I have a hard time understanding fervent loyalty to a political party. Growing up in Chicago, I never really felt the same dedication to the Cubs or the Bulls or the Bears as my friends did. Why should I value my city’s team more than another’s? I didn’t know the people on our team, and I held no enmity towards opposing teams, unlike many of my compatriots. I later heard Noam Chomsky express the same sentiment in an interview, and I imagined an alternate life where Noam and I were childhood friends, commiserating in our shared apathy towards the sporting events that everyone celebrates. It was a pleasant fantasy.
By 10th grade, everyone in high school had broken into small cliques, but I found myself hanging out with the stragglers—people who didn’t fit neatly into any one group or another. I made friends with a lot of people, but I never really felt like I was a part of a tight-knit group of friends. I still feel like a straggler today. Perhaps this lack of belonging contributes to my failure to understand “loyalty” in politics. Or maybe my incomprehension is a manifestation of a deeply-seated fear of commitment. As Dad says, all defects in personality can be traced back to some childhood trauma. I mean Freud. Not Dad.
Coming back to reality, it seems to me that party allegiances are becoming increasingly noticeable. One prime example is found in the apparent incongruity of politicians who criticize Trump daily for his misogyny and racism, yet refuse to leave him out of some devotion to their party or allegiance to some pledge. Shouldn’t the primary loyalty of any politician be to the American people? If so, how can party loyalty be a good thing when it invites you to support someone who you think is not suited for the presidency?
It seems that party allegiances has made politicians myopic, unable to recognize what they disliked about their candidate until it was too late. I looked into something psychologists call groupthink, whereby a group can make irrational decisions in pursuit of group unity (e.g. that clique of friends that decides to get matching haircuts and outfits). In order for groupthink to occur, there needs to be two groups: an in-group and an out-group. The in-group thinks it’s way better than every other group in every way and the out-group is anyone not in the in-group. Perhaps this election is just one complicated case of groupthink.
I asked politics major Ya Sheng Lin ‘17 about why someone such as Paul Ryan might publicly shame his or her party’s nominee, yet refuse to relinquish his or her support. Ya Sheng reminded me that paying attention to Ryan’s audience might explain some of the cognitive dissonance: “If he is dealing with relative moderates, it may be better to denounce Trump's ludicrous actions... An outright endorsement of Hillary would be too difficult for his constituents to swallow, so Ryan has placed himself on a moral high ground by distancing himself from the extremism of Trump, but not flat out endorsing the Democratic nominee.” Ryan is just trying to secure his job, since as Ya Sheng puts it, “many of Ryan’s constituents overlap with Trump’s.” Makes sense.
Still intrigued by the phenomena of groupthink, I asked Ya Sheng if he thought party allegiances were a strong motivating force here. After all, many of the few dozen Republicans who switched positions following the release of the tape of Trump bragging about groping women on October 7th cited party loyalty as one of the primary reasons why they supported him before. Ya Sheng thinks it’s more likely that they were willing to overlook Trump’s comments in order to avoid a presidency that they feel is at odds with Republican values: traditional family values, pro-life stances, limited government intervention, pro-religious institutions, etc. To what degree their candidate embodies some of these values is irrelevant--they feel that he will protect them.
Regardless of whatever someone’s motivations are, party loyalty remains a strange phenomenon to me that could easily become problematic. Consider the following hypothetical: if a Tupperware container filled with eggplant lasagna won the primary, would party leaders still vehemently cling to that sacred oath of supporting the nominee, no matter what? Perhaps they would first need to verify if the lasagna was produced in the United States.