Monday, March 28, 2011

Stand Tall and Proud To Be A [Insert Label Here]

Now that Virginia has outed herself as a Republican on That's Church, it seems like a good enough time to examine the dilemma of the American political spectrum.

As noted in her blog, amongst many others, one of the main reasons people are disenchanted with politics, and the two-party system in particular, is that both sides are more often than not portrayed as cartoonish parodies of themselves: Democrats are all socialist baby-killing union thugs, while Republicans are all gay-bashing bible-thumping gun nuts. By painting such broad, simple strokes, it makes it easier to dismiss people you disagree with, and sadly for most people that is easier to do than to form more complex views about various issues.

This, of course, also dismisses those people who agree with a party for, say 70 or 80% of their positions, but not all. And this applies to candidates, too: A person who supports, say, 70% of what Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan or Nancy Pelosi stand for--not an unreasonable proposition--are assumed to agree with 100% of those said positions. This is particularly acute with presidential candidates, since there are effectively only two choices. This makes it much easier to cherry-pick arguments.

For some reason, though, Americans have drawn this up as a source of embarrasment rather than practicality. People routinely say they "hold their nose" to vote for Candidate X, as if they are ashamed. But in reality, there are very few instances when candidates and voters will match 100%. Why should everyone be worried about others' erroneous conclusions drawn from this fact? If I publicly state that I support, say, John McCain, or Barack Obama, why should I immediately be on the defensive for the 15% of positions I disagree with? This fact is more than likely going to apply to every voter in the nation in some manner--even if in varying degrees--and so I'm fundamentally astounded as to why it's so permissible to perpetuate this distortion.

The answer, of course, is that it's easy. A tried and true debate tactic is to do exactly that--draw out the few identifiable traits of a candidate and point to it as a flaw in your endorsement. Both sides do this, of course, and have been for decades. People who think the deplorable state of partisan politics hasn't been paying attention for the history of our nations.

And, of course, part of it is all about perception. If you were to ask me to make a checklist and start ticking off issue positions, you'd start to think that Benito Mussolini and Ayn Rand had a baby and started a blog called Crank Crank Revolution, probably somewhere around "Sell Organs for Money" and "Truck Hipsters to Re-Education Camps." But my actual positions are (at least in my eyes) much more nuanced than that, and the implementation of such issues are of a much more pragmatic nature.* Sure, I want taxes down to a more reasonable tithe-like level, but I know full well simply slashing spending by an order of exponents means making the streets of Madison, Wisconsin right now look like a Boy Scout meeting.

I also hold a rather unpopular opinion in that extremism in and of itself isn't necessarily a bad thing. There is certainly a chance that politicians or pundits act irresponsibly, and that is not to be endorsed. But the edges of the spectrum are often where raw, innovative ideas are born. They get hammered down and smoothed out as those ideas move to the center, in which it becomes a necessary movement. There's also a good bit of cage-rattling that I think is necessary in a functional democracy; extremists tend to permit opposing politicians to refine their own positions, and similar, more moderate ones to define their differences. They shouldn't be in charge, of course, but they shouldn't be wished away.** A congress full of moderates that are mere degrees apart is a congress that will never enact any sort of meaningful reform.

All this is to point to one overriding problem in our political culture. Simply supporting or belonging to a particular party is never, and never has been, an endorsement of a party's entire slate. Nor do I think there is a fundamental problem if you happen to do so. Immediately dismissing someone because they watch Fox News or voted for Obama says more about yourself than the target.

*This is, in part, my problem with the Libertarian party. I'm very sympathetic with their beliefs and goals, but the part itself is more interested in scoring intellectual points and gripping a copy of The Fountainhead close to their chest as they drift off to sleep at night, rather than actually winning elections once in a while. So while I actually agree with libertarians on many key points, I don't have much use for them as a party. 
**Those that believe that the extremists are already in charge are falling victim to the same thing I mentioned above. At least since the Civil War, I can't think of a true-blue radical that has ever been in a position of power in the federal level of the United States, either in Congress or the White House. Thankfully, our system is set up so that any extremists that do settle into office don't get very far. 


  1. Good post. Two comments.
    1. I think the point you make about party members feeling defensive of the fringe 15% of the party platform is what is driving the increase in the number of self-identified "independent" voters. I don't think my ideology has changed, but I'm less likely to identify myself as Republican, if only because I believe observers will dismiss me, as you point out, as a gun-toting Bible basher.
    2. Your complaint about Libertarians seems like the same type of thinking you are arguing against in the actual body of the post. You can be Libertarian without being a Rand fanboy.

  2. Well, my point was the Libertarian *Party* wasn't interested in winning elections, just making themselves feel good while losing. For me, then, what is the point of having it as a political party? So I have a use for libertarians as an organization, but I don't see the point in organizing politically if you're not interested in winning politically.