The Nine Tribes of American Politics

There’s so much more than “Red versus Blue”

Photo by Harry Quan on Unsplash

Written by Daniel Mcintosh and published in 5/2/2022

The American political system, a “first past the post” system of elections, leads to unnatural division in American politics. Republican and Democratic, Red and Blue, one of the few beliefs all share is they have a fundamental disagreement about core American values. To some degree, that’s true. But these two groups are also coalitions of people with disagreements among themselves. They have more in common than they believe, and many people do not fit into either side.

The Pew Research Center has studied the American electorate for decades. Pew’s public opinion research began in the early 1990s. It tracks economic, social, and demographic trends. It monitors social media. Pew manages an American Trends Panel of over 10,000 adults selected at random from across the U.S. whose attitudes are tracked over time. The methods are complex and surveys are “raked” to compensate for the known variations in the population. It’s expensive to do. It’s cross-checked. And it’s the most reliable picture of the American public.

And guess what? It doesn’t fall into simple categories of “Red” and “Blue”.

The nine tribes

To make sense of the values of the American people requires a typology of no less than nine distinct groups. Some are part of the Republican coalition. Some vote with the Democrats. Some are political independents. Some refuse to get involved with American politics at all. If you wonder which group you fall into before we proceed, take this quiz. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers — they are questions of perceptions and values. The quiz shows where you are most comfortable among the nine tribes of American politics.

Pew’s labels for the nine tribes, their distribution among the general population, and their involvement with the political parties are:

Pew Research Center, Creative Commons

It may not be so clear to their political opponents that “committed conservatives” have deep differences with the “populist right,” and both are uncomfortable with “flag and faith conservatives.” There are “never Trump” Republicans. “Democratic mainstays” have deep differences with “establishment liberals” and both are uncomfortable with the “progressive left.” Both Joe Manchin and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticize Joe Biden — but from very different perspectives.

And the “stressed sideliners”? Fifteen percent of the public has a mix of liberal and conservative views but shares a minimal interest in politics. Most are women. Most are White. They have less formal education and live in lower-income households. They also have a lower than average sense of social trust. Only ten percent of them bother to vote. For many of them, it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort. When they vote, they split their votes between both coalitions.

The Republican coalition

The Republican voters are three very different conservatives, plus libertarians who voted for Trump but want him to leave.

Flag and faith conservatives are the most likely to say that any political compromise is “selling out on what you believe in.” They are, as the name implies, the most likely to believe that government should promote and protect (their) religion and its values. White and Christian, they are also firm believers in American exceptionalism: God places the U.S. above all other nations and America has a responsibility to lead the world from a position of strength. They are an important part of the Trump core, more likely to say the 2020 election was stolen, and least concerned with the January 2021 attack on the Capitol. Many of those who stormed the Capitol were from this group.

Committed conservatives also express conservative views across all issues, but without the stridency. They are open to compromise on issues of immigration and have a more nuanced understanding of America’s role in the world. They are the most likely to see the business of America to be business and to accept that a global economy requires a global perspective.

The populist right is noteworthy for having less formal education and being the most likely to live in rural areas. They are very critical of both immigrants and corporations. They are also a core of the Trump base and are sometimes willing to take violent action on his behalf.

The ambivalent right is the youngest group, and the least committed to the Republican party. They agree with pursuing small government, but that’s because they believe the role of government is to leave them alone. Market-oriented, they see issues of race and gender as better left to emergent social change than government intervention. More libertarian than other groups, they voted for Donald Trump but have no respect for him as a person. Unlike other groups, they support legal abortion and the decriminalization of marijuana. The largest group in the Republican coalition, it is also the least religious.

The Democratic coalition

The four tribes in the Democratic coalition range from political moderates to democratic socialists.

Democratic mainstays are unshakable supporters of the New Deal and the legislation of the 1960s and 1970s to protect women and minorities. However, they see little reason to further extend these reforms, believing that America has no need for radical change. The oldest of the Democrats, most identify as moderates. They are more comfortable with FDR and JFK than they are with AOC or Karl Marx. They fight for social security and against affirmative action. The largest group in the Democratic Party sometimes fears the Party is too busy pandering to the Left to listen to them and their needs.

The establishment liberals share with the democratic mainstays a distrust of radical change. Preservation of what they have achieved — always. Experimentation with reforms to better reach the promise of political and economic equality, yes, but never at the risk of radicalism. They agree that there are problems that need to be addressed, but one step at a time. These are the people willing to entertain reform of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) but oppose the creation of a national health care system similar to those common in Europe.

The progressive left rejects what is and supports fundamental structural changes to address injustice based on race, sex, gender, or sexual orientation. Many see Europe as a model for the future of the U.S. They are the best-educated group, relatively young, and the only tribe in the Democratic Party that has a majority of non-Hispanic Whites. They also include the emerging democratic socialist bloc in the Congress and the Party.

The outsider left, like the ambivalent right, are both the youngest members of the coalition and the ones with the least personal loyalty to it. While they voted as a bloc for Joe Biden, they feel frustrated with the political system. They aren’t so much pro-Democrat as anti-Republican. If the ambivalent right is where one is most likely to find right-libertarians, the outsider left is the place to find left-libertarians. Both groups want personal liberty, but the outsider left believes the only way to achieve it is to use government as a countervailing force to compensate for the inequities built into the economic and political system, while the ambivalent right sees the government as a cure worse than the disease.

What are they fighting about?

Pew identifies two issues as the dividing lines in American politics: racial injustice and the size of government. The Republican coalition either does not see racial inequality or sees it as something that is beyond political intervention. The Democratic coalition unites in perceiving a serious problem with racial inequality but differs over how much change is required to deal with it: working within the system or changing the system at its roots.

Pew Research Center, Creative Commons

Within each coalition, the differences are as great as the common ground. While Democrats are more likely than Republicans to prefer a larger government, only the progressive left favored that services be greatly expanded. The Republicans agree that government should be smaller. They differ on what it should do: enforce traditional values, or get out of the way.

Is there room in the middle?

The differences within each coalition and, in particular, the loyalties and values of the youngest members of each coalition suggest there is a middle ground that could form the core of a new political party. The populist right differs from the rest of the GOP over issues of taxes and economic policies. In their views on corporate profits and taxes on the wealthy, this group has more in common with the Democrats than they do with the Republicans.

Pew Research Center, Creative Commons

Another area of common ground regards the standing of the U.S. in the world. Six of the nine tribes — ranging from establishment liberals to the populist right — describe the U.S. as among the best countries in the world. Only a majority of the faith and flag conservatives believe the United States stands above all other countries. Only in the progressive left and the outsider left are a majority willing to say there are countries better than the U.S.

The greatest number of self-identified independents, people who could serve as the core of a third political party — among the outsider left, the stressed sideliners, and the ambivalent right — poll near the center of American politics: conservative on economic issues, libertarian (left and right) on social issues. These young people are located to become the cohort to replace the democratic mainstays at the center.

Pew Research Center, Creative Commons

Unfortunately, these are also the people with the least engagement with American politics. Perhaps they are waiting for somebody who speaks for them. But the leaders of each of the major political parties have worked for decades to institutionalize themselves as the only choices available to the voters. We’re less likely to see a new party emerge than a capture of one by elements of its coalition, followed by a migration of other members of each coalition to adapt to the new political realities.

What do Americans have in common?

In global terms, the United States is a deviant case. Whether that deviance is a positive thing or negative depends on which of the nine tribes you are in.

The World Values Survey (WVS) is an international effort to identify people’s values and beliefs all around the world. Begun in 1981, it has grown from a Eurocentric study into a network of social scientists conducting surveys in almost 100 countries that enables one to trace the relative positions and movements of cultural civilizations. They plot their findings across two dimensions:

  • traditional versus secular, and
  • survival versus emancipation

Tradition emphasizes deference to authority in religion, tradition, family, and nation. Traditional cultures are local, nationalistic, exclusionary, and prefer stability over change.

Secularism emphasizes reason, experimentation, acceptance, and change.

Survival values economic and physical security. It also includes ethnocentrism, intolerance, and low levels of trust.

Emancipation and self-expression values give priority to reason and tolerance (or celebration) of diversity and equality among peoples, sexes, genders, and sexual orientations. They encourage the protection of the environment, as well as greater participation in political decisions and civic life.

Researchers plot these values at right angles: tradition to secularism on the X-axis, survival to emancipation on the Y-axis.

Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map — World Values Survey 7 (2020), Creative Commons

The general model of the survey is that modernization is important, but only in how it relates to religious and cultural traditions. While the position of any country on the map changes with time, it drifts slowly. Our history and our culture shape us. For example, while protestant Europe is less religious than ever before, it maintains values that shape its citizens and socialize its immigrants.

American politics and culture wars

It also is why “culture wars” have become so important in American politics. Note that the United States is less secular than most of Europe, and more oriented to self-expression than most of the rest of the world. It lies near the intersection of the English-speaking world, Catholic Europe, and Latin America. That means it is more likely to get into arguments about matters of values, and more likely to tie those value arguments to religious positions. Hence we have the conflict between “faith and flag conservatives” who might support a constitutional amendment requiring a president to be an evangelical Christian and a “progressive left” that rejects any notion of public policy grounded in (and for) any religion.

So while America is unique, because it sits in a special region of the global distribution, it also varies in terms of the two dimensions. Within the global chart, we can make a similar chart for the nine American tribes:

McIntosh, 2022, Creative Commons

The midpoint between tradition and secularism is the dividing line between the Democratic and the Republican coalitions. Midway between survival and emancipation values is the dividing line between those who see their way of life at risk and those who do not. The American “political spectrum” runs diagonally, from the bottom left (radical fundamentalists) to the upper right (radical progressives).

Again, this is not the full range of possible political ideologies or values. You don’t see serious calls for Islamic theocracy or a return to monarchy. America as a whole is near the middle of the map between tradition and secularism and left of the center in emphasizing personal empowerment over group stasis. There is also an extensive region in the center of the American political map where it is possible for parties to compromise and agree, even if the radicals at each end of the spectrum perceive all of “the other” as the enemy.

America needs a conversation among its tribes

America needs a variety of perspectives because each points to one of a series of fundamental truths that Americans ignore at their peril. The conservatives are right: society is miraculous and more fragile than most people believe. Humans are not insects: we have not evolved to live and function in large groups. Our saving grace is we have developed the capacity for culture: tradition, religion, laws, norms. Culture makes modern society possible and maintains it.

But the progressives are right, too: the culture we have is not the only culture possible, nor is it the best in terms of the emancipation of human potential as individuals and as a society. In addition, as circumstances change, cultures must adapt. Experiments are sometimes required. Diversity is not something to deny or repress, but to celebrate. It is our diversity, as well as our traditions, that provides the foundation that makes resilience possible. Experiments are important. Change is necessary.

And the moderates have something equally important to add: many experiments fail. Too great a step in any direction, too quickly, risks catastrophe. Either it does not cope well with the changes in the world (including both the physical world and other cultures), or it prompts a reaction that swings a society to fundamentalism that claims to bring the society “back” (by jihad, or by Trump) to a mythological “golden age” when it was “great.”

We try to avoid these failures by anticipating consequences. We apply political ideologies and the best science available. But the reality is too complex to foresee, too sensitive to initial conditions, and so influenced by unanticipated consequences that a prediction (any prediction) is little more than a guess. Humans get things wrong, and we have to plan for that. The conservatives remind us we are on unsure footing. The progressives remind us we have to keep moving forward. The moderates remind us to take small steps and be ready to pull back when the path gives way.

America needs the insight of every tribe if it is to survive and improve. And except for a few criminals and sociopaths, most people are good. They mean well, even if they disagree on what the good life is, or how to best achieve it. An honest conversation between them, with compassion for fears and dedication to facts, is our best chance to create an America where both survival and emancipation are real, and traditions can coexist within a larger secular framework.