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The Political Identity Paradox | Evolutionary logic of collective action pt.III

Why do grassroots political organizations sometimes implode right at the peak of their success?  This post examines the double-edged sword of highly cohesive political group identities and explores how to build vibrant campaigns while avoiding going (too) crazy…

natural born people pleasers

Imagine yourself a gazelle in a herd of gazelles.  Aw snap, here comes a hungry lion out of nowhere – and that lion is fast!  Is this the moment you want to be caught on the peripheral edges of the herd?  Ok, now imagine yourself a lone wolf trying to catch your next meal.  It’s freezing out and you’re not having much luck.  You’re just sitting there, hungry and tired and cold, wondering what it was you said that got you kicked out of the pack.

What do we know about prehistoric life in human groups? While there’s a lot of mystery and conjecture, we do know that life was, indeed, in groups.  We’re not gazelles or wolves, but, like gazelles and wolves, we like groups. We are highly social creatures.  As evolutionist David Sloan Wilson suggests, “…our ancestors participated in family groups, gathering groups, hunting groups, raiding groups, and so on. Almost everything was done in a social context; to be alone was to be in grave danger.” [2004: The New Fable of Bees.  my emphasis]

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá also hit on this in their book Sex at Dawn: “If you ever doubt that human beings are, beyond everything, social animals, consider that short of outright execution or physical torture, the worst punishment in any society’s arsenal has always been exile.”

If the thought of being abandoned by the group that you identify with troubles you, congratulations; that’s probably a hard-wired adapted way to feel.  Your cave-person ancestors probably survived in part because they liked, and were liked by, the group.  Those who wandered off alone too far, as well as those who pissed everyone off until they got 86’ed, probably didn’t fare quite as well evolutionarily.

It makes evolutionary sense that we would want to move toward the center of the group, because those who developed this tendency would have a leg up on those who didn’t.  This kind of selection may have helped our predecessors to evolve into a more social, more cooperative, kinder, gentler species.

Where does that leave us now?  It likely equips us with a predisposition to try to get on the good side of the groups we’re part of.  We want to feel safe in the center of the group, not threatened on the margins.

So, in some senses we’re a species of natural born people pleasers.  (As long as those people are within our group – see War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection.)  

This helps explain our capacity for cooperation.  In Part I of this series I argued that, under the right conditions, human beings have the capacity for behavior that serves the group, even at a cost to the individual.  One “right condition” or prerequisite is a feeling of belonging within a mostly cooperative group.  If an individual feels integrated within a group and feels like the group has her back – that she will benefit by casting her individual lot with the group – then she is more likely to display group-oriented behavior.

The degree to which a person identifies with the group will affect how much he is willing to give to the group. In other words, level of commitment to a group depends on the level of one’s investment and identity with that group. For example, an “online member” of an internet-based progressive organization may identify enough with “the group” to open every tenth email and occasionally call her member of Congress when asked; while a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) may identify strongly enough with “the group” to endure beatings, arrest, and worse.

“not for the faint of heart”

Strong social movements require strong relationships and group identities.  Malcolm Gladwell recently made this point very well in a must-read New Yorker article, arguing that, “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”

“Activism that challenges the status quo-that attacks deeply rooted problems-is not for the faint of heart,” says Gladwell.  His article bursts the hype bubble around the “revolutionary potential” of Facebook, Twitter, and other online tools, which Gladwell says, make it “easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”  Discussing the Civil Rights movement he suggests that, “Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”

So one crucial fact about the four freshmen at the Greensboro lunch counter-David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil-was their relationship with one another. McNeil was a roommate of Blair’s in A. & T.’s Scott Hall dormitory. Richmond roomed with McCain one floor up, and Blair, Richmond, and McCain had all gone to Dudley High School. The four would smuggle beer into the dorm and talk late into the night in Blair and McNeil’s room. They would all have remembered the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott that same year, and the showdown in Little Rock in 1957. It was McNeil who brought up the idea of a sit-in at Woolworth’s. They’d discussed it for nearly a month. Then McNeil came into the dorm room and asked the others if they were ready. There was a pause, and McCain said, in a way that works only with people who talk late into the night with one another, “Are you guys chicken or not?” Ezell Blair worked up the courage the next day to ask for a cup of coffee because he was flanked by his roommate and two good friends from high school.


When the sit-in movement spread from Greensboro throughout the South, it did not spread indiscriminately. It spread to those cities which had pre-existing “movement centers”-a core of dedicated and trained activists ready to turn the “fever” into action.

Gladwell doesn’t miss the critical fact that black churches were “at the center of the movement.”  The historic combination of strong personal relationships, a strong common cultural identity, a strong sense of common fate and of a common threat, and significant existing community infrastructure, all together created conditions ripe for skilled organizers and tacticians within “the community” to turn into powerful collective action.

Political Science Professor Emily Stoper underscores this point in her article The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: The Growth of Radicalism in a Civil Rights Organization:

Many SNCC members report that before 1964, they often experienced a sense of harmony and certainty that is rarely felt by other Americans. Their lives were not fragmented. Instead of filling a series of largely unrelated roles (parent, employee, citizen), they filled only one role: SNCC worker. Instead of balancing in their heads a multiplicity of values, all of them tentative, they had one certain, absolute set of beliefs. The group provided a world order that is far more complete and stable than any that individuals could assemble for themselves.

While SNCC is an exceptional example, there are lessons here for all political groups and for organizers.  If you want to see highly cooperative, committed, giving, and group-oriented behavior in more people than the occasional saint, you first need strong relationships, strong identity, and a strong sense of a group.  These are the things that signal to us that we can stop fending for ourselves as individuals, and start working together as a collective – like an organism.

the paradox

In my 15+ years of activism and organizing, I have experienced that high level of group cohesion in several campaigns, in which our lives were almost fully integrated into the cause.  We were oriented toward each other, and sometimes it seemed like we were thinking and acting less like individuals and more like a super organism.

In one campaign we were getting arrested and pepper-sprayed almost on a weekly basis.  This was a highly committed crew of folks.  There was a problem though (besides the obvious physical discomforts).  The more we experienced these crazy things together, the less we could relate to other people.  This is what I call the Political Identity Paradox.

The Political Identity Paradox states that political groups require a strong within-group identity in order to foster the level of commitment needed for effective and protracted political struggle, but this strong within-group identity has the tendency to differentiate and ultimately isolate the group from the bases of political power they must connect with and leverage in order to accomplish their instrumental goals.

Basically, people are motivated to take committed action when firmly situated within a group (and identity) that encourages or demands committed action of its members. But the stronger the identity and cohesion of the group, the more likely people are to become alienated from other groups, from society, etc.

This has much to do with our evolved tendency to move toward the center of our groups, and to signal our loyalty and belonging.  Cooperative behavior and serving others in the group is a great way to signal that you belong.  But an even easier way is to talk about or show how different you are from people outside of the group. Probably most groups do this to some degree.  You can see it in academia with departments trash talking each other, developing unnecessarily unintelligible language, and silo-ing knowledge; with punks who hate bands that become too popular and “sell out”; with sports fans who ritualistically put down other teams; and with religious groups that believe theirs is the only way to enlightenment or heaven.  When we differentiate ourselves from other groups and “outsiders,” we are signaling that we belong in this group.  This tendency makes a lot of sense for a species that has evolved significantly through group selection.  But that doesn’t mean it always serves us well strategically.

I described how this can play out in political groups in my book review of The Big Sort:

Our identity with the group is reinforced when we differentiate ourselves from people outside of the group.  There can actually be a disincentive to reach outside of the group or social circle – and a social incentive to put up barriers.  This is especially true if a group defines itself in direct opposition to the dominant culture.  If your group’s narrative rejects the dominant culture, it’s pretty easy to take the next step and reject “society” wholesale – and then your place in the group is affirmed when you encounter (or project) hostility from “society.”  Taken to the extreme, some political groups even become suspicious of success itself.  Because if society embraces you, then you must have sold out!

So, at least part of our psychological motivation for political involvement can be fulfilled completely without us ever winning anything.  Thus, some of the most committed, fire-in-the-belly fighters for social justice and equality today are wearing their politics on their sleeve in a way that signals only to each other – at the cost of turning off a lot of potential allies.  We’re building a community together.  We are oriented to impress each other.  Our tactics, our speech, our fashion, all our expression is aimed at the center of our small, ineffectual, insular groups – instead of aiming to infect the broader society.  We are always looking to differentiate ourselves from the dominant culture, instead of looking for common ground.  We become attached to an identity of the righteous few, the keepers of a little flame.  We pride ourselves that we won’t let it be extinguished, but our monopoly on that little flame, our attachment to our own marginalization – our activist brand – inoculates the proverbial prairie against catching fire.

Additionally with political groups, because of the nature of oppositional struggle, the phenomenon can escalate very quickly and spin out of control.  Oppositional struggle triggers an oppositional psychology, which can do a real number on a group.  Groups and movements that meet the kind of brutal resistance that the Civil Rights movement endured have a very tough row to hoe.  On the one hand, they need to turn to each other more than ever for strength and support.  They feel a compellingly strong cohesiveness to their group identity in these moments of escalated “between-group” conflict.  On the other hand, they need to keep outwardly oriented, to stay connected to a broad and growing base.  This is difficult to do even when leaders are fully oriented to the task, let alone when they are unprepared, which is so often the case.

Take, for example, Students for a Democratic Society (the original SDS that fell apart in dramatic fashion in 1969, not the contemporary SDS).  You can explain the epic implosion of the massive student organization in many ways, and surely it was multiply-determined.  But underneath the rational arguments that leaders were attacking each other with, there was this political identity paradox.  Key leaders had become encapsulated in their oppositional identity (or, rather, a few factionalized identities) and they became increasingly out of touch.  They lost the ability and/or the desire to relate to their broader membership – a huge number of students at the moment of the implosion – let alone to the rest of society.  Some of the most committed would-be leaders of that generation somehow came to see more value in holing up with a few comrades to make bombs than in organizing masses of students to take coordinated action.

In his article, The End of SDS and the Emergence of the Weatherman: Demise through Success, Frederick D. Miller describes the phenomenon of encapsulation:

Encapsulation occurs when a movement organization develops an ideology or structure that interferes with efforts to recruit members or raise demands. …members may develop such strong cohesion among themselves that outsiders become unwelcome. In prolonged interaction, a group may develop an ideology that is internally coherent but virtually unintelligible to recruits and outsiders who do not share all of the members’ assumptions. Such groups are not uncommon in movements; they constitute the fringe of organizations that appears strange to outsiders. An encapsulated organization may find it easy to maintain its dedicated core of members, whose identities are linked to the group and who may have few outside contacts, but such groups have little chance of growing or increasing their influence. Most strikingly, they may lose interest in such things, contenting themselves with maintaining their encapsulated existence.

In the case of SDS and Weather, the very names of the organizations say a lot: “Students for a Democratic Society” is clearly intended to cast a wide net and connect around broad progressive values, and with student’s specific identity as students. “Weathermen” or “Weather Underground” is esoteric by design.  You only “get it” if you’re cool enough.

In my article What Prevents Radicals from Acting Strategically?, I discuss how encapsulation is especially damaging because…

…it tends to occur especially among the most dedicated social change agents; people who give all or nearly all their time and energy to social change efforts, and who are often ready to sacrifice even more. Movements need these people to be successful. That is, movements need some people who are heart-and-soul dedicated to the cause, flexible and free from other commitments or distractions. Critical as these people are, still, they comprise a very small percentage of any successful social movement. To be successful, movements need tens of thousands-if not millions-of people who are willing to give something. To get plugged into movements in ways that build capacity, these folks generally need, first, to feel welcomed by, and then, some direction from, the more involved change agents. If these dedicated change agents fail to engage the next tier of potential movement participants, they will certainly fail to engage the broader society. These potential participants are not even the base, but rather the start of the base needed to affect the kind of systemic overhaul we imagine. Therefore, the interplay between these tiers of movement participants is of critical importance. Encapsulation and the general tendency of activist groups to self-isolate, prevents this needed relationship, creating an unbridgeable chasm where there should be a continuum of levels of involvement (as well as levels of political analysis), and leaving dedicated radicals cut-off like lone guerrilla fighters in enemy territory. It may feel glorious, but it’s a suicide mission.

the group DNA

While the extreme encapsulation of the Weather Underground is somewhat rare, the political identity paradox that led-almost naturally-to this encapsulation is a tension that is present in every political group.

In The Big Sort, author Bill Bishop describes how “Beginning in the 1960s … social psychologists came to understand that like-minded groups not only enforced conformity but also tended to grow more extreme.”

There have been hundreds of group polarization experiments, all finding that like-minded groups, over time, grow more extreme in the direction of the majority view … The lesson for politics and culture is pretty clear … Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.

…people are constantly comparing their beliefs and actions to those of the group. When a person learns that others in the group share his or her general beliefs, he or she finds it socially advantageous to adopt a position slightly more extreme than the group average. It’s a safe way to stand out from the crowd. it brings notice and even approbation … Everyone wants to be a member in good standing with the dominant group position. It’s counterintuitive, but people grow more extreme within homogeneous groups as a way to conform. [my emphasis]

However, just because this political identity paradox is written into the DNA of political groups, that doesn’t mean that every political group that develops a strong cohesive identity will inevitably become insular and delusional.  Self-reflective and strategic organizations can build the group’s identity and cohesion, and increase the commitment of members, while also staying outwardly oriented and guarding against insular thinking.  Some safeguards against encapsulation can be codified into a group’s regular activities.  Testing campaign messages on people outside of the group-ideally with folks who are part of the group’s “target audience”-is one example of a practice that can inform the group’s strategic thinking and guard against delusional groupthink and encapsulation.

But perhaps more than any one particular practice, good leaders can play a critically important role in keeping highly cohesive groups outwardly and strategically oriented.  If you are a highly regarded leader (formal or informal) in your group, and you spend most of your time talking with the other highly regarded (aka popular) folks in the group, this can set a negative pattern for the whole group.  An “in-crowd” dynamic tends to shut out the wisdom that resides in “the margins” of the group, to turn off new people and potential recruits, and to encourage imitative rather than innovative thinking.  If, on the other hand, you make the time and effort to talk with new people, shy people, people with less status, and, especially, people who are not “in the room,” you can help set a positive pattern.  Your example sets a higher bar for what it means to be a good leader, and can help to positively shape the group’s culture. Group members can see a positive path to contributing to the group and to winning the esteem of others – not by pushing ahead of others, or trashing outsiders, or parroting the cool kids, but by attending to the needs of others and making everyone feel valued and listened to.  (Bonus: listening to and learning from others makes you smarter!)

As an old sailor once said, “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant.”

And like that sailor, good leaders are both strategic and hardcore – and they help define what it means to be hardcore.  Look, if challenger political groups tend by nature to become more extreme over time, then good leaders will help to strategically define what that “extreme” looks like. This will look different for different groups in different contexts and different stages of their campaigns.  This isn’t a prescription to squelch militancy. Some level of militancy and escalation of tactics can be strategic when done well in the context of a strategic campaign. But there is also a tendency within highly cohesive political groups to want to “turn up the heat” regardless of whether doing so would be strategic at that particular moment.  In short, people whose level of commitment increases as their identity with the cause grows will want to do more.  They’ll want to be a little more hardcore.  And good leaders help define that hardcore.  The Weather Underground happened because some very delusional leaders succeeded in defining hardcore to mean immediate armed guerrilla struggle against the United States government.  With SNCC, on the other hand, some very astute leaders defined hardcore to mean going into some of the most dangerous segregated areas in the south and talking with some of the poorest, least educated, and most disenfranchised people in the entire country.  SNCC engaged in other more visible “hardcore” tactics as well. In both the case of Weather and of SNCC, hardcore really was HARDCORE.  (You can’t satiate the desire for hardcore with anything less!)  Members of both groups demonstrated overwhelming levels of commitment to the values of the groups they belonged to.  Members of both groups risked their lives, were imprisoned and brutalized, and some died or were killed.  But hardcore was defined strategically in the case of SNCC, and tragically in the case of Weather.  Good leaders anticipate the emergent desire for hardcore, and they totally own that shit.  They model it themselves.  And they make sure that the expression of hardcore is designed to strengthen bonds between the group’s core members and its broader political base.  It should feel hardcore to the participants, and it should look like moral leadership to the political base.

There’s another big piece in the political identity paradox puzzle that’s beyond the scope of today’s post.  I’ve been talking today mostly in terms of specific political groups and the cultures of their core committed members.  I’ve offered a few suggestions for how to prevent your cohesive and committed group from going down the road of batshit crazy.  But just cuz you and your teammates stay sane, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to hit a homerun and win the game, especially when all the rules and resources are rigged against you.  So how are you gonna get the millions of people at home watching TV to not just tune into the game, and not just cheer for your team, but also to come out to the ballpark, to charge into the field, and to change the rules of the game? If you figure it out, please let me know.  In the meantime, I’ll be working on part IV of this series, which will explore what evolutionary psychology might have to say about hegemonic warfare.  Stay tuned!

*I’m moving this week, so part IV probably won’t be ready for another week or so.  But, I hope you’ll keep coming back to repeatedly watch this amazing documentary about leadership and group behavior:

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