and healthcare show that they are not guided by principles. Nor does the interests-based model seem to apply: Why would huge budget deficits be good for Republican voters now, but not during the 2008 crisis?

One is tempted to conclude that politicians are becoming increasingly venal and are openly willing to lie and cheat to get their way. But that cannot be the whole truth. Venal public officials want above all to retain their grip on power, and if voters found this behaviour objectionable, they would kick them out of office.

The fact is that many voters nowadays do not mind when a politician says one thing and then does another, provided it is their politician, someone with whom they identify as a member of the same tribe.

Because determining which policies work and which do not is hard, and figuring out which politicians will keep their promises even harder, most voters do not expect to arrive at answers on their own. Instead, they place their trust in a leader who is likely both to share their values and to make the decisions they would have made if they had enough information.

So, when leaders change policy direction mid-course, as US Republicans have done repeatedly, their supporters assume they had good reasons to do so. The Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper puts it well: “In a divided polity, most of your supporters will accept incompetence [even if it kills grandpa] rather than switch teams.”

Politics in the US and elsewhere is becoming ever more tribal. That explains why Trump in 2016 won only 22 per cent of counties where the organic greengrocer Whole Foods is present, but 76 per cent of counties where you can eat corn bread and fried chicken at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. And tribalism also explains Trump’s divisive July 3 culture-war speech at Mount Rushmore.

US Republicans understand identity politics as well as anyone, and it may work for them again. Unless Democrats learn to counter it fast, there could be celebrations in Cracker Barrel this November.


Andrés Velasco, a former presidential candidate and finance minister of Chile, is dean of the School of Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of numerous books and papers on international economics and development, and has served on the faculty at Harvard, Columbia, and New York Universities. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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