President of Cato Institute Peter Goettler talks partisan politics, ‘tribalism’ at Berkeley Forum event

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Peter Goettler, president and CEO of the Cato Institute, spoke about the increasingly divisive nature of partisan politics Monday evening at a Berkeley Forum event.

In his presentation, titled “Proud to be ‘Tribeless,’ ” Goettler described the two mainstream political parties as “tribes” with their own group identities and ideologies. This is why, he said, when parties shift ideologies, people often notice their acquaintances changing their long-held beliefs; members who buy into the identity of a group are concerned more with what the “chief” of their tribe thinks than their personal values.

“One of the great attractions of tribalism is that we don’t have to think as much — thinking about what side you’re on rather than what you truly believe,” Goettler said during the event.

Using a slide with a pictures symbolizing controversial issues of today — a baby in utero for abortion, a plane for the military, a gun for gun control — Goettler pointed out that if he told the audience an individual’s opinion on one of the images, the audience would be able to guess the same person’s opinions on the other issues.

The Cato Institute, a research organization dedicated to libertarian principles, is financially independent from the two major parties and is unique in Washington, D.C., according to Goettler. Because of its firm adherence to libertarian principles, Goettler claimed, the institute’s values do not change depending on the political “fray.”

Goettler said he is still an optimist at heart despite the divisive current political environment.

“The spirit of tribalism has also been fueling the partisan divide,” Goettler said during his presentation. “I try to have perspective; people say that our country has never been so divided, but if you look back at the founding of the republic, the election of 1800 was pretty partisan. I once had a journalist tell me, ‘Well, the 1850s weren’t so peachy, either.’ ”

In addition to a number of UC Berkeley students, the event drew a crowd of community members as well — including a candidate for California governor, Robert Griffis.

Community member Richard Banks said he thought it was natural for people to align themselves with the parties that best represent their views on the political spectrum.

“I don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of what he said; I don’t necessarily agree with it either,” Banks said. “I think his analysis is superficial. I think he’s missing big drivers of what he doesn’t like — for example, what’s causing tribalism.”

Campus freshman Abhinav Kejriwal said he was impressed by Goettler’s speech.

“I think he was a great speaker,” Kejriwal said. “He’s provided a great filter to analyze and study situations that are happening today; that filter of tribalism will influence my decision, my mode of thinking, when I look at situations.”

Contact Alexandra Stassinopoulos at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AE_Stass.