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 20’s or when I reached my late 20’s 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.
And 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. And I have to say: I’ve been politically happier ever since. Well, mostly. 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 nor a Democrat”
It’s quite fashionable these days to identify one’s self as “neither Democrat nor Republican”, but I have to be honest here: by my count, most of those who say this trite phrase tend to very consistently follow one party line or the other. Folks who insist they reject the idea of over-simplifying everything by lumping it into two sides are often the ones whose beliefs match up quite nicely with either the D’s or the R’s. I could give examples, but would have to throw my good friends under the bus; just trust me when I see the examples are too numerous to ignore. “I’m neither liberal nor conservative” seems to be code for either “I’m very liberal” or “I’m very conservative.”
I’ll take the whole suit
But for this piece, let’s narrow the focus to 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 switched from liberal thinking to conservative views, or the other way around, 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, say 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 why? And more important is the Big Question: why, when someone switches from conservative to liberal (or the other way around), do they tend to change views on several key issues rather than one? If you changed your view on gay marriage, why does your stance on gun control follow closely behind?
Guilt By Association
I think I know the answer, but it’s not based on any hard data (as if I had access to any). Based purely on observation, it appears that the reason voters 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. I hate to generalize, but more often than not, liberals tend to view Righties in a certain caricatured way. And Conservatives often think certain similar thoughts about liberals, as well.
Again, I’m speaking in general terms, based on what I read and hear from people who have strong political interests. I certainly was that way myself. When I was a liberal in the late 80’s, it seemed to me that conservatives were looking to find communists under every rock, and everything was a conspiracy. And when talk radio helped convince me to become a Republican, I saw liberals as godless, consumed with the victim mentality, and I became convinced Lefties didn’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 little kids who like Big Bird, and the Left perpetuates 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 user 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 PC’s, 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.