Member preview

Credit: Sean P. Anderson

How Come So Many People Get Their Political Identity Wrong?

I meet a lot of liberals who are always up-to-date on the circle of empathy. They always seem ahead of the times in identifying the plight of the transgendered, the sexually assaulted, or the latest maligned group. But I wonder if those same liberals would have been abolitionists 200 years ago. Much of one’s political orientation has to do with moral luck, with being exposed to a tribe’s ideology and then riding its coattails.

This gap between principle and practice is nowhere more apparent than in this list of Presidents who owned slaves. Many of them were against slavery, yet continued to own them, even giving them to their families upon death. It’s not that their hypocrisy is stunning. (After all, none of these presidents could hide the fact they owned slaves.) Rather, what’s stunning is the level of cognitive dissonance that would have been required to be an anti-slavery slaveowner. The presidents who freed slaves in their wills (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) exhibited the most dissonance because they could only demonstrate their commitment to abolition when it didn’t impact their lives. For example, picture Washington and Jefferson in the smoking room discussing, “Gosh, I really hate slavery, but I just can’t give it up.”

According to Gallup, 25% of Americans identify as liberal, 34% as moderate, and 36% as conservative. And yet, these labels don’t matter in practice. More than enough liberals were leery of universal health care to push Obamacare towards the middle. Even Vermont, that liberal bastion, couldn’t pass universal health care because the taxes were going to be too high. Likewise, whenever conservative leaders try to reform Social Security or Medicare, their “reliable” conservative base disappears.

Maybe we’re all moderate pragmatists. Supposedly, Barack Obama was elected on a wave of hope. But Democrats also picked him for strategic reasons. They knew that he appealed to young people, that he would lock in the black vote, and that his inspiring message would fire up the base. And yet, a Google search of “Obama sell out” from the first year of his presidency comes up with a lot of hits. Every president I can remember, both Democrat and Republican, went through this.

Rarely does anyone start from a purist execution of their ideology, then work their way back to changing the world. Instead, everybody has only two choices: rally to the cause of their tribe or talk about an ideology without getting results. The choice is clear. So can we blame people for being pragmatic? Maybe not. But maybe we can blame 99% of people for thinking they’re anything but.