Musical Outgroups

[Content warning: Politics. Something I will regret writing.]

A lot of this extends from Scott Alexander’s I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup, but if you don’t want to read the whole thing I’ll quote a few key definitions up front. Specifically:

The Red Tribe is most classically typified by conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting “USA IS NUMBER ONE!!!”, and listening to country music.

The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country”.

(There is a partly-formed attempt to spin off a Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk – but for our current purposes this is a distraction and they can safely be considered part of the Blue Tribe most of the time)

And then the kicker:

And my hypothesis, stated plainly, is that if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.

Scott’s post was written in 2017, which now feels like a very different time. I’m not good at fancy metaphors and stories like Scott, so instead of gently guiding you to my point I’m just going to say it: I don’t think the definitions of these tribes, or the description of the Red Tribe as an outgroup of the Blue Tribe, is correct anymore. Things are different here in 2020.

After four years of Trump as president, the Red Tribe has changed in a couple of important ways: it’s gotten smaller, and it’s gotten weirder. A lot of moderate Republicans and previously-Red-Tribe folks have been disgusted by Trump, and while it might be a stretch to say they’ve completely crossed the floor, it’s hard to call them Red Tribe anymore. As a result, the folks that remain in the Red Tribe have consolidated around increasingly explicit anti-science beliefs and other strongly polarized and “fringe-feeling” positions.

That combination of being both smaller, and weirder or more “fringe-feeling”, is really important, because all of a sudden the Red Tribe doesn’t make a good outgroup for the Blue Tribe: it’s not close enough, and it’s not dangerous enough. To quote Scott again:

Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other”. Nazis and German Jews. Northern Irish Protestants and Northern Irish Catholics. Hutus and Tutsis. South African whites and South African blacks. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Anyone in the former Yugoslavia and anyone else in the former Yugoslavia.

So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.

(Tangential note that this is mostly what I was trying to express with my Law of Cultural Proximity.)

Now clearly this process isn’t finished yet, and it may still reverse: the Red Tribe remains a decently large percentage of the American population, so it remains a strong political force capable of opposing Blue Tribe values. But from the position of somebody already living in a Blue Tribe bubble, the Red Tribe suddenly starts to feel too “distant and exotic” to be a proper outgroup. A game of Musical Outgroups begins: the Blue Tribe needs to find a new outgroup.

Again following the narcissism of small differences, the obvious candidate for a new Blue Tribe outgroup is of course the still-half-formed Grey Tribe. But unfortunately the Grey Tribe really is only half-formed, and until recently there was a pretty healthy spread of people across the Blue-Grey spectrum. Categories are fundamentally human constructions (see e.g. The Categories Were Made for Man, Not Man For The Categories), so the Blue Tribe isn’t interested in picking out only the folks who satisfy some platonic ideal of Grey-Tribe-ness as their outgroup; they’re just going to slap a line somewhere in the middle of the Blue-Grey spectrum and call it a day. Besides the obvious Silicon Valley Grey-Tribe tech-bros, who else is on the far side of that line? Neoliberals.

In the new American order, the tribal landscape is more fragmented than before. The Red and Blue Tribes have both become smaller and more politically extreme versions of their 2017 selves. Three new tribes are being forcefully ejected into the wilderness as a result. The Red Tribe is purging itself of compassionate conservatives and the not-explicitly-antiscience; think Ross Douthat and Mitt Romney; I’ll call these the Pink Tribe. The Blue Tribe is purging itself of the previously-defined Grey Tribe, as well as a moderately large contingent of non-Grey neoliberals typified by people like Hillary Clinton; I’ll call them the Purple Tribe.

What comes next is hard to predict. Pink and Purple seem like natural allies, and I can see the Grey Tribe joining that alliance for pragmatic “enemy-of-my-enemy” reasons. But the two-party system throws a real wrench into things. Perhaps, if the Red Tribe continues to shrink and lose cultural relevance, the two-party divide will pivot (as it has before) to be a Blue-Tribe vs Pink-Purple-Grey-Tribe division. On the other hand, if the Red Tribe begins to recover post-Trump, or if Pink, Purple, and Grey can’t find enough common ground, then I can see the smaller tribes being squeezed out of existence between dominant Blue and Red cultural forces.