In a class discussion the other day, a student noted that she had taken one of those “where do you stand?” tests on the Internet, and had emerged dead-center–neither Left nor Right. She wondered what was wrong with her; evidently, her fatal flaw is that she actually thinks for herself.
These Internet “tests,” of course, are bogus; the questions lack nuance, and tend to reflect the “either/or” bipolarism of contemporary American politics.
I’m old enough to remember when the most common complaint about the parties was that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference between them.” I also remember a popular libertarian illustration of the political spectrum as a circle, not a straight line–the accurate message being that, at the far left and far right, the extremes meet, with their only disagreement being whose agenda government should impose on the rest of us.
I’m also old enough to remember when issues we now consider “left” were held by many on the right: lots of limited-government Republicans used to be pro-choice and pro-gay-rights, for example, asserting that–as Barry Goldwater put it–government didn’t belong in your boardroom or your bedroom.
The tendency to apply labels that allow us to dismiss, rather than engage, positions with which we disagree is hardly new; in 2003, I wrote
This mania for labeling people so that we don’t have to engage with them on the validity of their ideas has accelerated during the past few years. Perhaps it is talk radio, with its tendency to reduce everything to name-calling sound-bites. Admittedly, it is much more efficient to call a woman a “feminazi” than to take the time and effort needed to discuss why her positions are untenable. And the tactic certainly isn’t limited to Republicans; Indiana’s very own Evan Bayh has solemnly warned the Democrats against the danger posed by “leftists” like Howard Dean. (I’m not quite sure when Dean’s support for gun rights, the death penalty and a balanced budget became “far left” positions. Perhaps when they were espoused by someone the Senator isn’t supporting.)
Intellectual honesty has not improved since 2003. Far from it.
Perhaps my memory is faulty, but when I became politically active, the major differences in political philosophy involved “how” rather than “what.” In other words, there was general recognition of the problems America faced, but different approaches to solving those problems. Today, the bulk of the Republican Party disagrees about the very existence of certain problems–think climate change.
Disputing evidence, however, is neither Left nor Right. It’s delusional.
For that matter, a number of America’s current challenges simply do not lend themselves to classic Left/Right classifications. Climate change is one. Globalization is another. The likelihood that automation will displace millions of workers, and the increasingly undemocratic structure of our electoral system are still others. Proposed solutions to these challenges may or may not fall on the familiar left/right spectrum, but any genuine debate about those solutions must be grounded in acknowledgment of their existence and complexity.
Admittedly, the resurgence of white nationalism on the one hand and calls for massive economic redistribution on the other fall on the familiar left/right spectrum–but even then, partisan labeling and name-calling are no substitute for considered analysis.
Yelling “snowflake” or “fascist” at those with whom you disagree may make you feel better, but it’s not only lazy–it’s no substitute for an evidence-based explanation of why you disagree.
Name calling is also unlikely to change anyone’s opinion –although, given the rancor of today’s political tribalism, and the unwillingness of today’s zealots even to consider contrary positions, probably nothing is.