Are your political beliefs personal or tribal?

One thing I often bring up when talking about politics is before Roe v. Wade, Democrats in America used to be staunchly pro-life while Republicans were in favour of legalising abortion.

In fact, the pro-life movement originated among liberals, not conservatives. Liberals used to believe that it is their duty (and the government’s) to protect the lives of unborn babies alongside the poor and the weak.

Roe v. Wade changed all that – suddenly, Republicans were getting concerned about the government interfering with family affairs. Religious conservatives started joining the pro-life movement, which drove liberals away from it.

Meanwhile, Democrats were trying to win the support of feminists, and so they also started changing their tune on the matter. Their supporters soon followed.

Today, of course, there is pretty much no such thing as a pro-life Democrat, or a pro-choice Republican in America.

In fact, you can pretty much already know what a person supports and opposes based on her political affiliation alone. A Democrat supports abortion rights, gay marriages, fighting climate change, and so on, while opposing gun rights . A Republican must be against abortions, gay marriages, illegal immigration, and pro-climate change policies, while being pro-gun right and so on.

Which is kinda crazy if you think of it. Why would anyone’s stance on gun rights need to be based on their political affiliation?

Can someone not oppose abortions and owning guns at the same time? Can a person not support fighting climate change while being against amnesty for undocumented immigrants?

In such a polarized climate, it has become more and more difficult for Americans to reach out to the other side – how can you befriend another person when you know that they disagree with you on every single issue out there? It becomes hard to find common grounds with almost anybody who doesn’t support the same party as you do.

So. What does all this mean for us Malaysians? Sure, our society is pretty fractured… but are we as tribal as them yankees?

It may feel like it sometimes, but thankfully, I believe that we are not there yet.

I don’t have the right insights and data, so take my observations with lots of caution. From what I observed, it’s almost impossible to predict what a Malaysian might or might not support based on their political affiliations. PH supporters were (and still are) bitterly divided over the death penalty, for example. UMNO supporters don’t always agree with racist policies and plenty throw in their support out of a desire for stability. PKR supporters can range from those who believe in racial equality to those who are downright racists and religious supremacists. And so on, and so on, and so on.

On the other hand, it’s 100% conceivable for an UMNO and a DAP supporter to share the same opinions on various issues, from the death penalty to anti-hopping laws to abolishing the tolls. Heck, they might both agree on supporting racial equality, with the difference being both sides have very different understanding on which race is oppressing which.

With a bit of conversation, it won’t be hard for a DAP supporter to get an UMNO supporter to support ICERD.

For political parties and coalitions, this brings both plenty of challenges and opportunities, and unfortunately they come in a package.

As people support the same political parties for all kinds of different reasons, political parties and coalitions will have a hard time satisfying all those who voted for them and are in perpetual danger of losing some of their support, for example, DAP’s leadership have always had a hard time satisfying both its more liberal supporters and chauvinistic supporters, while I suspect that UMNO will have a hard time dealing with both its supporters who simply want to maintain a stable status quo, versus those who want to see an even more Malay-centric Malaysia even if it may cause disruption and disharmony.

This can result in situations where nobody is ever happy even if their political coalition of choice is in power, as demonstrated by PH’s short but volatile tenure.

On the other hand, this also opens up tremendous opportunities for political parties to find common grounds with non-traditional voters, for example, Pakatan Harapan was able to successfully attract Malay voters who were not too keen on racial equality but wanted to see Najib go during the last general elections. (Eventually many of these voters appeared to have defected to supporting PN instead, but that’s another story.)

Will a challenger political coalition be able to pull off the same stunt again?

I’m sure it’s possible. Because Malaysian voters are not as neatly divided by tribal affiliations as Americans, there’s always plenty of room for building common grounds and therefore gaining support from voters who are disenchanted with other political coalitions. This doesn’t even need to involve an umbrella coalition, as long as you are able to pinpoint the right issues that resonate with the maximum number of voters.

Of course, the real risk is how to keep everyone happy once you managed to win Putrajaya.

Perhaps the key is to focus on the right issues and don’t succumb to the desire to promise too much to too many different groups of people in return for support. That is a recipe for disaster (and probably one of the reasons why an umbrella coalition may not be the best idea).

Choose the right battle, be laser-focused on it, and deliver it once you do win. The rest can wait.