Thursday, April 8, 2010

What About a Party of One?

The further I get away from my own political party identification the more I tend to shy away from defending or attacking political parties. For all intents and purposes, political parties CAN be a good way to identify yourself ideologically, but with it comes the ever-present risk of tribalism - elevating your "team" above your ideology. But I have to admit, it's easy to slip back into the seamless mantra of the mass politico when you hear some of the cliched accusations bantered about on a daily basis. I heard one of those accusations for the millionth time this morning, and it just finally became something too hard to ignore.

What exactly is a "party of no?"

That phrase has been thrown against the wall by Democrats since Obama has been in office, and after reading Thomas Friedman's article in the New York Times today it's safe to say it's actually stuck quite well. Begging for definition here may seem pedantic on some level, but I'm actually being serious. What exactly qualifies a group as being a "party of no," and what makes it so terrible. From what I've gathered, it just means that you disagree with what someone is trying to do (legislatively)...and that is "bad." I'm curious as to how refusing to adopt an ultimate passivity to the actions of others is ALWAYS something negative. In truth, it's simply not. And in an ironic twist, this Democratic accusation of partisan politics on the part of Republicans is merely revealing their own partisanship; namely in elevating their ideology or brand above the discussion of ideology itself.

Maybe I should give them a small amount of slack here. In their mind, assuming their ideology is "correct," anyone who says "no" to them is inherently impeding progress. But they've jumped a step in their reasoning by righteously assuming that their ideology is sound or ethical. That's not to say it isn't, however. Politics is largely about opinion, after all. But talking about political "progress" in this way jumps the gun in assuming that we all agree with a certain ideology, and that a group of people are just trying to be jackasses (or evil) by getting in the way of seeing that ideology through to fruition. However, I'm not quite sure that the best way to approach political discourse is to presume the universal acceptance of your principles and bemoan all in your path, but rather to have a discussion about the conflicts between different ideologies.

Let's look at things a different way. When President Bush decided to invade Iraq, there were a large amount of people that thought that it was not only tactically flawed but ethically flawed. And for years, this growing cross-section of people tried to impede him any way that they could, in accordance with their own view of what is right and wrong. Could we say that this group (who were largely Democrats at the time) were just being a "party of no?" And if so, does that mean that they're wrong? Who else can we put that label on? Was the fragile Semitic resistance to the rise of the Third Reich in pre-World War II Germany a "party of no?" What about Soviet dissidents that were crushed under the boot of Stalin?

You can see how political discourse in this manner can get silly pretty quick. You can look at our political problems as being analogous to a burning house. And every political faction is coming to that burning house with a bucket of what they think is water. It makes sense for us to begrudge someone for trying to hold someone back from throwing a bucket of water on that fire. On the other hand, it makes a whole lot of sense to hold that person back if what they have in that bucket is gasoline. And that's what's going on here. Somehow we have come to accept that it's good to take toss something in the proverbial fire. But we should also be concerned with what's in the bucket, so to speak. If taking an action is going to make us worse off in the long run, then it is quite preferable to do nothing rather than to take that action.

You would think that some of this is just common sense, but I've found it simply isn't. I think that maybe we've started looking at "political progress" in the same way we look at love; as being less complex than it actually is. Somewhere along the line it became fashionable to deride personal philosophies that didn't adopt love as an all-inclusive value. But as Ayn Rand often pointed out, love in itself is a kind of value; in a way, it's an ordinal system of favor. To say you love everyone isn't saying anything at all. It's like saying you value everything. While it may be true, more or less, you certainly have a scale of preference. It's very unlikely that many people truly "love" everything equally (at least not without a fair amount of emotional dissonance). Try giving a thousand strangers the choice of having their mother or a complete stranger murdered and you'll quickly find out how real the "value" of love is...regardless of their proclaimed philosophy.

In the same way that talk of a universal, non-qualitative love became socially preferred maybe talk of a universal, non-qualitative political progression has become socially preferred as well. Maybe, in accordance with the oft-used aphorism, we've turned it into a conversation about the all-important journey instead of the "trivial" destination. And maybe that's where party-politics gets us.

So how do we untangle this mess? Well, to a large degree I'm starting to think we don't. Once you develop a personal identification with a political party, you might as well call it your favorite sports team. Even the most pragmatic defenders of the party-line seem to fall back into an endless cycle of remedial refutations fueled by confirmation bias. It's inevitable.

I think the dissolution of political parties in some fashion (or at least a change in perspective on how we view them) is the only thing that would pull us back to something a bit more honest. The only way to break that cycle is to stop party-related self identification all together; or at least distill it down to a party of one. And this is one of the things I admire most about the libertarian movement in general. And if you don't believe me, just look at the Libertarian Party.

No one was quicker to jump ship on a politically representative faction than libertarians were in regards to their own name-sake party. When the LP started to veer in a direction that wasn't in step with libertarian views, a substantial amount of libertarians withdrew their support. Why? Because libertarians are generally devout individualists. They identify with parties only as a means to the ends of establishing liberty. If a prospective party candidate moves out of favor with the principled view of libertarians, most of them are quick to abandon them...regardless of what letters may appear beside their name.

But I don't get this feeling when I talk about other political groups. There is no effectual distinguishing regarding little "d" democrats and little "r" republicans. Why is this? In my estimate, it's because most people of those affiliations identify with the term more tribally than they do on principle. "Libertarians," on the other hand, are not necessarily "libertarians." And that distinction is key.

Just realizing that parties are nominal in the strictest sense, and that their founding principles (or their current ones) are the crux of political discussion, the face behind the mask as it were; this would be a good step forward for most Americans. Giving into the soft despotism of political correctness, the slavishness of the culturally fashionable, the rhetoric of the party-line; these are the self-enabling sirens of political kismet. And if we ever want to break free of that self-destructive dance, we need to be willing to break down the silly behavior that keeps us from having an honest discussion with one another.

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