Updated: Feb 5
The U.S. political system has become increasingly divisive. In many ways, the 2021 U.S. Capitol attack was symbolic of this divisiveness and symptomatic of much deeper causes. This article explores root causes and suggests strengthening our vote as an important path forward.
The following questions are a guiding light for this article:
Do you wonder how the attack on the capitol was a symptom of a much deeper problem?
Do you wonder about historical examples and especially 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?
Do you wonder how our political system could change to address the problem?
Via science, technology, business strategy, and historical context; this article “connects the dots" on these questions. We suggest specific actions each of us may take for positive change!
This article was first published on January 27, 2021
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 to affect positive change.
This article is presented with the following sections:
1. Neuroscience and Political Parties
We start at the base, meaning, our individual tribal nature is fundamental to our political system. Our political system, including our desire for political parties, is a reflection of our individual tribal tendencies. Understanding our nature and how we are exposed to manipulation is the basis 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." (i)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. (ii)
Tribalism is caused by a mix of neurotransmitters. Before we get into how it works, let's first 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. (iii) 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. For context, 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 information 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 may be produced from the primary and secondary colors. So, think of our emotions as created from a mix of neurotransmitters. (iv)
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 the expression of our unique neurotransmitter mixing ability.
Tribalism may 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) looking 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. Political parties have an incentive to recruit and maintain membership by appealing to tribal-based emotions. Appealing to these emotion-informed factors engage the neurotransmitters or "hues" associated with electorate tribalism.
To help add more context to electorate tribalism, Germany's former Nazi party is presented as an example. (Please see our Nazi Party example in the notes section). This example shows how emotions and situations are utilized to form and reinforce political parties. (v) To add a convenient word to the lexicon, I will refer to electorate tribalism as "partyism." Naturally, political parties are aware of partyism’s impact. Party communication, recruitment, and engagement are crafted to leverage our neurobiology. Social media has become a very powerful tool. It has been added to the political party’s electorate engagement toolbox. The next section will show how partyism is exploited by social media.
2. 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. The optimization algorithm presents content, while increasing 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 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 wish to deliver polarizing content to recruit and maintain membership. Both have been known to create social media “echo chambers,” where extreme content is amplified, with operational reinforcement 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 serves more extreme, tribal-oriented content, the more advertising revenue is generated. (vi)
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 be surprising if advertising spending in the next presidential election is majority digital.
The point is that 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 enabling technology to hack the human neurological function, the platform firms provide a tool promoting more extreme partyism. The capitol attack was investigated by a U.S. congressional committee in 2022. (vii) The impact of partyism is evident in the committee's concluding recommendations:
“The Committee’s investigation has identified many individuals involved in January 6th who were provoked to act by false information about the 2020 election repeatedly reinforced by legacy and social media.”
There are several things we may do about it. In our article, Beyond content moderation - implementing algorithm standards and maintaining free speech, we explore this topic in more detail. In summary, management approaches to reduce technology-enabled partyism include:
Content moderation - This is the current approach being utilized by 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, this is not to suggest 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 two 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 implemented in parallel financial services industry contexts.
The next section builds on partyism challenges and the distorting impact of social media on our political system, especially related to reduced vote significance.
3. The Building of our Political System and a Call for Vote Strengthening
Do you ever feel like our political system is broken? Do you ever think: "If only _________ would lose the election, everything would be much better!" (viii) 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 reward alignment encourages reduced vote significance. The 2021 U.S. Capitol attack is symptomatic of reduced vote significance.
Our country’s founders were profoundly 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 (ix), also believed the regular vote is an important control for managing political parties ("controlling its effects"):
“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.
As a testament to the brilliance of the founding generation, 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. Voting is the supreme control against the "greatest political evil."
Contrary to the Founder’s intentions for the U.S. government, 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. Our political parties have both motive and opportunity.
In the United States, reduced vote significance is emblematic of the political system as leveraged by the current dominant political parties, the Republicans and Democrats. For this article, we consider the political system in total, so we 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). (x)
Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter (xi) argue the power of our vote is being diminished via the 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. (xii) 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 outcome is to keep either member of the Depublican syndicate in power and to crowd out 3rd Parties. To be clear, this is not to suggest there is some central Depublican decision body actively colluding to implement the reduced vote significance strategy. In the context of game theory, the oligopolistic strategy and the divided electorate outcome drive a game-theoretical stable strategy 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 a rich literature base supporting the application of Game Theory. (xiii) Be that as it may, it does not make it right. The vote-impacting rules need to be changed.
How did we get here? Reduced vote significance is an anticipated outcome by following the political system’s 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 supporting the reduced vote significance strategy. For more than fifty years, Depublican supporters slowly, almost imperceptibly, implemented the BTF strategy by writing new rules. These new rules tilt voting power to the Depublicans by reducing the control effectiveness of the vote itself.
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 hardly move the vote significance needle. However, collectively and since 1972, the BTF strategy has been highly effective in driving a reduced vote significance outcome. Resulting of the 1972 McGovern-Fraser Commission recommendations, the state primary and caucus candidate selection system replaced the party insider candidate selection process. This candidate selection change was meant to provide a more democratic candidate selection process. It also enabled an unintended and consequential incentive for political parties to reduce vote significance. (xiv) In terms of natural systems, there are 2 general system archetypes:
A balancing system with offsetting controls and regulations to keep the system in check.
A reinforcing system, with no or insufficient offsetting regulations or controls. The outcome is a system that feeds on itself to grow quickly.
The brilliance of the founding generation was to build the U.S. political and economic system as a balancing system. The U.S. legislative branch is bicameral. With each legislative body effectively regulating the other. The U.S. Federal government is composed of 3 branches. Each provides regulatory "checks and balances" for the other. To provide a natural example of a successful balancing system, we need to look no further than our own genetics. Our genes and environment are part of our amazing balancing biological system. Our genes are regulated by the environment. Our environment impacts genetic heredity. Our environment is regulated by our genes. Our environment tends to be augmented by genetic participants. It is why natural selection has been such a successful biological information system for the human species. (xv)
Changing our voting system in 1972 had a major impact on the voting system's architecture. McGovern-Fraser created a reinforcing system. There are insufficient natural controls. It is truly like the “fox guarding the henhouse” in that those that benefit from being elected are motivated to impact the voting system in a way that reduces vote significance. There are insufficient controls in place to counter this reinforcing system. In nature, there is another reinforcing system that tends to grow uncontrolled - it is called CANCER.
So, what can be done about it?
The good news is, because of Porter, Gehl, and several other vote-strengthening organizations (xvi), this challenge is well understood and there are many vote-strengthening initiatives slowly making their way through voting channels and legislative bodies. For example, in 2020, Virginia voted to implement anti-gerrymandering rules. The amended rules significantly reduce the influence of the Depublicans to redraw voting districts. Also, in 2019, New York City implemented Rank Choice Voting as a vote-strengthening measure.
The bad news is, the going will likely be slow as the financial inertia is massive. The Depublicans have a financial war chest helping them maintain the status quo. Also, keep in mind, Depublican inertia is exacerbated by the “fox guarding the henhouse” challenge. That is, there is not a governance body that provides direct checks and balances for the Depublicans, other than the vote itself. The challenge is, vote strengthening initiatives are focused on the symptoms. Chasing symptoms tends to be less effective than addressing the root cause.
While rolling back BTF-related rules is necessary, a change accelerator relates to political financial contributions. As such, it would also be helpful for individuals and corporations to change how they target political financial contributions. Contribution targeting should prioritize candidates and causes that support vote strengthening. To the extent vote-strengthening candidates are currently a member 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.
In a 2020 article by the Brookings Institution (xvii), they suggested an approach to recast the primary and caucus system. The recommended approach enables the parties to act as a means of quality control. The parties would serve to vet the candidates to ensure they are fit for the primary or caucus process. This seems like a reasonable root cause-focused suggestion. It aligns with the balancing system architecture such as our 3 branches of the federal government or our bicameral legislature.
“[T]wo filters are better than one. Electoral and professional perspectives check each other’s excesses and balance each other’s viewpoints[.]”
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 (like 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 effect 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. Contribution strategy change is an action you and the organizations with whom you are affiliated may take now. Taking a more root cause-focused approach to change should help to ensure the long-term success of vote strengthening.
(i) The “Electorate Tribalism - Partyism” section was mostly written from memory. Specific sources were not referenced during the writing process. (except for the color metaphor and life expectancy) However, the author’s understanding is greatly informed by others. The following have contributed to this section’s understanding, with included links to their work:
(ii) See our Brain Model for more information. Per the brain model, the lion narrative is an example of ”The high emotion tag / low language case.” That is, a sensory situation that activates: a) our limbic system based on the high-intensity sensory input emotion tag, b) followed by an interaction with our right hemisphere, c) that mostly bypasses our left hemisphere and executive control functions to d) drive a nervous system output. (Run!) As we show, political parties seek to bypass the left hemisphere and executive control as a means to tribal formation.
(iii) 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.
(iv) Neuroscience. 2nd edition, Neurons Often Release More Than One Transmitter
(v) 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. The Enabling Act effectively allowed Hitler to bypass parliament. b) Once in power, they used fear to enforce party 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 led 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.
(vi) For more information and related references, please see our article, Beyond content moderation - implementing algorithm standards and maintaining free speech.
(vii) Congressional Committee Members, FINAL REPORT Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, 117th Congress Second Session House Report 117-663, 2022
(viii) Fill in the blank - McCain, Romney, Obama, Clinton, Trump, Biden, or your NOT favorite candidate.
(ix) 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.
(x) "Depublican" or "Remocrat" is a reference to the two dominant U.S. political parties and as mentioned by Katherine Gehl, Co-Author of "The Politics Industry"
(xi) "The Politics Industry" by Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter
(xii) See Porter, How Competitive Forces Shape Strategy, Harvard Business Review, 1979
(xiii) 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.
The originator of game theory is John Von Neumann. It started with his 1928 Minimax theory:
Dimand, Von Neumann, Ville, and the Minimax Theorem, International Game Theory Review, 2010
Game theory was formalized by his opus:
Von Neumann, Morganstern, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, 1944
(xiv) Please see our article Party The Big Pivot: How a well-intended political rule change weakened our vote for more information about the 1972 McGovern-Fraser Commission candidate selection recommendation-based rules change impact. We demonstrate the degree and direction of vote weakening impact since 1972.
(xv) Hulett, Genetic Engineering: The promise, power, and challenges, The Curiosity Vine, 2022
(xvi) Vote-strengthening organizations include:
Andrew Yang recently started the Forward Party as an alternative that works within the current Depublican-dominated system. (It technically operates as a Political Action Committee or PAC). The Forward Party’s stated objective is the “reduction of partisan polarization and implementing electoral reforms.”
(xvii) La Rja, Rauch, Voters need help: How party insiders can make presidential primaries safer, fairer, and more democratic, The Brookings Institution, 2020