Updated: Jul 8
Do you wonder how the attack on the capitol was a symptom of a much deeper problem?
Do you wonder how our political system could change to address these symptoms?
Do you wonder what the Founding Generation would think of our current political system?
Do you wonder how social media distorts our political system?
Do you wonder how our own brains contribute to the problem?
Via science, technology, business strategy, and historical context; this article “connects the dots" on these questions. It provides specific actions each of us may take for positive change!
This article is about politics, but it is not political. The intent is to demonstrate how 1) the U.S. political system’s rules encourage U.S. political parties to reduce vote significance. This occurs by 2) exploiting our natural human tribal tendencies and 3) utilizing newer technology, like social media, to increase tribal division. We will also discuss what we can do about it to affect positive change.
This article is presented with the following sections:
Electorate Tribalism - Partyism
I will start at the base, meaning, it is our individual tribal nature that is at the root of our political system. Our political system, including our desire for political parties, is a reflection of ourselves. Understanding our nature and how we are exposed to manipulation is foundational for political system understanding and related change. The remainder of this section provides background on our individual neurobiology and how it relates to electorate tribalism, or what I call "Partyism." (1) This section is a building block for the remainder of the article. However, if you already have a good sense of neuroscience and tribalism, you may safely skip or skim this section.
Individually, we are very much impacted by our neurotransmitters. Think of neurotransmitters as an emotion informational "tag" that gets placed on sensory information as it enters your brain via your five senses. As an example, say you see a lion running toward you. The neurotransmitter tag, consisting of a mix of protein-based chemicals, will attach fear to the lion's visual sensory signal. If the attached tag is strong enough, it will induce a subconscious reaction. In the case of the lion, the fear tag will cause you to run from the lion, likely running the fastest you have ever run in your life. You will not even recall a decision to run and escape the lion....it just happens. (2)
Tribalism is caused by a mix of neurotransmitters. Before we get into how it works, let's discuss why it occurs.
The "why" relates to our evolution. A hundred thousand years ago, being part of a tribe was the difference between life and death. Our genes, via natural selection, resolved that people in a tribe were more likely to live, and people on their own were more likely to die. So, our genetic coding evolved to produce people that were more tribal. The most important takeaway about evolution -- it is very slow. Tribal-related changes to our genome happened over a hundred thousand years, whereas our need for physical tribal protection has significantly decreased just over the last couple of centuries. (3) It is this lag from our slow genome change to our relatively fast-moving cultural change that creates conflict and exploitation opportunities.
The "how" relates to our neurotransmitters. First of all, it is important to appreciate the brain is incredibly complex and dynamic, so a single component functional description (like neurotransmitters) requires a holistic understanding of the brain. As such, I will admit, this is my attempt to provide a simple and brief explanation for something that is hardly simple or brief.
There are a small number of unique neurotransmitters. Some of the more famous ones are Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin. The emotional informational tagging process occurs in the synapse. This is where a cocktail of neurotransmitters is released into the synapse to create the emotion tag. I think of the cocktail of neurotransmitters much the way I think of color hues that are mixed from primary colors. While there are only 3 primary colors and 3 secondary colors, there are practically an infinite number of color mixes (or hues) that can be produced from the primary and secondary colors. So, think of our emotions as created from a mix of neurotransmitters. (4)
Tribalism is a result of one of those hues. (Or, more specifically, a collection of related hues) As with neurotransmitters, hues tend to be anchored by a primary color. The neurotransmitter anchoring tribalism is Oxytocin. Oxytocin is also a powerful "dual threat." That is, not only does it get produced as a neurotransmitter in the brain, it also gets produced as a hormone in the body. This means, not only do you sense an emotion coming from your brain, you will tangibly feel a related change in your body. As an example, Oxytocin’s tribalism power is also super important at birth. The mother senses the bonding love for her newborn child (Oxytocin as a neurotransmitter) and feels her body preparing to nurse her newborn child (Oxytocin as a hormone).
So tribalism is naturally and powerfully occurring in the brain and body, it is the result of many millennia of evolution, it is very slow to change, and, it will express itself differently across individuals. This is because my color mixing ability is a little different than yours and yours is a little different than others when it comes to making hues. As such, some people have a higher propensity for tribalism simply because their neurotransmitters are mixed in a way that creates a higher intensity of tribal-related emotion. Neurodiversity is real and is often an expression of our unique neurotransmitter mixing.
Tribalism can be helpful when it comes to group dynamics. (like building company culture or organizing to create a COVID-19 vaccine) Tribalism is certainly at play when building our families. The dark side of tribalism is out-grouping. As a rule of thumb, think of most words with a negative connotation and ending in the suffix "-ism" and you are probably thinking of words describing tribalism's dark side. (words like Racism, Misogynism, Ageism, etc., etc.). Think of tribalism's dark side as evolution's holdovers. Many millennia ago, someone (or something) that looked different from us could kill us. (Like a rival cave tribe member or a wild animal) Today, that legacy genetic coding is still building humans with very old and sometimes counterproductive neurotransmitter emotion tagging processes. It will eventually change, but no time soon.
Political parties are an expression of tribalism. Political parties recruit and aggregate individuals based on several factors, including political philosophy, specific (special) interests, socioeconomic conditions, and the like. These factors are informed by our emotions, such as fear and greed. This is what engages the neurotransmitters or "hues" associated with electorate tribalism. In the notes and to help add more context to electorate tribalism, Germany's former Nazi party is presented as an example. This example shows how emotions and situations are utilized to form and reinforce political parties. (5) To add a convenient word to the lexicon, I will refer to electorate tribalism as "partyism." The next section will show how partyism is exploited by social media.
Social Media and Technology
Newer technology platform companies' competitive advantage “secret sauce” is found in the algorithms they utilize to drive user engagement. The algorithms are forms of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning that target human neurological functions, especially as it relates to our addictive proclivity. Through the use of unsupervised learning, the machines learn to “hack” human neurological functions to optimize view time. This optimization has the effect of presenting content that increases in extremity to satisfy the addictive effect. As such, for an individual to receive the same dopamine-induced reward sensation and for the platform to attract and maintain engagement, the individual must receive increasingly extreme content. As a parallel, the same addictive effects are evident in other addictive activities, like gambling, smoking, alcohol, and drugs.
In an ironic twist, the parallel addictive activities are all heavily regulated or expressly illegal, especially as it relates to children. Whereas social media remains mostly unregulated and is regularly available to children.
No wonder the technology platform firms have been utilized by political parties and hate groups. Both of which desire to deliver polarizing content to their tribe members. Both have been known to create social media “echo chambers,” where extreme content is amplified and reinforced by the algorithms. It also has the effect of isolating individuals and manipulating tribal affiliation. Platform firms are well aware the “like” tuned, oxytocin targeted, and dopamine producing algorithms are optimized to deliver more likes, engagement, and advertising revenue. In the end, the better the algorithm is at serving more extreme, tribal-oriented content, the more advertising revenue is generated. For more information and related references, please see our article, Balancing free speech protection and hate speech control.
While these platforms were not originally intended to be used to promote partyism, there are clearly examples of manipulation for the benefit of the political parties and related interest groups. According to AdAge, about 25% of the $8.6 billion spent on the 2020 presidential election (pre-runoff) was with digital advertising. Also, it is clear the overall trend to using digital advertising is accelerating. Long-term trends show traditional media like newspapers, television, and radio are quickly declining, and digital spending is increasing. It would not surprise me if ad spending in the next presidential election is majority digital.
The point is that the political parties use social media to leverage partyism. Partyism has existed since the founding of our country. The new issue is, with the use of technology that enables the hacking of the human neurological function, the platform firms provide a tool promoting more extreme partyism.
There are several things we can do about it. In our paper, Balancing free speech protection and hate speech control, we explore this topic in more detail. Instead of repeating, I will summarize the key points here and encourage the reader to peruse our paper as their curiosity suggests. The 2 basic approaches to help manage technology enabled partyism include:
Content moderation - This is the current approach being utilized by the platform firms. In my opinion, these content moderation strategies, applied outside the realm of machine learning algorithms, are like playing a never-ending and never winning game of whack-a-mole. As such, I am skeptical of the long-term effectiveness of content moderation strategies. To be clear, I am not saying content moderation should not be performed. It should be done within the context of other risk management measures. Such as....
Algorithm control - A more practical approach is to regulate, via a consistent and level market playing field, the platform engagement driving algorithms. In our paper, we present 2 operating model examples to enable:
Direct algorithm control - a legal mandate to actively balance the extreme or addictive effect, or
Algorithm outcome control - provide regulatory testing teeth, enabling an outcome-based regulatory regime.
The good news is, both operating models have already been tested in parallel financial services industry contexts.
The next section builds on the partyism challenges and the distorting impact of social media on our political system, especially related to reduced vote significance.
The Political System
Do you ever feel like our political system is broken? If only _________ would lose the election, everything would be much better! (6) Do you feel frustrated and sense our system has become more divisive? Well, from a political system standpoint, you should answer "Yes" to these questions. This is exactly what our political system rules encourage!
We do not have a candidate or even a political party problem, we have a political systems problem. That is, candidates and parties are behaving as aligned with how the political system rewards participants. This alignment encourages reduced vote significance.
Our country’s founders were decidedly suspicious of political parties. James Madison considered them necessary evils:
“The inference to which we are brought is, that the causes of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”
- James Madison, The Federalist Papers #10 (please note: "faction" is another name for a political party)
John Adams saw them as the greatest political evil:
"There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution."
- John Adams, letter to Jonathan Jackson, Oct. 2, 1789
James Madison, known as the Father of the U.S. Constitution (7), also believed an important control for managing political parties ("controlling its effects") is the popular vote itself:
“If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution.”
- James Madison, The Federalist Papers #10, bold emphasis added.
James Madison intuitively understood partyism, though neuroscience did not exist in his time! The U.S. republican form of government is based on the popular vote. It acts as the supreme control against the "greatest political evil."
Contrary to the Founder’s wishes, today, the significance of the vote itself has been materially reduced.
The environment for reduced vote significance is our natural human tribalism (partyism) and
the tools to accelerate reduced vote significance are social media and related technology. However,
the implementation of reduced vote significance has been enacted by our political parties.
Namely, the Republicans and Democrats. For this article, we are considering the political system in total, so I will make a convenient reference to the "Depublicans" (signifying the two current dominant U.S. political parties) and the "3rd Parties" (signifying all other U.S. political parties). (8)
Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter (9) argue the power of our vote is being diminished via our existing political competition framework. They make a compelling case by applying a standard business strategy competition framework associated with oligopolies and as Porter developed at Harvard University. They demonstrate oligopolistic behavior is responsible for a Depublican strategy that:
reduces the power of 3rd parties,
divides the electorate,
reduces the effectiveness of moderate consensus building,
reduces the participatory weight of the vast majority of moderate voters,
empowers special interests and radical elements of the Depublicans, and
increases the voting power of small minority interests of the Depublicans.
The intended outcome is to keep either member of the Depublican syndicate in power and to crowd out 3rd Parties. To be clear, I am not saying there is some central Depublican decision body knowingly colluding to implement the reduced vote significance strategy. In the context of game theory, I suspect the oligopolistic strategy and the divided electorate outcome are a game theoretical stable strategy and related outcome. Game theoretical stable strategies are a function of organizations following the environmental rules and maximizing their chance of survival and the associated value derived. There is rich literature base on the application of Game Theory. (10) Be that as it may, it does not make it right! The rules need to be changed.
How did we get here? Speaking of rules, while partyism and technology play a significant role, the Depublicans have followed a "boil the frog" or "BTF" strategy to change or protect the rules that support the reduced vote significance strategy. To implement the BTF strategy, Depublican supporters slowly, almost imperceptibly, wrote rules that tilt the levers of popular vote dilution in their favor. Examples of such BTF rule writing include:
At the state level, this includes active gerrymandering to redraw congressional districts that benefit the Depublicans,
this includes actively blocking campaign finance reform,
this includes supporting a winner-take-all primary and general vote system, and
this includes Depublican favoring primary election rules that crowd out 3rd parties.
Any single, short-term implementation of these BTF rules, especially at the state level, will likely result in an immaterial outcome. However, collectively and since 1972, the BTF strategy has been highly effective in driving a reduced vote significance outcome. Resulting from the 1972 McGovern-Fraser Commission recommendations, the state primary and caucus candidate selection system replaced the party insider candidate selection process. This rule change created a more democratic candidate selection process but it also enabled an unanticipated incentive for political parties to reduce vote significance. (11)
So, what can be done about it?
The good news is, because of Porter, Gehl, and several other vote strengthening organizations (12), this issue is well understood and there are many vote strengthening initiatives slowly making their way through voting channels and legislative bodies. For example, I'm proud of my home state's (Virginia) recent vote to implement anti gerrymandering rules. The amended rules significantly reduce the influence of the Depublicans to redraw voting districts.
The bad news is, the going will likely be slow as the financial inertia is massive. The Depublicans have a financial war chest that will help them maintain the status quo. Also, keep in mind, Depublican inertia is exacerbated by a “fox guarding the hen house” problem. That is, there is not a governance body that provides direct checks and balances for the Depublicans, other than the vote itself.
While rolling back BTF related rules is necessary, a change accelerator relates to political contributions. As such, it would also be helpful for individuals and corporations to change how they target political related contributions. Contribution targeting should prioritize candidates and causes that support vote strengthening. To the extent vote strengthening candidates are currently part of the Depublicans, contributing directly to them may have the benefit of supporting change within the Depublicans, or even accelerating tribal reorganization. (Think of the failure of the dominant Whig party of the mid-1800s. The Whigs were unable to adapt to the demands of the electorate and its candidates.)
Many corporations work through industry groups to funnel their political contributions. Corporations should look closely at how industry groups are targeting political contributions and make vote strengthening adjustments.
This article demonstrates how:
Our two dominant political parties are manipulating the U.S. political system and as anticipated by our Founders.
This occurs by the exploitation of our natural human tribal tendencies (partyism).
Newer technology, like social media, is being utilized to increase the partyism effect.
While our tribal tendencies are not likely to change anytime soon, we did present two algorithm control strategies to significantly reduce the addictive nature of social media that magnifies partyism. We also presented several strategies and related organizations to update the political system rules for improved vote significance. Finally, changing your political contribution strategy to accelerate vote strengthening is an important action you (and organizations you are affiliated with) may take now.
(1) I wrote the “Electorate Tribalism - Partyism” section mostly from memory. I did not consult specific sources as I wrote. (except for the color metaphor and life expectancy) However, my understanding is greatly informed by others. The following have contributed to my understanding, with included links to their work I previously studied:
(2) See our Brain Model for more information. Per the brain model, the lion narrative is an example of a) limbic system based on high-intensity sensory input emotion tagging and b) interaction with our right hemisphere, c) mostly bypassing our left hemisphere to d) and driving nervous system output. (Run!)
(3) As an indicator of our reduced need for physical tribal protection, in the last 200 years, the world's life expectancy has more than doubled.
(4) Neuroscience. 2nd edition, Neurons Often Release More Than One Transmitter
(5) The Nazi Party in post-World War I Germany used electorate tribalism to manipulate the German public in 2 primary ways. a) They used fear to help elect the party. That is, the fear of continued economic devastation as exacerbated by the Treaty of Versailles, the fear associated with the 1933 Reichstag Fire and the related Enabling Act, and other post-World War I economic challenges. b) Once in power, they used fear of party non-compliance to maintain party control. That is, party control was maintained via the persecution of Jewish affiliated people and the prosecution of World War II. The Nazis used a powerful mix of propaganda and shows of force to reinforce party control via electorate tribalism means. The Nazi propaganda machinery was lead by Reich Minister Joseph Goebbels and implemented by Leni Riefenstahl and others. For an excellent historical account of Nazi Germany, see William Shirer's book, The Rise And Fall of the Third Reich.
(6) Fill in the blank - McCain, Romney, Obama, Clinton, Trump, Biden, or your (not) favorite candidate.
(7) In my opinion, Alexander Hamilton could easily stake a claim as another Father of the U.S. Constitution. He was a delegate at the Constitutional Convention. He wrote about 2/3rds of The Federalist Papers, which provided an implementation guide to the U.S. Constitution. He was also the first Treasury Secretary under President George Washington. He was responsible for implementing much of the early constitutional framework during his years as Treasury Secretary and even following as a private citizen. See Ron Chernow's book, Alexander Hamilton. Interestingly, it was Hamilton’s distrust of the American people’s ability to pick a fit president that enabled the current political party system to act as a gatekeeper. "History will teach us," Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers #1, that "of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the great number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants." See Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die.
(8) I first heard "Depublican" or "Remocrat" as a reference to the two dominant U.S. political parties and as coined by Katherine Gehl, Co-Author of "The Politics Industry"
(9) "The Politics Industry" by Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter
(10) Robert Axelrod, in his book The Evolution of Cooperation, investigates long-term cooperative games, in the context of game theory. After testing over 200 related strategies, he concluded a long-term "Tit For Tat" strategy was most stable. That is, game participants should start by cooperating, then subsequently reciprocate what the other player did on the previous move. I find some congruence between Axelrod’s conclusion and the current Depublican cooperative game as played by the Republicans and Democrats. This article supports changing the rules of the game. That is, change (strengthen) voting rules as a way to support a less divisive, more productive political environment.
(11) Before 1972, presidential candidates were chosen by party insiders. This process was shrouded in mystery. In 1972 and owing to the McGovern-Fraser Commission recommendations, the more democratic primary and caucus system was enacted to select candidates:
“The McGovern-Fraser Commission issued a set of recommendations that the two parties adopted before the 1972 election. What emerged was a system of binding presidential primaries. Beginning in 1972, the vast majority of the delegates to both the Democratic and Republican conventions would be elected in state-level primaries and caucuses.”
- from How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt
About 40 years ago these new rules had an unanticipated impact. That is, party gatekeeping was diminished by making candidate selection more democratic. This is a double-edged sword, while decreasing the party's ability to cut backroom deals, it also reduces their overall ability to act as a gatekeeper. Party gatekeeping is typically used to filter candidates unfit for office. Ironically, this change also increases the political party incentive to manipulate voting rules to tilt power, since the “backroom” was no longer available.
(12) Vote strengthening organizations include: