The politics of pigeonholes

By Ben Griffiths and Tim McEvoy

The landscape of the American polity is a curious phenomenon. The country is a rarity in the Western world. Instead of a fluid multi-party system, the political sphere exists in two increasingly polarized camps. One only has to look north of the border to see the difference, where Canada’s leading parties must deal with Bloc Quebecois and the New Democrats if they’re to get anything done. Across the Atlantic, there are no less than seven major groupings in the European Parliament, representing views from all over the political spectrum. In the UK, due to leadership elections and political maneuverings, the left-right spectrum has seemingly broken down altogethe – it’s now hard to pin traditional labels on any of the major parties.

But here in the US, it isn’t the two party system that’s the problem, but the harmful effect it has produced. A dangerous us-versus-them culture has developed where representatives are seen as “with us or against us,” depending on our own particular persuasion. It’s not just the politicians either. Think tanks, textbooks, media views – even media watchdogs – tend to fall on one side of the fence or the other. The labels “liberal” and “conservative” abound in the nation’s lingo – one is “left”, the other is “right”, and no one doubts which side each party represents.

It can be debated why this split arose. Perhaps it is the inevitable by-product of the rules set forth in the Constitution. Maybe it is the failure of American socialism to ever take root, leaving “liberalism” and “conservatism” as the only prevalent beliefs. It could even be the recent emergence of, and reaction to, Christian fundamentalism as a force that has led us to the present situation. But whatever the reason, the divide undeniably exists – and it is deeply detrimental to genuine political debate.

The aforementioned labels now are terms of abuse to be hurled at the other side. Each camp uses them as accusations to demonize those seen to be a threat to their vision of America. But that’s not the worst of it. The biggest problem is that people willingly put themselves in such boxes. People readily identify with a particular persuasion, even counting themselves as allies of such fanatics as Ann Coulter and Michael Moore.

Left and right aren’t even unified, coherent ideologies anyway. Protection of blue-collar industry conflicts with environmentalism on the left, just as state enforcement of religious morality conflicts with libertarian principles on the right. Issues such as fiscal discipline and isolationism can be on one side or the other, depending which way the political wind is blowing at the time. The truth is the two creeds are merely abstract concepts, consisting of various political views aligned for political convenience.

The real harm in identifying with these artificial divisions is that it limits our intellectual freedom. Once we identify closely with these designations we start evaluating others arguments on the person speaking rather than the strength of their reasoning. We nod our head thoughtfully to rants from our political comrades yet rashly dismiss other views as being “liberal naivety” or “selfish conservatism” almost as knee-jerk reactions. In doing so, we curb free thought and harm rational discussion.

Equally damaging is the readiness to come naturally to “liberal” or “conservative” conclusions on scant evidence, and then search for reasons to justify them. Instead, we should be reading every argument with an open mind and a critical eye – allowing our free thoughts to take us where they may. To arrive at a conclusion away from our traditional base isn’t betraying our cause. It’s a sign of intellectual maturity. We must make up our minds on a subject-by-subject basis, and this is possible without abandoning our core values.

In the United Kingdom, the Leader of the Opposition recently hailed the dawn of a new era of politics that is based on issues rather than sides. Here in America, we should be asking ourselves one question: left, right . or ahead?

Ben Griffiths and Tim McEvoy are exchange students from the United Kingdom. Their column appears on a rotating schedule. They can be reached at [email protected]