When it comes to politics, do you think for yourself? Or do you allow politicians, the media and political parties tell you what to believe?
You may consider these questions ridiculous, if not downright insulting. Of course no one tells you what to think! Perhaps there are weak, stupid, or easily led individuals (like those in that other political party) who could be swayed into certain ways of thinking, but intelligent Americans form their own conclusions, thank you very much.
Yet, evidence has shown that today’s partisan political system has obstructed rational and critical thinking for American society as a whole. Often, maintaining loyalty to one political party actually alters our thought process and the conclusions to which we come.
It’s natural to identify with a political group that shares our world view. We feel comfortable surrounding ourselves with those who think like us and understand our points of view. But the problem with a firm alliance to one group is that we may find ourselves pigeon-holed into a certain way of thinking without even realizing it.
Loyalty to a political party often trumps reason and logic in numerous ways:
- We recognize that stereotypes aren’t accurate within our own group, but we’re still inclined to generalize about our adversaries. We tend to classify ourselves and our rivals with oversimplifications. Compassionate people are Democrats, responsible people are Republicans: choose one. But people who identify with the Republican Party will read this and say, “Wait a minute! I’m compassionate too!” Democrats will think, “Of course I’m responsible!” While we may be willing to assign negative stereotypes to other groups, we recognize that those labels are preposterous when relating to ourselves.
- To remain loyal to our party we overly simplify issues instead of giving ample consideration to points from both sides. Issues aren’t black and white and neither are solutions. We often reflexively discount ideas that don’t come from our own party. Loyal Democrats may dismiss any accusations of labor union corruption because they believe it’s their party’s position to support unions. Staunch Republicans may reject any discussion of crony capitalism, because they feel it’s their job to support business. But if we don’t permit ourselves to consider the elements of truth in both liberal and conservative viewpoints, we’re not thinking for ourselves.
- We justify and rationalize when it’s our guy. Being loyal to one political party leads us to rely on party affiliation rather than evaluate all politicians equivalently and unbiasedly. Conservatives complain heatedly when Democrats raise the deficit, but must be understanding when Republicans do exactly the same thing. When foreign prisoners languish at Guantanamo Bay under George Bush, Democrats can claim it’s an assault on American values. Yet when Barack Obama continues the same practice, they must feel there is good reason.
- We’re forced to lump together several unrelated issues. If we’re fiscally conservative, we must also be in favor of a large global military presence. We must be against abortion. If we believe in freedom of marriage, we must be against school choice. We must believe that the federal government needs to play a dominant role in the economy.
- We may feel politically homeless, unable to embrace either party’s platform. If we’re not willing to lump unrelated issues together we have nowhere to go. But where do we fit in if we believe that one should be free to marry who he chooses and be free from massive government debt? If we want to eradicate police brutality and question the national healthcare plan? If we want to rein in the abuses of big business and big government?
- We fail to recognize that the labels don’t really fit the political parties. “Liberal” once meant “tolerant of all views.” But if one doesn’t support the government’s powers to redistribute our wealth or if he questions the efficacy of the welfare system, then he is apt to find the liberal party doesn’t tolerate his views very well. “Conservative” once meant “restrained, cautious and moderate.” But today’s conservative party is not restrained when it comes to imposing their own morality upon us. Neither are they typically cautious or moderate in their foreign policy.
- We simply rely on our party’s reputation rather than impartially evaluating its actions. Democrats think of themselves as the anti-war party. Republicans consider themselves the small-government party. We see little protest from loyal party members when these reputations are not upheld. People are drawn to choosing sides. Our two-party system thrives on rivalry. Politicians often pit American against American, rich vs. poor, black vs. white, liberal vs. conservative. But those over-simplified rivalries just keep us from focusing on the real issues. “Us” and ‘them” are all in this together.
A Pew Report found that combined, “consistent liberals” and “consistent conservatives” make up only 20% of Americans. Yet, unsurprisingly, these are the people most likely to run for office and initiate political discussion. This exaggerates political polarization and limits opportunities for open-minded dialogue between the rest of us. We’ve allowed the fervent minority to drive us into one of two ideological camps, or to become disenchanted and disengaged from politics altogether.
We may never be able to convince solidly loyal party members to have an open mind. But the other 80% of us need to think for ourselves.
Beth Ballentine is a freelance political writer and "equal opportunity political critic." When not writing political commentary, she teaches middle school drama and has authored many plays for children and young adults. Her Free to Think series appears here: http://freetothinkblog.com/