Among the ways that we as humans define ourselves and each other is by attaching labels and identifying with groups. Once labeled or identified, however, are we then forever defined by these self-proclaimed descriptions or the groups with which we have chosen to affiliate? Must we then perpetually fall in lockstep with the thinking or ideology of our label or group?
The question is not merely one of semantics, but is among the most fundamental and serious issues facing our country. On Election night 2008, then President-Elect Barack Obama proclaimed that “change has come to America.” But, with deference to the President, change is no stranger to America or, for that matter, life. Often incremental, sometimes cataclysmic, change does not need to be ushered in like guests at a wedding. It is, rather, a constant in our nation’s and our own life experiences; perhaps, the one constant in a seemingly chaotic world.
Yet, if one views the American political landscape over the course of the last several Presidential election cycles, it appears that nothing ever changes. Our “two-party system” is alive, well, and a formidable impediment to any meaningful compromise between the more conservative Republican Party and the more liberal Democrat Party. The United States has become nothing more than a collection of “red states” and “blue states” with policy and legislation dictated by the party in power at the particular time and place.
And, as one would expect, our citizenry mirrors the polarization of our political parties. Fueled, in part, by the plethora of cable news sources, talk radio programs, publications, and Websites espousing particular political ideologies, individuals ally themselves with particular points of view and read, listen, or watch only those publications, sites, programs, or networks with which they are in agreement ideologically. By excluding consideration of points of view with which they disagree, they become more entrenched in their own beliefs and less likely to consider other points of view, no matter how meritorious or innovative.
Why we as Americans continue, in most elections, to limit ourselves to serious consideration of only two candidates is a matter steeped in history, tradition, and exclusionary election laws. Yet, in democratic countries where multiple political parties exist and are viable, those parties, of necessity, must form coalitions in order to effectively govern – dictating that ideas out of the political mainstream are brought to the public awareness and receive some level of consideration.
Of course, given the nature of the labels with which most of our electorate have branded themselves, the likelihood of new political parties gaining viability in the near future seems extremely unlikely. With more than half of the general electorate and a considerably larger percentage of likely voters identifying themselves as either Conservative or Liberal/Progressive, the polarization of American political culture appears deeply-rooted.
But, it doesn’t have to be this way. Are there Conservatives out there who are “pro-choice” or Liberals who are “pro-life?” Are there other people like myself who are conservative economically, yet believe that universal healthcare is not simply a moral decision but also a national security imperative? Must Progressives believe in not merely the factual authenticity of global climate change, but also that it is a man-created problem? In short, can’t we all, regardless of how we label ourselves, think independently and seriously consider alternatives without regard to the labels attached to particular proposals?
In the early and middle nineteenth century, our country was viewed as a “grand experiment,” a “laboratory” in which the then radical ideas of freedom and democracy could be tested. Visitors like Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens came to witness firsthand and chronicle its growth. In his classic text, Democracy in America, de Tocqueville analyzes the reasons for the success of republican representative democracy in America, contrasting it with failures in other countries. He also discusses threats to democracy, one of which he terms the “tyranny of the majority.”
In the polarized America of today, partisanship and de Tocqueville’s “tyranny” are alive and well. With most votes in both houses of Congress falling along party lines, our nation is being driven by ideology run amok. What we need are more truly independent thinkers among our legislators, citizenry, and leaders, people motivated by the common good rather than self-interest who can tackle the problems facing us and innovate uniquely American solutions.
In the 1983 movie, War Games, a young computer whiz hacks into a Defense Department computer system and begins a simulation game that could ultimately trigger a global thermonuclear war. Once begun, the computer attempts to win the game and start World War III by producing false enemy missile launch images. In a scene near the film’s conclusion, the designer of the system attempts to dissuade the general in charge of the facility from believing the images he is viewing are real. Begging him to use his own reasoning and intelligence rather than letting a machine dictate his actions, the designer states “do the world a favor and stop acting like one [a machine].”
Similarly, I believe that it is time that all Americans cease blindly responding to labels and party affiliations. Renounce your partisanship, consider many different viewpoints, and, most importantly, think for yourself. If you do so, we will all benefit.