Sunday, August 14, 2016

Stop Identifying with Political Parties

Are you a Democrat or a Republican? A Libertarian? Independent? A fiscal conservative? A democratic socialist? No you’re not. You’re none of these things, because no one is actually any of these things.

Identifying with a political party (and, generally, labeling oneself or others in almost any way) is an exercise in the application of broken reasoning.  Thanks to our ill-conceived first-past-the-post voting system, the political landscape has been bifurcated into the falsest of false dichotomies: Democrat vs. Republican. In order to have any hope of making our political voice heard, we Americans must align with or at the least vote for a candidate from one of these two factions. A vote for a third-party candidate is often in practical terms indistinguishable from not voting, so the options on that first Tuesday after the first Monday in November will be, as usual, Red, Blue, or stay home.

Few people are satisfied with these choices, yet they persist in being the only two of consequence available to us every time we turn up at our polling places. Contributing to this perennial misery are the many people who bafflingly continue to identify as Democrats and Republicans. Here are five reasons why you need to stop self-identifying with these labels:

1. They are utterly devoid of nuance.

What does it even mean to be a Republican or a Democrat? Of course you can just go to the two parties’ respective official websites and read their platforms, but does that mean that everyone using the label “Republican,” for example, holds the same views? Of course not. In fact we just witnessed a Democratic National Convention in which Bernie Sanders was summarily pilloried for endorsing Hillary Clinton, the nominal candidate of choice for the party, and a Republican National Convention in which Ted Cruz was likewise heckled for not endorsing Donald Trump, the nominal candidate of choice for the party. There is little concord even within the parties themselves these days, which ironically now reflects the views of the voting public more than ever. What is the use, then, in identifying as a Democrat or a Republican? Does it really make sense to refer to a fundamentalist Christian in Alabama and an openly-gay fiscal conservative in Connecticut by the same label, as if these two people will find themselves in agreement on most issues? What about a socially liberal Catholic in New York and an irreligious democratic socialist in California? What is the utility in applying a label to yourself that can be applied to another person with whom you would disagree on important issues?

2. They are laden with negative connotations.

Identifying as a Democrat or a Republican carries baggage with it similar in quantity to that accommodated by a Boeing 747. You may announce in conversation “I am a Republican” and hear in your head “I support small government and a strong free-market economy” while others around you will have clearly heard “I’m a jingoistic, small-minded xenophobe with a 7th-grade education and several assault rifles to keep my family safe from the Muslims.” Or perhaps you might mention in passing “I’m a Democrat” and fancy yourself “committed to civil rights and saving the environment” while others will distinctly recall you saying “Meat is murder! War is murder! Everyone is a homo/trans/Islamo/xeno -phobe!”  People will hear what they think you mean when you use these labels, not what you actually mean.

3. They stop important conversations from happening.

This is the single biggest problem with identifying with a political party: it gives other people an excuse not to talk to you about important issues. Expressing your actual view on a politically divisive topic is nearly impossible once someone assumes he knows what you think. Epictetus figured this out almost 2,000 years ago and sagely remarked, “It is impossible to begin to learn that which you think you already know.” It doesn’t even matter whether the other person also identifies with the same label you do - the result is still no conversation, either because of perceived agreement, in which case why bother, or perceived irreconcilable disagreement, in which case why bother? Calling yourself a Democrat or a Republican lets other people decide that they agree or disagree with you before you’ve even uttered a word.

4. They don’t actually represent anyone.

Back to false dichotomies – the suggestion that there are only two sides to a proposition when in reality there are more – as in “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” or “you’re either a feminist or you’re a bigot.” No person is entirely a Republican or entirely a Democrat, even if those labels could be defined in satisfactorily uncontroversial terms. To demonstrate this, go to I Side With, answer as many questions as you have a cogent view on, and then look at the results. Here’s what happens when I do it, for example:

Everyone’s results are going to be different, because no two people in human history have ever agreed about everything. Whatever your results are, the important thing is that the percentages don’t add up to 100%. Nobody, not even the political candidates themselves, would take the test and get a result that looks something like this:

That’s because there are not only two sides to every public policy issue, and the two political parties have not staked out wholly oppositional stances on opposite ends of the spectrum. To be a Republican is, at least in some measure, to be a Democrat, and vice versa. Everyone’s views are some particular mixture of liberal and conservative, of libertarian and authoritarian.

5. They adumbrate the myriad views people actually hold.

Probably the best reason not to identify as a Democrat or a Republican is that it implies that the whole of your political worldview can be expressed adequately in a single word. That’s not even something you should want to be true. It intimates that you’re either incapable of or unwilling to derive your own personal set of views on political questions and would rather have them prefabricated and handed to you. This is shameful – an abdication of responsibility unbecoming of any able-minded adult living in civilized society.

So, stop calling yourself a Republican or a Democrat. Stop sharing divisive partisan write-ups from news sites on social media. Stop generalizing about political candidates as if they’re mere proxies for their parties rather than individuals with ideas for the direction of public policy. Develop your own views purposefully rather than perfunctorily, and don’t be concerned that they all fit neatly into one of two boxes placed before you. Admit that you might not have enough information to have a strong opinion on a complex issue like welfare or immigration. Consider that your views on some issues might require explanation and not fit on a bumper sticker or in 140 characters. Encourage others to ask about a specific issue if they want to know your view rather than probe for a party affiliation. If you lament the state of two-party politics in the US in any way, don't allow yourself to be defined through it.

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