Political Persuasions and Guilt By AssociationBlog, Democracy, Essays — By JamesWilliams on October 15, 2012 at 1:06 pm
It’s hard to nail down that exact moment when it happened. I had always relished taking a side politically, whether it was as a card-carrying liberal in my early 20s or when I reached my late 20s and took a hard turn to the Right. In both my life as a staunch Democrat and later as a die-hard Republican, I excelled in the art of mocking, hating, and pitying those misguided voters who disagreed with me. In either case, I embraced “victim” status as I complained about how the Press was biased against Us and for Them. I had come to see evil motives in everything The Other Guys did; I considered their every word to be manipulative half-truths delivered by candidates who purposely wanted to bring down our nation.
But then, at some point I cannot quite pin down, I ceased playing the Us-vs-Them game. I no longer thought about these issues along party lines. I decided to think for myself, and not let my party affiliation determine my views. And I have to say, I’ve been politically happier ever since.
Well, mostly happier. I say “mostly” because I still find it sad when I observe Us-vs-Them doing its damage. But I’m happier because I now have the freedom to choose a position on a topic without caring what I’m supposed to think to fit into some mold.
“I’m Not a Republican or a Democrat”
It’s quite fashionable these days to identify one’s self as “neither Democrat nor Republican.” Every time someone says it or blogs it, I can hear a lot of heads nodding in agreement as we read it together.
That said, my experience/observation is that many folks who claim to not be tied to any one political party still lean strongly one way or the other. It’s nice to say we’re not Republican or Democrat, but such a proclamation isn’t really accurate for most of us. I would love to know that every concerned voter is making his stance on abortion and gun control independently of one another. But it doesn’t seem to be the case for most.
I’ll take the whole suit
Consider, for a moment, those who, like me, have made a switch at some point in their life, either from Right to Left or vice versa. One of the more fascinating things I’ve observed in people who have made such a switch is the tendency to change views on most or all of the key issues which define those two mindsets. As I hear their stories, it seems to start out with one thing–for example, a re-thinking of their position on gay rights or abortion or national defense–but interestingly, their views on other topics which traditionally have strong Left/Right viewpoints follow. It’s as if a man walks into a store with the intention of purchasing a new shirt, and walks out of the store an hour later with a coat, tie, pants, belt, and shoes which all match that shirt.
The Big Question
Why do so many tend to follow the party line from top to bottom? There is no logic to explain the correlation between topics such as, say, abortion and environmentalism, yet what you think about those issues ends up being a pretty reliable predictor of your opinions on seemingly dissimilar topics like gay marriage, gun control, and capital gains tax. But the Big Question is: why? Why, when someone undergoes a 180 degree change in their view on one topic, do they tend to change views on several key issues? If you changed your view on gay marriage, why does your stance on gun control follow closely behind?
Guilt By Association
I propose an answer, but I don’t have data to back it up. Based purely on observation, it appears that the reason that politically aware citizens stick with the party line is Guilt By Association. They see conservatives or liberals as “those people” and don’t want to be anything like them. Generalizing is always dangerous, but generally, Lefties tend to view Righties in a certain caricatured way. And conservatives often think certain similar thoughts about liberals, as well.
When I was a liberal in the mid-late 80′s (voted for Dukakis in ’88, and Ann Richards for governor in ’90), it seemed to me that conservatives were looking to find communists under every rock, and everything was a conspiracy. A little later, when Talk Radio helped convince me to become a Republican, I saw liberals as godless; I equated “Progressive” with “we don’t believe in personal responsibility.”
I don’t think I was alone. As I take in the arguments that my strongly partisan friends make even now, I hear that the Right hates the poor, women, and Big Bird, and I hear that the Left perpetuates immorality and the victim mentality. The logical conclusion is that I don’t want to be like Those People, so whatever they are for, I’m against.
The knowledge that Us-vs-Them is an effective persuader is not new. Political campaigns have used it as long as there have been elections. Advertisers use it. The best example is the Apple/PC ads. They talked about the technology a little bit, but the main memory that the viewer comes away with is that the Apple guy looks cool and hip, and the PC guy looks . . . well, he looks like someone I don’t want to associate with.
The truth is that Apple computers, like Windows PCs, have their strengths and their weaknesses. And so do Republicans and Democrats. Ultimately, this nation is better off when we listen to, and in many cases implement into law, the best liberal and the best conservative ideas. But the Us-vs-Them mentality stands in the way. If we on the Right can stop, take a breath, and see liberals as humans who care about their nation as much as we do, we might find some common ground and some good ideas. And if my strongly partisan friends on the Left will do the same, maybe we’ll get out of this political gridlock we’ve found ourselves in and make some real progress. But it won’t happen till then.