Ingroup vs. Outgroup Background
Conflict has been stirred up in the United States for several years now. The political parties have an omnipresent hold on American life and real people are fighting over which group is superior every day. The theory of Ingroup vs. Outgroup mentalities, also known as “Us vs. Them” mentalities are a well-documented and studied psychology of human behavior prevalent in society from its inception. As the names would suggest, this theory posits that people naturally tend to view and align themselves with groups of other individuals with whom they find commonality. By finding a group with whom the individual sees safety and commonality, an identity is formed and this identity of the now “ingroup” tends to create an exclusivity to retain the safety, comfort, and pact of the group. Thus, once a group has formed, they protect those within their ingroup and contest those outside of it (Greene 2014). This occurrence causes complex results in modern society, religions, nations, clans, and even trivial matters such as sports teams. Countless identities are formed around an “Us” in modern society and bonds and conflict result from it. As Sapolsky noted in his research on primates exhibiting similar behavior, the apes of the ingroup defended one another, despite the relationship being completely artificial, not even kin based. Nothing identified them other than the groups from which they came and if the ape was from the wrong group and strayed too far, the apes of the existing group killed the outsider. While this does not necessarily mean the same in humans, parallels in behavior and neurobiology should not be ignored (Sapolsky 2019).
“Us vs. Them” Conflict in America
The politically party itself is just a way to form an “Us” so that politically like-minded individuals could find safety and strength in a larger group. This “Us vs. Them” of politics has been the constant of America, from the original Federalists and Democratic-Republicans to the modern Democrats and Republicans, United States politics have been the setting for “Us vs. Them” rivalry since 1776. However, tensions of this constant state of combat against your fellow Americans is not always a matter of tariff debates. In the nineteenth century, “ingroup vs. outgroup” mindsets over slavery led to a Civil War; and recently tensions have been escalating beyond the bureaucratic once again. Since the start of the 2016 presidential election campaigns, both Democrats and Republicans have tapped deeper and deeper into the “Us vs. Them” mentality in order to garner support. As was seen by the Clinton campaign, the Trump campaign, and then later in 2020, the Biden and Trump (it got worse this time) campaigns. However, this phenomenon is not enclosed to just elections. Continuous efforts are being made by the parties to affirm their constituents (the ingroup) and slander their opponents (the outgroup) by senators, representatives, secretaries, and even the executives themselves. In the presidential debate in 2020, President Trump called President Biden a “lowlife comedian” and President Biden responded later by referring to Trump as a “clown”, although it should be noted that Biden apologized for his lack of professionalism (Joe Biden Calls Donald Trump a Clown, 2020) Both Democrats and Republicans are clearly supporting the narrative of “Us vs. Them” wherever they see benefit to themselves or detriment to their rival, and it is now all too common now to conflate the two.
What is the conflict now?
For the first time in well over 3 decades, a United States Senator has been censured by the Senate at large. A censure is not necessarily a legal term, but it is colloquially defined as a formal and official statement of disapproval or disavowal. So, what happened? On Tuesday, March 1st, 2022, 13 democratic senators and 11 republican senators voted to censure Arizona republican senator, Wendy Rogers (Wise 2022). Rogers, a known and active supporter of the Trump campaigns – even having spoken at several appearances with the former president – was censured for “conduct unbecoming a senator”, which includes supporting social media messages inciting violence and punishment against any who did not agree with her politically. Additionally, Rogers’ messages were compounded when she spoke at a conference organized by known white supremacist, Nick Fuentes. This included promises of “political destruction” of her fellow senators, along with calling for the literal hanging of her political opponents. The event, “The America First Political Action Conference” also featured Rogers using anti-Semitic language to describe Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, as well as her own praise of Fuentes who has a history of open racism, as well as his claim that women do not deserve the right to vote (Barchenger, Stern, and Pitzl 2022).
Is this just a downward spiral?
The constant tensions between the political parties have made this event of unacceptable, unbecoming, anti-Semitic, archaic, racist, sexist, deplorable speech little more than another day in America. The violence which ensued on the Capital on January 6th was another prime example of how a partisan “Us vs. Them” has created an American political environment akin to a pot of water on the stove: it feels as if eventually it is going to boil over. Are events like these coming more numerously and closer together like the bubbles of the boiling pot, growing more and more until the US finally boils over? These instances of highly partisan violence, claims of violence, and outlandish behavior are indeed growing more significant by the day. However, equally important to the conflict against “them” is maintaining the “Us”. Gatekeeping is an ever-present behavior of the parties in order to maintain a coherent identity. As such, the behavior of those most tantalized by the idea of conflict does not necessarily mean that all politicians are inciting further progression of the narrative. This censure of Rogers was a bi-partisan vote, with nearly as many republican senators voting to censure Rogers as Democrats. Some senators even noted that a bi-partisan vote of the censure sent a more proper message that while the ingroups may still be at odds with one another, there is conduct which will not be tolerated by either party, even if committed against the other. Many of the current republican senators have spoken about their uncertainty on Rogers’ future in the party and that her conduct does not reflect the established party, Rogers violated the principles of “Us” in order to continue an assault on “them” and now may be gatekept for such a heinous violation.
Greene, Joshua David. 2014. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them. London: Atlantic Books.
“Joe Biden Calls Donald Trump a ‘Clown’ during … – Youtube.” Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4NOXT-ekbo (March 11, 2022).
Sapolsky, Robert M. 2021. “This Is Your Brain on Nationalism.” Foreign Affairs. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2019-02-12/your-brain-nationalism (March 10, 2022).
Stacey Barchenger, Ray Stern and Mary Jo Pitzl. 2022. “Arizona Sen. Wendy Rogers Censured by Senate after Calling for Public Hangings, Attacking Ukraine’s President.” The Arizona Republic. https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/arizona/2022/03/01/wendy-rogers-republican-censure-arizona-senate/9331363002/ (March 10, 2022).
Wise, Alana. 2022. “Arizona State Senate Censures Lawmaker Who Threatened Rivals with Violence.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/2022/03/01/1083817494/arizona-state-senate-censures-lawmaker-who-threatened-rivals-with-violence (March 10, 2022).
It is unfortunate that politics has become so polarized that an elected official’s call for violence and white nationalism has become punishable by a simple censure. While the Senate may have censured Senator Rogers to maintain a bare minimum level of political normalcy (and protect their political positions), it is not enough to prevent democratic erosion.
I think Levitsky and Ziblatt’s research on mutual toleration and forbearance are relevant here too. Senator Rogers’ actions and statements show that mutual toleration is going down the drain. The censure does not carry any other consequence besides a condemnation of her calls for violence against people she perceives as her enemy and threats against any Republican who wanted to punish her; the censure did not mention her antisemetic or racist remarks. The light punishment and the absence of a condemnation of her discriminatory remarks reads as toleration of her actions; tolerating these statements legitimizes these statements, which breeds distrust towards perceived enemies and fear that those perceived enemies will win elections. It is no wonder Senator Rogers supported the 2020 election fraud conspiracies even after they were debunked. To make matters worse, after the censure was issued, Republican Senate Majority Leader Rick Gray reminded his colleagues to look at the policy, not the sponsor, when they vote on legislation. Since Republicans only have a 16-14 majority, Rogers could block any Republican bills that do not have Democratic support. This indicates the party’s fear of forbearance disintegrating.