I had a coworker, Jamie, who proudly identified as Republican. At the same time, she said she wasn’t “political.” Meanwhile, I was “political,” by my own description, but did not identify as a Democrat.
We were walking across our university campus one day and saw the College Democrats tabling in the student plaza. They were offering pizza. Jamie turned to me and said, somewhat regretfully, “You’re a Democrat. You can get free pizza.”
At this time, we had never discussed politics, so she must have heard me talking about some political issue and deduced that I was left-leaning. I made a dumb joke in response, but later thought about how she’d labeled me, and how she assumed that only I was entitled to the free pizza.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Although most Americans don’t feel represented by either party, the labels “Republican” and “Democrat” have become inextricably synonymous with “conservative” and “liberal.” Moreover, people take them to be personality types, a sort of political Myers-Briggs that glosses over any nuances in one’s stance. To many Americans, there are two tribes in their country: the patriotic (for better or worse) conservatives, and the bleeding heart liberals.
They’re not entirely wrong. Studies suggest that liberal and conservatives have different brains. For the fight or flight response, conservatives show more “flight,” and indeed more anxiety overall, when looking at distressing images or considering the state of the world. Liberals, meanwhile, had less anxiety and more aggression, yet also showed greater empathy for those in peril. In a nutshell, Republicans are threatened by instability and avoid conflict, while liberals are willing to fight, sometimes literally, for their beliefs. Of course, these are generalizations. And yet some people take them to heart, and increasingly so.
To Jamie, she was definitely a Republican and so was everyone in her family. So were all of her friends. To be a Democrat would be first step toward black sheep status. Her social media revealed some alarming assumptions, likely fueled by GOP rhetoric, that Republicanism involves the endless embracing of flags and espousal of patriotic values, while Democrats disliked the flag and wanted America to fail (yes, really).
Make no mistake, party leadership encourages these tribalistic attitudes. The process is called “othering.” Othering involves rhetoric of exclusion, opposition, and denigration that characterizes a distinct group of people as not only distinct from, but opposite of, the speaker’s group.
It may sound like simple politics, but presenting one’s view, and supporting group’s view, as good, while another’s as monolithically bad, isn’t just something political leaders do.
What othering does is play upon humans’ tendency to gravitate toward the black and white. It’s part of our evolutionary impulse to stick with the in-group. The GOP especially has excelled at cultivating an identity for their members. Their followers so deeply believe that their choice is the default, right (pun intended), and American one. And that association of the GOP with the flag is so strong, it even tricks Democrats. When people voted for Trump, they weren’t voting for a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, arrogant reality TV star. They were voting for a representation of their identity. They voted along party lines, not questioning — or at least, the questions weren’t too important. The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found in 2016 that “61% of people say an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life. This was a sharp increase from 44% in 2011.” Clearly, there was a palpable need to support Trump among people with conservative leanings.
Liberals were most definitely fractured, but it’s not, as Trump has suggested, simply that the Democrats lack leadership or organization. It’s that leftist values, which occupy a broad and confusing spectrum, were less easily assimilated among a party platform. The same is probably true for rightist values, but the GOP offered a brand — a wearable, tangible piece of American identity. To many people whose families and neighbors gave them a historical precedent to vote GOP, it was a natural continuation, an embracing of Coke versus Pepsi (or the other way ‘round; I don’t want to get into that debate). To many people whose families and neighbors were more progressive, the available party choices all seemed terrible in the 2016 election. Personally, as someone who has no idea where she falls in the ever-shifting mosaic of the left, I felt represented by none of the final candidates, but I was pleased that we at least had a more active third-party movement. Political issues are complicated, and there are most certainly more than two sides.
Of course, the left’s division among the various parties likely hurt their chances in the election, while the right’s critical mass of supporters helped secure Trump’s victory. Meanwhile, each side increasingly demonizes the other. In a time when a strict two-party system seems like the inevitable result of bitter feuding, I advocate for an expanded multi-party system and argue that the two-party system only facilitates these tribalistic attitudes.
Because of the arbitrary and false dichotomy between the two parties, there is a false equivalency at play. Opinions about human rights are placed in the same realm as tax law. Many people dismiss all this as “just politics.” They consider it a part of someone’s default makeup. They strip political attitudes of their context and reduce them to a genetic matter that occasionally bubbles to the surface. Thus, they believe to shun someone “over politics” is akin to shunning someone over their taste for Coke or Pepsi.
This notion that political affiliation is a personality type is seen in many’s casual approach to politics. However, this in turn encourages further division. No one is by default a Republican or a Democrat. Liberal and conservative brain tendencies aside, when you avidly express your affiliation for a political party, or express your opposition to another, you’re making a political statement. Jamie may have been “not political,” but by posting memes that said, “He’s the President; you gotta support him” or refer to “libtard logic,” or photos of herself wrapped in an American flag, she was making political statements. She just didn’t see it as such.
Moreover, when one advocates party-line loyalty, they do themselves a disservice. They’re looking at a buffet and choosing only the salad and the dessert. Unfortunately, at this time in our country, that’s what we’re handed in major elections. There is a bit more leeway in local elections, but for federal and state elections, the tendency to “camp” oneself ultimately hurts democracy.
And let’s not forget, blind loyalty to the sitting president is akin to having the remote stuck on one channel, so you resign yourself to watching Lifetime original movies rather than trying to fix the remote. Democracy goes past the election. Democracy means continual representation in government. The dedicated expectation and pursuit of that is what “resistance” means. That word was chosen for a reason. Jamie was not resistant to Trump’s policies. She did not question them. Similarly, when Obama was in office, there were plenty of liberals and Democrats who simply did not question the status quo. Resistance is not intrinsically liberal. Resistance is not being a “sore loser.” It is a political stance.
And like all political stances, it deserves the complexity of the individual holding them. The two-party system encourages false dichotomies and the illusion of party affiliation or political leaning as personality type. Yet we are more than that. We deserve to escape false equivalencies. We must be able to identify the hashtag activists, the actually-racist-even-though-they-insist-they’re-not people, the inciters, and the bullies on all sides, and not insist upon monolithic stereotypes of liberals and Republicans or conservatives and Democrats. To save our democracy, we must do better.
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