Alabama

The Passive Activist #7

We Americans are living with an unprecedented absence of leadership. In the Deep South, we have lived with this void for most of our history, so we’re a little more used to it than the rest of the nation— but that doesn’t make it OK. In the face of Congressional deadlock, soaring national debt, secular/religious strife, rogue policy actions by state legislatures, mistrust of the police, declines in public education funding, exorbitant college costs, internet predators and trolls, crumbling labor unions, global warming, and too many white people winning movie awards, the Passive Activist series offers ideas for how ordinary people can create and implement positive change in our own lives. Movements are made up of people.

7. Understand the difference between Democrats and Republicans.

In an August 2004 article in The New Yorker titled “The Unpolitical Animal,” Louis Menand describes at length how most people, even the ones who do vote, don’t understand politics. Menand references a 1964 article, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics” by Philip Converse, which became a political industry standard, and wrote of its author’s conclusions:

Converse claimed that only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system.

The other ninety per cent, it seems, are flapping in the wind:

About forty-two per cent of voters, according to Converse’s interpretation of surveys of the 1956 electorate, vote on the basis not of ideology but of perceived self-interest. The rest form political preferences either from their sense of whether times are good or bad (about twenty-five per cent) or from factors that have no discernible “issue content” whatever. Converse put twenty-two per cent of the electorate in this last category. In other words, about twice as many people have no political views as have a coherent political belief system.

A particularly naive response to these assertions might be, We’re more sophisticated now. To anyone who thinks that – I hate to break this to you – we’re not.

Despite the fact that most adults in America are eligible to vote, most adults in America have very little comprehension of what – or who – they’re voting for. Just to be clear, the following things have nothing to do with the ability to craft good public policy: witty comments, a nice smile, kissing babies.

A good start is to understand what each political party stands for. That determinant is the heuristic many of us rely on. So what’s the difference?

The platform of the Republican Party – that’s the red one with the elephant that isn’t the University of Alabama – leans more heavily toward the rights of the individual. However, the GOP, which stands for “Grand Old Party,” doesn’t have a straight party line that way. For example, their embrace of “pro-life” politics stands in direct contrast to the notion of individual liberties, which would be embodied by a “pro-choice” stance.

By contrast, the Democratic Party’s platform could be summed up by this passage on one of its About pages:

There are several core beliefs that tie our party together: Democrats believe that we’re greater together than we are on our own—that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.

So it isn’t as simple as you might think. If you judge too quickly, you might think you’re a a Republican when you read their platform, which has components that declare our “Country is exceptional” and that the “Constitution should be honored, upheld, and valued.” Yep, I’m for that. But, not so fast. The Democrats’ platform says that “this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.” I agree with that, too.

Read up on the parties and candidates, and find out which one you really prefer. If you want to have a little fun with it, try PBS News Hour’s political party quiz. See where you land on there.

No matter which end of the political spectrum you occupy, know what your beliefs would mean to real people if they were enacted. Politics shouldn’t be a game of hypotheticals anymore than that it should be a popularity contest.  Your vote – or lack of it – determines public policies that affect real people.

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