In my previous column, I mentioned the idea of a false dichotomy between being a liberal or a conservative in the American political arena. A week later, the Chronicle published a survey on Duke students’ political beliefs, with a spectrum ranging from “very conservative” to “very liberal.” This is as good a segue as any to elaborate on how these arbitrary designations rob politics of its principles and the ability to engage in good faith conversations.
For starters, the range of political positions do not map well onto a continuous plane. The contrast between a socialist and a social democrat, for example, is clearly defined: they either support private property or they don’t. There is no middle ground between those beliefs. Beyond such fundamental differences, most political opinions are not mutually exclusive. Someone could hold any mixture of beliefs attributed to the political right and the left; in fact, most of them do. For example, there is at least one Republican who supports medicare for all, wants to end the war in Iraq, opposes same sex marriage and hates the estate tax. Where does that lie on a political graph, though?
What most graphs do—add or subtract “points'' based on specific policy positions—tells us very little. Someone could end up in the center of the graph by being a virulent racist and an LGBTQ+ ally at the same time. Individuals who’d call themselves soft conservatives can end up in the same “position” as a fascist who approves of some redistributive policies. In the end, the labels become shorthand for an aesthetic. Right wing could mean anything from being against high taxes, a supporter of gun rights, a religious person, or something entirely different. Conversely, a left winger might describe an antiracist, a diehard communist, or someone who is anti-war. Depending on what we associate those labels with, someone might be a liberal today and a conservative tomorrow without changing their mind on anything.
The same is true of the labels Democrat and Republican. Neither party’s platform is incompatible with the other, and one could agree with a party on practically everything yet still side with the other because of its aesthetics. That is how Elizabeth Warren can, without altering most of her political beliefs, become a relatively progressive Democrat after being a conservative Republican for years. Much of the maligned Affordable Care Act was the brainchild of Republicans. Being a Democrat or a Republican doesn’t entail any values, so much as a general vibe.
As political labels, they are meaningless, then. At best, they seem to describe stances on wedge issues—a loose grouping of stereotypes based on the hot button topic of the season. If I told you that I support gun rights, you’d think I was a Republican. If I told you that I dislike the NRA, I would become a Democrat. Neither of those statements (both of which are true) connote any cohesive belief system, though.
Regardless, if we were to describe both parties’ beliefs on a spectrum, they both would be well into the territory of “right.” Consider that the Democratic Party’s platform and leaders are right wing by the standards of almost any European country.
Therefore, the terms conservative and liberal fail to illustrate a range of political thought. Instead, they create a paradigm where right becomes left and hard-right becomes right. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, as one of the furthest “left” congresswomen in the United States, is castigated as either too progressive or toeing the line. In reality, she is a lukewarm social democrat—a moderate by most standards. However, because of her unearned reputation as a “socialist” or radical leftist, anyone whose rhetoric is more progressive than hers becomes some variety of extremist. Lauren Boebert, the QAnon-supporting congresswoman, has become the acceptable border of the right; anyone with beliefs more moderate than hers now seems normal. This has two consequences: the erasure of the left, and the normalization of the extreme right wing.
Consider how George W. Bush was redeemed in the eyes of the public. A man condemned for causing hundreds of thousands of deaths in an illegal war is now seen as a respectable Republican. The impetus for this rehabilitation was President Trump. In some regards, he was more extreme than Bush, so his positions ceased to be beyond the pale. The irony is that Trump was less hawkish than Bush; at the very least, he didn’t start any new wars. However, the understanding of the term “Republican” had changed based on media cycles. Trump’s lack of respect for his office and decorum created a new definition for an extreme Republican in most peoples’ eyes. Bush, by appearing to take our traditions more seriously, was subsequently redeemed. A false dichotomy, built on two terms whose meanings are malleable, allowed America to forget its past. As it turns out, being a Democrat does not entail a principled opposition to interventionism, but a transient one.
What this betrays is that neither party has principles—they are closer to sports teams than organizations with an ideology or goals. However, this spectrum of “liberal to conservative” demands that we choose between two parties who, for all intents and purposes, could merge into one with minimal friction. Treating a liberal as the opposite of the conservative, when their beliefs, goals and actions are so similar, forces one to imagine gulfs of difference where there are little to be found.
For example, we should condemn Richard Burr, a Republican Senator who downplayed the pandemic while he sold shares based on privileged information (which he shared with donors). However, if we believe Democrats to be the negation of Senator Burr, how do we reconcile the fact that Senator Dianne Feinstein was included in the same DOJ investigation as Burr? If the spectrum is real—if Democratic values are the rejection of Republican values, whatever either of those things may be, then an explanation must be found. Somehow, Feinstein’s actions must be differentiated from Burr’s.
This is how we end up with people justifying Barack Obama’s drone strike campaigns as more ethical, like this article that rationalizes the murder of a doctor. It’s also how we see Democrats acting like the Republicans did towards Christine Blaisey Ford to silence Tara Reade, a woman who’d accused Joe Biden of sexual assault some months ago. On the reverse, if Republicans want to condemn Nancy Pelosi for violating lockdown laws, then they must reconcile that with the fact that their politicians did the exact same thing.
Politics loses its principles in this context. Instead, it becomes tribal. The difference between an action being acceptable and reprehensible is determined by who did it, and such an approach precludes having beliefs. At least, not for long. In case you were wondering, that is why calling someone a hypocrite has stopped being effective. Under this paradigm, everyone has become a hypocrite.
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While we continue to treat Democrats and Republicans as polar opposites, this is the politics that we will deserve. Once people understand that these parties exist independently of values, and that they don’t define the edges of the political “spectrum”, however inaccurate that abstraction is, I can imagine that both parties will hemorrhage support. Imagine if conservatives stopped imagining that anything left of them meant the hypocrisy of Democrats, or if liberals stopped believing that the only alternative to their inconsistent, milquetoast party was Trumpism. Perhaps we’d finally get a politics which represented our interests. If we continue to pretend that these parties define the spectrum of political thought, we’ll have to get used to mental gymnastics. There will be nothing principled or consistent coming down the pipeline.
Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity first-year. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.