Two tribes go to vote: symbolism on election day

Typically private thoughts underpinning voter choices are hidden within the black boxes of human psychology. One might assume how choices are arrived at through statistical analysis of available data. However such analyses cannot capture how emotions and feelings inform specific choices.

In the digital age some make feelings public. This piece is based on observations of the use of social media, and in particular Instagram, to show how symbolism, through the interaction between visuals and text offers meaning to the act of voting and voter choice making. 

Tweets and posts to social media accounts from the queues outside the polling stations offer such insights. The political meet the mundane in the tweet “waiting to vote Trump, hungry for change, hungry for a big mac” one of many similar contributions which show how voting and the election impinge on but fit within broader life experience. However Instagram offers a different set of affordances. Here we can see how symbolism is used to show a shared identity about how on 8th November in the US two tribes went to vote.

Tribe Trump

Trump supporters’ text reflected the very broad and very mundane aspects of their candidate’s campaign. Making America great, some adding ‘again’ was repeated a lot as a broad call to arms. Issue politics of the everyday were also referenced; protecting jobs… from immigrants, the Chinese, and a variety of outside threats. Taking the country back, from bankers, corrupt politicians, Muslims, immigrants, was also a theme; where politicians were mentioned as the ‘other’ the slogan ‘drain the swamp’ was invoked. 

But of more interest was how pictures were used to accompany these. Sometimes it was simply ‘Old Glory’, the flag as the ultimate symbol of nationalism which accompanied an act of patriotism. If voting was motivated by a desire to make America great, the flag tended to feature. Other contributors used more humorous pictures. Someone took a picture of a sink plunger and accompanied this with the text ‘off to vote Trump to unblock our system’. Others had more sinister overtones. A picture of a cache of arms, one hopes to have been a stock Google image, accompanied the text ‘voting Trump to exterminate immigrants’. Such ideas, with one picture of a queue of black Americans accompanied by ‘why I’m voting Trump’ showed that while not every Trump voter was racist, most racists voted Trump. Where the voters showed themselves or others as the ‘in tribe’, they tended to by white, middle aged or older, casually or very informally dressed and holding or wearing symbols of the nation.

Tribe Clinton

Clinton supporters overtly showed a more middle class image, those who showed themselves tended to be female and this was symbolically invoked as the motivation for voting. A 30 something, well dressed lady with two daughters is pictured saying, ‘We are making history for the women of America’. This theme was frequently replicated across various states. Even in Alaska, one of the safest Republican states, a woman showed herself in the act of voting to say ‘let’s make history, put a woman in the White House’. Few policy initiatives were invoked; the symbolism reflected the shared gender of candidate and voters.

A more diverse bunch told their followers they were voting Clinton to block Trump. One man is pictured holding his nose accompanied by the comment ‘an anti-Trump Clinton voter’. Whether her image, gender or scandal-mired campaign drove this antipathy is not expressed, rather pictures of queues, feet in a line, or voting booths accompanied the phrases ‘voting’ and ‘anyone but Trump’. There seemed less positive reasons motivating those that voted Clinton beyond a small but highly motivated group of women who wanted a female president.


The tribes did not simply use pictures of themselves. Images of Ku Klux Klansmen, ‘Bubba’ the stereotypical redneck, even Wile E. Coyote was pictured as a typical Trump voter. While some Trump supporters showed pictures of Black American and Hispanic voters to suggest the racial significance of their vote, others offered a more anti-establishment perspective. One queue, featuring mostly men and women dressed in work clothes, including dungarees with one man in a suit in the middle accompanied the text: ‘spot the Clinton voter’. Here we saw the tribes self-identify through the act of othering; defining what they are not in order to claim a shared identity.

Tribal Politics

Instagram was used by a range of citizens, all voted, some were fervent supporters, some just wanted to be part of the moment and make a statement. The tribes demonstrated points of connection with their chosen candidate and made identity references. Trump’s supporters showed diversity along issue lines. Some wanted job security, others white supremacy with connections and convergences along a long continuum. Clinton supporters made gender the issue, others physically or symbolically held their nose to try block Trump. In turning their experiences into an image they made voting a symbolic act, capturing their innermost feelings as they took part in this most historic of contests.