America’s Ideological Problem
We will never just get along, but it doesn’t have to be that way
The thing which immediately jumped out at me in the picture at the top of this article was how far over to the right the Donkey had moved as it is snuggling with the Elephant, and how much that says about the Democratic Party.
Well, the answer, I suppose, is fairly simple — I am a partisan and I view the world through a very particular lens. I am not ashamed to admit that I am a partisan. I am convinced that my vision of the world is the correct one, and the degree that a person disagrees with that worldview is the degree that they, to my mind, are incorrect about the world. And what’s more — I know the partisans on the other side feel the same way about me and my views. The degree that I disagree with them is the degree to which I am wrong.
I once wanted to go sign a petition to put a Libertarian on the ballot in Southern Illinois. The fellow who was collecting signatures was perfectly happy to let me sign. I explained to him that the reason I was signing the petition was because I believed that everyone should have the opportunity to stand for election, and while I might be fervently opposed to the guy’s politics, I still am glad he is willing to try to run anyway. The signature collector did a double take and snatched the clipboard out of my hands before I could sign the petition.
I said “What’s up? I want to sign the petition.”
He responded that he didn’t want my support- because of my politics, he said “You’re the problem.” Shocked, I left to go pick up a soda, but by the time I made it inside, I was fuming. Spoiling for a fight, I went back out and explained to this man that he was the reason that his guy wasn’t on the ballot. Here I was, trying to help him get his guy on the ballot, and he refused to let me even try. We ended up in a verbal altercation, which ended with him calling me a faggot. After being called that, I realized I had nothing more to say to him, and he could say nothing more to me.
See- this interaction broke down.
There was some dude on the campus of Bloomsburg University in central Pennsylvania standing on a makeshift dais made of milk crates, haranguing a large crowd of people about the Bible. There were hundreds of students there arrayed against this fellow, who was standing alone, explaining to people that God is condemning this group and that group for their sinful ways. I grudgingly admired this guy’s chutzpah in his willingness to incite such a large crowd, clothed as he was in the righteousness of his message and a firm understanding that college liberals do not typically want to actually hurt people they disagree with, but just shut them up. He would say one thing, members of the crowd would shout back and tell him he was nuts and threaten him, so on and so forth; he would quote another scripture which predictably had nothing to do with anything until he twisted it up to serve his purposes, and the crowd would respond, and then this cycle would repeat.
Listening to this, attracted by the crowd, and knowing that I was backed up by a sympathetic crowd, I admit I confronted this man, reminding him of Jesus’ condemnation of those who celebrate their piety in public. I also asked him what gives him the power to condemn various groups for God. For every objection I raised, he quoted some vague, obscure scripture, the veracity of which I admit I was too ignorant to challenge. He had his talking points, and I had mine. And we talked past one another, at raised tones, until I got bored and left. Once more.
This interaction, as the other one, broke down.
One problem in this country is that we do not listen to one another. And yet somehow, we all seem to know what everyone else is thinking. I feel that I am competent enough to make the other side’s argument for them, but I know, in my heart, that if I tried, I would very quickly devolve into the caricatures that my side has developed to get our collective mind around what seems like alien ideology. I know the other side does this too. This is a weakness in our political discourse. Neither Left nor Right actually understands what the other side is even saying. It really is two totally different languages that we speak to one another, and then we smugly declare the other side “ignorant” because they don’t understand what we mean.
We see this all the time. One trope I have discovered the Right using is the use of the term “real x”, x being whatever they happen to be talking about. When we talk about the Constitution, I am supposed to know that the REAL Constitution was written by Born Again Christian laissez-faire capitalists, not the secular humanist interventionist mercantilists who I was taught had written the document. Yeah, Madison was a Christian. But he was not “born-again” as we use that term today, because that concept did not exist yet. And Hamilton was most definitely not a free marketeer, nor did he have any patience for capitalism as we currently understand it. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was current at the time, but did not develop into the religion that it is today until almost 200 years had passed.
But I discover that what I had been taught about the Framers was in fact just socialist atheist curriculum forced upon me by the crypto-communists in the Department of Education, and there actually is a different document out there where our nation is both anarcho-capitalist and based explicitly on the Judaeo-Christian Bible. Apparently, Leftists do not have access to this one, but a solid knowledge of this alternative document leads every conservative to be a Constitutional Scholar of the highest order!
The conservative Right has even gone so far as to actually rewrite the Bible, to remove all references to Jesus as a welfare practitioner — The REAL Jesus tolerated extreme poverty and illness in public, so that these poor sufferers would get to Heaven faster to be with God, and THEN, and only then, would they have their reward. That’s the REAL Bible, which hasn’t been hijacked by the Enlightenment and Darwin and social welfare advocates. Who knew that the book I had been exposed to in my Missouri Synod Lutheran catechism had been a total revisionist forgery!
Point is: As I overstate my argument, I also imply that my own side is the ACTUAL real representation of reality. But my implicit assertion makes me no better than the people I am mocking. We’re both smugly asserting that our worldview is the correct one, and more importantly, the other side should submit to our reality, or remain forever at war. The existence of a group of people who dwell in a different reality than me is an existential problem for me. Why! if I tolerate those who do not even agree with me on reality, 1) We don’t actually have to live on the same planet, and 2) I might be wrong. Both implications go for both right and left.
If we live on different planets, we come to radically different solutions to the same problems. I look around me and see poverty and think, “If we could just eliminate capitalism, and reduce inequality, poverty would be solved.” The other side looks around and sees poverty and says, “If we could just make capitalism stronger, working people would have jobs and would create their own wealth, and poverty would be solved.” But our solutions are mutually exclusive: We can’t have a world where capitalism is both abolished and serves as the bedrock of the society. And they can’t tell me how I am wrong and should adopt their ideas, because I have just as legitimate a claim to tell them the same thing.
And if I might be wrong about what I believe, my God, think of that! If I am wrong and they are right, then I have been living my life as a monster these last four decades. I have actually been advocating for slavery for people rather than liberty! That violates how I see myself in the world, as a person working for the removal of barriers on the path to human liberation. If admit that the other side is correct in their world view, then I have to come to terms with the probability that I have been putting barriers to liberation up, rather than tearing them down. The other side, if they admitted that they might be wrong, would have to deal with the same issues of internal incoherency.
Our national disagreement is an existential problem that few can see a way out from. The partisan in me says the solution is actually simple: Elimination of the abhorrent ideology of my opponents, either by bending them, quite against their will (at first!) toward my side of the debate, or by liquidating them as people, is the way to fix everything. They view the issue in similar terms. I know that Republicans define compromise as “where the other side gives up on anything it wants and begins to want the things we want, because we are correct and they are not.” See- there’s a caricature. Of course it is not true, but of course that is how a partisan looks at the issue.
But that solution is not viable, for obvious reasons. We will never resolve anything if we attempt to resolve it through liquidation. The Right will not get rid of the Left, and vice-versa. I’ll die first before I surrender to Rightism. And I am sure plenty of Rightists feel the same way. This makes solutions difficult. The fact that we both acknowledge the same problems in our society makes it even more difficult. We each have our own reasons as to why this or that social problem is so. And those ideas conform to our ideology — We explain them using our ideology, and we come to solutions which are dictated by our ideology. We then insist that, in order for there to be peace, the other side must adopt our solutions, and ultimately, our ideology.
That is counterproductive. I know it; I am sure many conservatives also know it. It’s obvious to all partisans of all stripes, though journalists like to write op-eds for the general public also letting them in on this problem. Nor am I about to unilaterally disarm, especially since the other side has shown no inclination to join me in putting our ideological guns down. I have nothing to gain and everything to lose.
And yet: if the partisans got together somehow, found some common ground, we could take over this damned broken country. We would run the corporate-backed politicians clear out of the capital on a rail. We could set up our own capital, and rebuild American institutions which are currently rotten to the core and fueled by sugar and cocaine paid for by lobbyists and big donors.
If we could just realize that the only way to win is to not play, we could sit down with one another, break bread, and find out where our programs overlap. I have done a lot of work in my own mind to convince myself that the Right doesn’t like to destroy the environment, or to kill sick people, the way I have been programmed to think. I know that there are many poor and working people who support conservatism because they think they are going to get a better deal from money than they will be able to wrest for themselves with weak unions in right-to-work states.
Leftists and Rightists both like a lot of the same things: We like liberty. We like a good solid job with good pay. Many of us hate what capitalism does to people, in the form of low wages, outsourcing of jobs and unfairness in our laws, even if not all of us blame capitalism directly. We aren’t all libertines or prudes, and many of us have only arrived at the new social order in this country hesitatingly and late, but just because we are late to the party and are still working out our own place in the society doesn’t make us “bigots.” (Though the Right has their Klansmen, and the Left have their own form of pernicious intolerance as well.) And we are both, Left and Right, often embarrassed when we meet an actual bigot, whether Leftist or Rightist, because we know that the other side is going to use that person as a slur against us.
Yet, we can’t seem to find an adequate venue to talk, in a way that encourages, rather than discourages, trust and a mutual desire to actually solve problems in a way that works for as many people as possible. Nor are we encouraged to do so. It seems there is more money and votes in constant strife and discord than there is in peace and harmony.
A Manifesto of Defiance
But I say, right here and now, as a Leftist Partisan — I am willing to talk to and work with ANY Rightist Partisan who will willing, in good faith, to work with me as an equal. This goes against the thinking of the partisan. This defies, I suppose the ideological structure behind our incessant partisan bickering.
I’ll work with Conservatives who want to work with me, a socialist, on the issues we face in this country, and I will do so in good faith. I don’t mean every Rightist, though. I mean Rightist partisans of good faith, who actually want to solve problems and work together without insisting that I first surrender everything I view as important in the world. A desire to overlook ideological differences in favor of focusing on where we have the same goals is what I mean by good faith. Nor is it impossible: I have the energy and the desire to do it, if I know that it will be for some good.
It would be a joint program, with give and take, some wins and some losses for both Left and Right. A desire to work together in good faith does not require us to put our guns down, and it does not require us to surrender our core values. Instead it requires merely the willful abandonment of zero-sum thinking. If I want to talk about environmental destruction, I know Rightists would like proposals that 1) help put people to work, and 2) do so in the cleanest way possible. We could work together on something like this because we have mutual interests in solving the problems associated with environmental destruction. If I want to address immigration in this country, it would start with me acknowledging that at least part of the solution has to include adherence to the law. Both sides want people treated well, and opposition to our current immigration situation does not always come from hatred of foreigners. If I want to talk about social justice I should be able to frame it in terms of equal rights for all and human liberty which is a shared value, rather than in smugly condemning terms that alienate my political opposition and inspire in them fears of reprisals. These are just a few issues in a long slough of social problems facing us as a country that I believe we can resolve if we just desire to do so and commit to working together.
We CAN come up with solutions that Rightist and Leftist partisans can agree to, if we only want to. It starts with a commitment to American institutions first and foremost. We should use them where they are still functioning, and work to restore the ones that aren’t, rather than following Trumpism and just writing them all off for dead and shooting those which aren’t. Those institutions are supposed to protect us from tyrants and demagogues alike — This was the true intention of the Framers, whatever the anarchists currently dominating the discussion on the Left and the Right say to the contrary. Undermining them only hurts us as a country by leaving us open to be abused by powerful and hateful people.
I think Left and Right can work together. It has been a lot of work for me to get to the point where I can say that, but I believe that a radical coalition is possible, and preferable to the current lot of thieves and demagogues masquerading as governors and legislators as they rob the ship of state blind and aim it under full sail, at the shoals.
At the end of the day, we have to stop treating each other as aliens, and start seeing one another, all of us, as brothers and sisters. Unless we do that, we will always have a partisan problem in this country, and it will only get worse. The problems we have will continue to drag us all down, like an anchor tied to our feet, as long as we sit back and declare that there is no working with the other side. We’ll get there, I suppose, when we are sick of getting railroaded, just because we can’t find a way to live together. Or we can just decide to skip the battle and declare a truce for rebuilding what we have destroyed.
Until then, I remain a partisan.