Political lying as tribal signaling

It's like getting a tattoo to prove you're in a gang

Why have so many Republicans and right-wing media figures embraced Donald Trump’s obviously made-up claims of voter fraud? Rationally, they must know that all of the allegations are lies. Court after court, recount after recount, investigation after investigation has shown zero evidence of fraud. Yet the more the evidence against Trump’s lies piles up, the more figures on the right line up to publicly embrace the fiction.

The obvious reason would be to curry favor with right-wing voters and audiences, who express strong sympathy with the idea that Biden was not the election’s rightful winner. Trump will probably (hopefully) be out of the White House in a few weeks, but he will likely remain a powerful and influential figure in a Republican party that he has come to dominate. When Republican politicians or Fox News anchors express doubt about the election, or call for a halt to election certification, they may simply be saying things that generate warm fuzzy feelings among the segment of the population who feel like President-elect Biden doesn’t represent the “real America” and therefore must, in some sense, be a usurper. And they may be willing to pay the cost of forever being remembered as people who tried to help a would-be authoritarian actually usurp the result of a free and fair election.

But if this were all that was happening, one might expect people to find some less expensive fiction. Pushing an obviously false claim of a stolen election is probably a doomed cause — and even if Trump succeeded in holding onto power, that would require these same right-wing figures to tie themselves to an autocratic regime that would have a reasonable likelihood of being violently overthrown, and its apparatchiks punished.

Instead, I offer another possibility — that lies of this sort are uttered precisely because they come with costs. I propose that political lies are a costly signal of tribal loyalty.

Remember, in economics, “signaling” means much more than just “trying to prove something”. Signaling in econ is basically when people jump through hoops in order to prove themselves. You might take a useless but difficult college course or math test, just to prove to future employers that you’re smart. Or you might get a tattoo to prove your loyalty to a yakuza gang, even though the tattoo would make it harder to get into a Japanese public bath or get a normal job. The fact that the signal comes with a cost is essential to separating the dedicated people from the posers.

Political lies could function similarly to the gang tattoos. By going on record as saying that we should seriously consider the possibility that climate change might not be real, you exposure yourself to a lifetime of ridicule. But that very exposure might prove that you’re the real thing, hardcore, really on the team, to a partisan audience who might otherwise be inclined to question your conservative bona fides. After all, if you were really a cuckservative or RINO, would you really have been willing to risk your reputation in the media world or in East Coast intellectual circles just to spread some FUD about climate change?

Now, this implies a conscious decision to lie. In a lot of cases, that’s probably not what’s going on; instead of deliberately uttering falsehoods, most people probably just say things they wouldn’t be willing to bet on. For example, it’s a well-known fact that when you ask Democrats and Republicans how the economy is doing, you get vastly different answers based on whose party is in power; Democrats tend to say the economy is doing great when a Democrat is in the White House, and poorly when a Republican is in power, while Republicans say the exact opposite, regardless of real economic data. These survey responses probably aren’t outright lies, since they’re given in private. But when you pay people to get the answers right, the partisan gaps diminish substantially. In other words, on some level, people don’t believe in the partisan beliefs they express — at least, not in the sense that economists define “belief”. Signaling could therefore be operating at a subconscious level — something people learn to do in order to secure membership in political tribes, but which doesn’t feel like lying when they do it.

Anyway, I’m apparently not the first to have the idea that spouting fiction is a form of costly signaling (surprise, surprise!). Political scientist Brendan Nyhan recently tweeted:

Some political scientists have used signaling (or a close variant) to model personality cults. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Tyler Cowen has described Trump’s lies as loyalty tests for years.

In general I think signaling models are overused as explanations for social behavior. Yakuza might get tattoos to prove they’re in the gang, but lots of people just get them because they like them. And it may be that pure mood affiliation is a better explanation for political bullshit. People who say “Biden stole the election” might just be trying to say “I don’t like the fact that Biden won the election”, or “I don’t like the people who voted for Biden”. And for people who spend their whole lives ensconced in right-wing circles and institutions will face fewer consequences for spouting right-wing fiction. Certainly, some people on the left have been able to spout fictions — such as the claim that global poverty hasn’t decreased in recent decades — without any apparent negative consequence.

But when we look at the real costs that people in red states have paid for Trump’s actual policies, it becomes harder to dismiss Trumpism as pure mood affiliation. Farmers have seen their businesses devastated by the trade war. Red states are seeing horrific death rates from a pandemic that Trump actively sabotaged efforts to contain. Yet Trump continues to enjoy the support of over 40% of the U.S. public, including overwhelming support in rural areas, and gained ground in the places worst hit by COVID-19.

Why do Trump voters keep feeding the mouth that bites them? Rich Lowry, who knows a thing or two about right-wing politics, says Trump is “the only middle finger available” for people to express their dissatisfaction with the leftward drift of American culture. But what if it’s not just spite? What if supporting Trump, in spite of all the costs, is a way of demonstrating that the Red Tribe is still numerous and strong, and that conservatives aren’t simply going to disappear from American culture? Uttering falsehoods about the election could simply be part and parcel of this same attempt at signaling that We Still Have a Gang.(By the way, remember that if you like this blog, you can subscribe here!)