31 Ideology or Identity: Partisanship in the United States
This chapter is dedicated to my grandfather. Granda was an Irish immigrant who was very set in his ways. Despite his firm political beliefs, he did not let his political ideology define him, and he was extremely kind to everyone he met.
Keywords: Identity, Politics, Belonging, Thoughts, Beliefs
Black Lives Matter. Guns must be protected by Second Amendment rights. The minimum wage must be raised to a living wage federally. Illegal aliens must be immediately deported. Which of those statements do you agree with? Which made you cringe? Think about why you felt that way, and I mean actually think about it. You likely agreed with exactly half of those politically controversial statements, and I’m going to assume it is probably because you identify with one of the two main political parties in the United States: Democrat or Republican. Personally, I am a registered Democrat, and with that political affiliation comes assumptions about my personal beliefs. Originally, I chose to register as a Democrat because I am from Baltimore City; in order to vote in any primary elections, I had to be a Democrat because local candidates are in that party almost exclusively. But what started as a convenient choice has become a set of beliefs that I have actually started to agree with, so I question: is this a result of my personal beliefs and experiences or the political party I chose to associate with? Again, I want to challenge you to think about why you are a member of a specific political party. If political parties did not exist, how would you define your approach towards political issues or topics? The two-party political system in the United States creates a polarizing culture that prompts citizens to fall into a set ideology which often morphs into an identity. Ideology, in the context of this discussion, “refers to dominant modes of thought” (Gerring). Although accurate, that definition does not provide the depth needed to link identity and ideology. Ideology allows people to organize their ideas and opinions into schools of thought, and in that sense, the use of ideologies is productive. However, when people begin to identify as an ideology instead of using it to define their thoughts, they become polarized from others who do not identify in the same way. This occurrence can be referred to as identity politics: “political action to advance the interests of members of a group whose members perceive themselves to be opposed by virtue of a shared marginalized identity” (Knouse). Identity politics have become the basis of political ideologies. The current way to classify political ideologies is into two main parties, Democrat and Republican, but these parties’ values are inconsistent at their core. The use of a two party system has caused overconformity that confuses citizens’ political ideologies with an identity.
To best evaluate the impact of ideology on the two main political parties, we must first examine the parties themselves. As described by political scientist Jo Freedman in her work, The Political Culture of the Democratic and Republican Parties, “Republicans perceive themselves as insiders even when they are out of power, and Democrats perceive themselves as outsiders even when they are in power” (Freedman). While that distinction is slightly theoretical, it holds true. The Democratic Party likes to consider themselves the more inclusive party that uses liberal ideals to help better the wellbeing of all. To do this, Democrats tend to favor more active government involvement that provides assistance to those in need. On the other hand, Republicans favor less government intervention, conservative ideals, and personal liberties. Because of this semi-broad basis of the party ideologies, the parties’ leaderships have, overtime, taken it into their own hands to define their party’s stance on specific issues. Take the topic of abortion for example. The Republican Party is generally anti-abortion, also reffered to as “pro-life”, and would like it to be federally banned. The Democratic Party is “pro-choice” and feel that individuals should be able to choose if they want to get an abortion without government interference. Without knowing which party takes which side, one could look at the core beliefs of the parties and assume the stances would be flipped. Republicans favoring more government involvement and Democrats wanting to exercise personal freedom? This is just one example of a discrepancy between the core beliefs of the parties and their stances on politically charged issues. So, what really determines an individual’s political ideology? Context.
Context accounts for a majority of ideology. It is mutually restrained by choices; actions are made because of certain circumstances, and those actions continue to define the situation in which one makes their choices. Many people with a polarizing position have reasons to feel so strongly, but the danger comes when people mistake ideology for identity. In reality, ideology is just a part of what makes up one’s identity. Groupthink becomes a common occurrence in the situation of political ideologies, stripping away individuality and sometimes even morality for the opposing side. For example, “Black Lives Matter” is a statement that I would hope all people would agree with, so for those that do not, is it because they are blatantly racist or because they have been manipulated by political leaders to disagree with that statement? Americans who oppose the statement “Black Lives Matter” often counter with “but All Lives Matter.” As someone who supports the Black Lives Matter movement, I get extremely frustrated with “All Lives Matter.” I believe that all lives do matter, but I do not support the political stance associated with that phrase that discounts the Black Lives Matter movement. Without the political context that has been assigned to those two statements, many more people would agree with both, and the statements would not be in conflict with each other. In politics, partisanship has become a colossal restraint. By being a member of either the Democrat or Republican parties, voters assume the values of that party and, in many cases, their party’s stances on key issues if they have limited knowledge about a topic. Partisanship is becoming an excuse to not think critically or form your own opinions, and this overcommitment to ideology is creating a culture of overconformity. Politics is becoming a competition instead of a compromise, and many individuals’ identities are getting lost in this “fight” because of the overcommitment to ideologies.
No one likes to think that they have fallen into conformity or that they have been potentially manipulated by their own political party. I understand that, and I would like to acknowledge the benefits of partisanship. In the United States, partisanship simplifies democracy. Without political parties, the concept of politics would be distant to voters and the execution of democracy and elections would be messy. The structure that the two-party system provides is almost essential in the current set up of democracy in the United States. But with that said, as individuals, we need to take more responsibility in our own political ideologies. By identifying as a Democrat, I run the risk of conforming to my party’s beliefs and, as a result, only voting for Democrat candidates in general elections. This is only aided by the fact that Democratic candidates and their campaign teams will target campaigning efforts towards me and other Democrats. I will be very positively informed on any Democratic candidates, but I would have to seek out any positive information on Republican candidates. A political party’s ideology should not exactly match our own, and perhaps more importantly, our own political ideologies do not make up our identity.
Black Lives Matter. Guns must be protected by Second Amendment rights. The minimum wage must be raised to a living wage federally. Illegal aliens must be immediately deported. Again, think about which ones made you cringe, and again, I am going to challenge you to explore why. Your political opinions have likely morphed into some sort of identity, whether or not you have intended for them to. I know I have asked a lot of questions in this chapter, but as a reader, I hope you can engage in one more reflection: if you had not heard anything about any given political issue besides facts, would you really agree with the political ideology you subscribe to?
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and the State.” Lenin and philosophy and other essays 2 (1971).
Eagleton, Terry. Ideology. Routledge, 2014.
Freeman, Jo. “The political culture of the Democratic and Republican parties.” Political Science Quarterly 101.3 (1986): 327-356.
Gerring, John. “Ideology: A definitional analysis.” Political Research Quarterly 50.4 (1997): 957-994.
Grossmann, Matt, and David A. Hopkins. Asymmetric politics: Ideological Republicans and group interest Democrats. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Knouse, Jessica. “From identity politics to ideology politics.” Utah L. Rev. (2009): 749.