The Hidden Tribes of America and Political Polarization

There is a well-known parable about six blind men and an elephant. In an effort to understand what the elephant looks like, the blind men all go up to touch the elephant. One touches the side of the elephant and draws the conclusion that the elephant is huge and strong. Another touches the trunk and says that the elephant is like a giant snake. Yet another, touching the tusk, says that the elephant is pointy and deadly as a spear. The men continue to argue until one man walking by suggests that they put their knowledge together. Finally, the blind men understand what the elephant looks like.
This parable parallels American politics today. Each group of people has a certain view of what America looks like: economically, socially, and politically. Although this article will not discuss how those viewpoints come to fruition, it is still important to know what the most common viewpoints of America are.
An organization called “More in Common” recently did a year-long survey about the “Hidden Tribes” of America. This study investigated 8000 people who were statistically representative of the United States in order to determine their most important political beliefs and ideals. The main results from that study are below.

Whether or not you agree with how these groups were organized and labeled, this study shows how these hidden tribes are shaping American politics today. Most people fall into “The Exhausted Majority” or people who are generally disengaged in politics. The vocal minorities or “Wings” as they are referred to in the study seem to be controlling today’s political dialogue on both sides of the aisle.

So what does America actually look like? The answer lies in the story of the blind men and the elephant. It’s quite simple, but it’s only by working together that we understand the economic, political and social forces that shape our society. These forces are complex. Therefore, in order to have a clearer, fuller picture of the whole, we must communicate with one another. Only then will we be able to learn how to handle our political climate.

At the moment, both parties are simply speaking to their base and while they tend to comprehensively cover the issues of their constituents, they don’t always address problems that the other side considers relevant. For example, in his first 100 days, Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, create a coronavirus task force, and roll back some of Trump’s major immigration policies. However much this agenda may please a more progressive audience, major conservative issues such as terrorism and bringing back jobs are sidelined. Many Democrats argue that Biden’s agenda will help all of America, including conservatives. However, if conservatives do not perceive that their most urgent issues take priority alongside progressive issues, they will feel ignored by the establishment. This is harmful because the very basis of democracy is compromise. We have to learn to listen to each other, even though it has become increasingly difficult due to media efforts to portray the opposite political party as radical or unreasonable. It’s hard to cross party lines in order to understand these more complex Hidden Tribes, but it is necessary to have a functioning political system.

However, looking into the future, the Hidden Tribes of America are changing quickly. One of the biggest causes of this rapid change is the phenomenon of a Browning America; by 2050, there will be a larger proportion of minority Americans including Hispanic, Asian and Black Americans than White Americans. The fact that we do not have an accurate picture of the American population and truly understand different peoples’ political views is a fundamental cause of political polarization today. More importantly, this population is quickly changing beneath our feet so we need to make honest efforts to reduce polarization now. If we don’t, our quickly changing demographics coupled with our current lack of communication across the aisle will result in a fundamentally flawed picture of America on which we will base equally flawed policy.

This is why it’s so important to learn how to communicate and get each group of the Hidden Tribes to understand and become familiar with the views of one another. This is the only way that our policies and our institutions can reflect what our current society genuinely wants and needs.

Anjali Akula is a sophomore in Information Systems with a minor in Computer Science and another minor in Science, Technology and Policy. She’s one of the blog writers for CMU Triple Helix. Outside of academics, she likes taking walks and painting.

The Triple Helix at Carnegie Mellon University promotes the interdisciplinary nature of public policy, science, technology, and society.