Or: What is the Purpose of Government? Part Two
In my last post—after a lot of moaning and groaning about Cats and assumptions—I concluded that the most basic belief about the purpose of government is that it is an institution that exists to protect people. The real question is who people need protecting from. Each other? Institutions? Dancing humans dressed in spandex pretending to be felines? The possibilities are endless.
I started researching and writing this piece with the goal of analyzing our current political system, but quickly got distracted by the idea of polarization. It’s a scientific principle only recently adapted to political lingo. In the social sciences polarization describes sharp divides between groups who go to the extremes (opposite poles if you will).
This study found that the more the media talks about polarization, the more people believe it exists and try to dissociate from it by adopting moderate views. Sounds good, right?
Wrong. It also makes people more likely to dislike those opposing them and perceive opponents negatively. Good times. Perhaps this is why a Pew Research Center study from earlier this summer found 55 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans claim to fear the opposing party.
So what are these poles people keep heading toward? Why are they there and what direction should they give us?
One of the trickiest things about assessing these beliefs is how intricately they are related to cultural standards. Conservatism is more than a political theory. It’s deeply tied to a version of Christianity in the same way that Liberalism is tied to academia and a certain set of moral standards.
Chris Mooney, writing for the Washington Monthly, reports the difference between these schools of thought probably has more to do with personality than belief. The science supporting this idea is strong but as Mooney points out, has had little effect on how individuals approach politics. In his words:
“We run around shutting down governments and occupying city centers—behaviors that can only be driven by a combination of intense belief and equally intense emotion—with almost zero perspective on why we can be so passionate one way, even as our opponents are passionate in the other.”
Emphasis completely mine, because this is the kind of perspective I am looking for—one that understands the validity and value of people who disagree with me.
It is the lack of this perspective that leads John C. Goodman to argue theories are not ideologies but sociologies.
“Neither view provides a coherent approach to politics, built up from first principles,” he writes. “Instead, they both reflect a process that is akin to picking items from a dinner menu. What is chosen is a matter of taste rather than a matter of thought.”
My goal this election season is to ditch the buffet and spend time in the kitchen seeing where these theories come from, what they’re made of, and how they’re packaged.
The Pew Research Center reports “ideological thinking is now much more closely aligned with partisanship than in the past.” This means it is now more likely for people to identify their political beliefs within the context of a political party.
The survey also found that those who identify with a particular political sociology tend to associate primarily with those who identify with the same sociology—63 percent of conservatives and 49 percent of liberals say most of their friends share similar political views.
We give a lot of lip service in America to the idea of being open-minded. We like to say we agree to disagree. In practice, this appears to mean we pretend those opinions don’t exist by surrounding ourselves with people who think just like us.
I am terrible at forming opinions. I have a bad habit of taking the opposite stance of whomever I happen to be talking to. Someone should give me an Academy Award for my lifelong role as Devil’s Advocate. But this is something I have a strong, deep, and wide opinion about.
If we hope to make the world better, we must engage with those who think radically differently from us because if we speak only to those who are inclined to listen we are not communicating, we are self-soothing.
It is this belief that drives me to speak with patriarchal men who tell me I should submit to male leadership and Nationalists who think diversity is the cause of the world’s problems. I do not start these conversations because I think either of us will change our minds, but because I want to understand. Only by understanding the concerns of those whose life circumstances have led them to different ideas about how the world should work can we hope to find solutions. This is not accomplished by calling people bigots or socialists, or by giving them the national silent treatment. It is accomplished by inviting strangers into conversation and taking the existence of opposing views seriously.
I don’t want to waste my life in a walled fortress of constructive criticism. I want deconstructive criticism. Tear down my ideas, poke holes in my arguments, tell me how I am wrong. If my beliefs about the world are formed from an insulated place populated only by those whose lives were shaped by similar forces then I am living in a fantasy.
Reality is too spectacular a place to abandon for such a cheap façade.
Want to know another troubling fact from that Pew Survey? The most active people in the political sphere are also the most partisan. We have created a system that “[amplifies] the voices that are the least willing to see the parties meet each other halfway.”
Those with the most extreme views are the ones who are heard because they shout the loudest and have the confidence to demand a microphone.
I am here to say loudly and unequivocally that I don’t know and I am not sorry for not knowing. I am here to say that the Nones should have a voice and it should be loud and you should listen to it. I am writing because I want to be the one responsible for my choices and beliefs. Not society, not a political party, not cultural norms. Me.
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* If you have not listened to the Hamilton soundtrack, stop what you are doing, repent, and then listen to it immediately.