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Ideology has Become a Poison Pill and Self Reliance is the Anecdote


There is an exciting dynamic unfolding in Manatee County. For more than a decade since Citizens United vs. the FEC, developers have been at work capturing local government. One could certainly argue that, over the past year, they have completed that capture. Thankfully, citizens on both sides of the aisle are increasingly uniting to take back their institutions. One roadblock persists, however. Deep attachments to archaic political ideologies still make it uncertain whether that shared frustration could result in electoral change.

When I was a young man fresh out of college, political identity did not really exist in the way that it does today. Even as a political science major, I could usually only guess as to what most of my classmates' or even professors’ political leanings were. Sure, in that environment, more people wore it on their sleeves than in the general population, but that’s mostly because beyond that space it was rare for someone to express their affiliations outside of clubs or organizations that were designed for that purpose.

Back then, it was also considered poor social manners to even ask someone about their political leanings, and much worse to bring up politics in a non-political social setting. I’ll admit that as a young and curious student brimming with ideas and excitement to discuss them with others, I often found this off-putting. I felt as though there were so many critical issues being ignored by the masses as barely-seen elected officials and bureaucrats made crucial decisions, that we needed more political discourse, not less.

Little did I know that in just a few decades we would arrive at a time in which it would be commonplace to discuss politics anywhere and everywhere. While I may have been excited by the idea of such a prospect back then, it would have been because I could not have imagined how weaponized something as formerly benign as political party affiliation would become in such a relatively short time. In fact, had you told me back then that ideological self-identification would become the predominant way in which people would base their identity, I probably would have burst into laughter.

Trying to imagine such a dynamic back then, however, I probably would have thought that for that to have happened, we would have had to have evolved into a highly enlightened society. Maybe these relatively new things called “personal computers” and the still nascent technology of the (dial-up modem) internet would become capable of delivering an endless stream of information at such rapidity that any citizen in our country could easily access all of the knowledge they would need to truly vote in their best interests.

Would there even be money in politics if you didn’t have to rely on the curated information from captured institutions that Noam Chomsky had described in Manufacturing Consent? Would we have reached a utopian form of democracy in which the power really did belong to the people? Now, let’s imagine that some imaginary force had been able to offer me a glimpse of where we are now as a result. I am certain I would have been utterly horrified by what I saw. The idolatry of people flying flags with political campaign banners rather than that of our nation, festooning their cars with signs of which team they are on, along with coarse, vulgar expressions of their feelings for “the other.”

I’m certain that I would have seen it as a fascist hellscape even before I was given a glimpse of the complete dysfunction of our institutions, places in which working across the aisle was expressly forbidden, unless, of course, it was to fill the pockets of the big corporations and wealthy elites who had captured them. After college, as a young military officer, I was already unnerved by how “military spending” was diverted to pork barrel projects while needed resources that actually made our country safer too often took a back seat. What would I have made of the current landscape in which the budget has ballooned to unthinkable proportions, most of it still gets wasted, and both parties are the hawks with the only difference being which war its side supports at any given moment?

I’ll be 49 next month, and I am awestruck when I look back on how our nation has changed since I was in college. Sure, I would have been pleased to have seen the immense strides we have made in extending equality to historically marginalized populations, the enormous strides that have been made in terms of gender equality, the way that society has, overall, become inclusive, and how capitalism has raised the relative standard of living of so many—even if I would have been disappointed to see how little was invested in ensuring that the flattening of our world did not hollow out our middle class, or that the wealth gap had not expanded near exponentially. But I would have kept going back to the fact that people were even tattooing their bodies in ideological expression and asking how in the world had this field I had studied become such an unrecognizable enterprise.

Of course, there are many answers. High-speed internet coupled with increasingly sophisticated smartphones paving the way for a social media society in which citizens' emotions were commodified by an algorithm would be at or near the top of the list. The ruling in Citizens United vs the FEC that declared money to be speech and corporations to be people and therefore protected by the 1st amendment would be right there with it. A globalized economy juiced by the risky financial commodification of just about everything one can imagine raising the stakes of it all to infinity would surely be another.

One thing that analyzing public policy for all these years has taught me is that political ideologies create more problems than solutions. Sure, reading the great thinkers in the democratic landscape—Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, collective works like the Federalist Papers, etc.—can certainly provide people who are serious about participating in democracy with a solid foundation, but only in the same way that long-dead philosophers can assist someone in forming a world view in the 21st century. None of those things, however, tend to have anything to do with bumper stickers and flags that advertise what team we are on. In that regard, the two-party duopoly that has cemented itself in the power structure of American democracy probably deserves a spot pretty high up on that aforementioned list.

Last week, I came across an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson titled Self Reliance. Emerson, who considered himself a poet and not a philosopher, has nevertheless left behind a trove of interesting intellectual positions in terms of how to best participate in a democratic society. Emerson wrote the essay in 1842 when a young America was debating a hornet’s nest of issues in terms of how our society should be organized, which rights should be prized, how we should think of foreign policy and the ideal balance between private commerce and government. In other words, it was comparably ripe for disagreement.

Emerson despised any sort of dogma, especially political ideology. The whole point of the essay was that conforming to belief systems and adopting the ideas of a group was the least effective way for his young country to form any sort of binding cultural identity. Emerson felt as though everyone should not only think about the issues at hand but posit solutions. He asked how many potentially revolutionary ideas were lost to history because the vast majority of individuals did not think it possible that anyone other than the wisest of sages could be capable of such contributions and instead fell back on the words and ideas of others they had conformed to in substitution for original thought.

What would Emerson think of today’s world in which most people narrowly confine their positions to the dogmatic bullet points of thoughts and positions that their “side” prescribes, consuming a feedback loop of self-reinforcing bloviations not even from the wisest and most learned so much as status-seeking pundits and pols before running to social media to declare, This is what I think too!? Emerson referred to such institutions as "the lengthened shadow of one man," and lamented that, “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage.”

When you look at polling data, it is clear that most Americans are very dissatisfied with their government from top to bottom. Yet, any chance of breaking the gridlock of corrupt dysfunction that has captured both parties and nearly all levels of government would require freethinking, a dogged commitment not to affix any sort of label to your personal framework, and, most of all, a willingness to part ways with the people and institutions that create the pressure of political conformity.

That last part has become increasingly difficult, as the polarized landscape and ideology-as-identity dynamic have led to so many people forming their entire social network based on such affiliations. Today, to dissent is often to be cast out of the tribe, which is inherently terrifying to humans foremost because of our evolutionary history and the fatal consequences such an exile has meant through most of our time on Earth. But being willing to choose one of two sides or even the equally dogmatic nature of what passes for political dissidence today does not a freethinker make.

Americans need to stop thinking about themselves as conservatives, liberals, libertarians, etc, and begin thinking of themselves as individual citizens capable of forming their own set of diverse views. They need to accept that society will never (and should never) look exactly like half (or less) of the population would like it to, for democracy is not a means to impose the tyranny of the minority onto everyone else. That would be authoritarianism, and my genuine fear is that we are on a path in which either side will ultimately accept a dictator as the only means to ward off "the other." Only by breaking the chains of ideology will we find ourselves in a place where our elected representatives find it impossible to ignore policies that have a 70 or 80 percent approval rating, something they manage to get away with routinely today, mostly by pointing their finger at “the other.”

Half of the country essentially believes that one of the two sides offers the road to ruin while the other offers the only path to prosperity. There is nothing so complex that can be reduced to something so simple. The far more likely reality, it seems, is that the world is an increasingly complex place, and while the notion that its complexities can be simplified to a simple showdown between two sides, one of which must subjugate the other, is a temptingly simple way to view it, it is this very process of othering a group and declaring that our survival is pinned to their extinction that has paved the way for some of the greatest moral crimes in human history.

I am not a liberal. I am not a conservative. I am an American.  

Dennis "Mitch" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times and the host of our weekly podcast. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. His 2016 short story collection, Casting Shadows, was recently reissued and is available here.


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  • lib224

    There is only one party that is actively supporting an insurrectionist and very likely a criminal. THIS is the greatest threat to our continuing efforts to maintain a democracy. He has already openly stated very clearly how he will end our democratic efforts. Stop with the both sidism!

    Sunday, November 26, 2023 Report this

  • Cat L

    Well said. This is a subject that has troubled me for a while, and I see many around me who feel similarly. The disingenuous and dangerous marketing tactics of politicians and lobbyists in this post citizens united America are flat out fascist. When I was about 12, I felt compelled to understand how a whole country could allow Nazis to kill as many people as they did. Their marketing tactics, which led to a voluntary blindness from the citizens of Germany, were very similar to what I see now.

    Sunday, November 26, 2023 Report this

  • rayfusco68

    Very well said.

    Sunday, November 26, 2023 Report this

  • misty

    An excellent reflection, Mitch. The left and the right are caught in a destructive loop of dogma while a tiny number of wealthy families fund the campaigns of candidates with slick ads to control elections at the federal, state, and local level. And, it’s very effective because a majority of the voters rely on these ads to form opinions. Our elected representatives are then beholden to the demands of those who bought their seats and threatened with losing their position if they don’t fall in line. This approach does not generally appeal to deep thinkers and conversely is attractive to those with malleable values - and those are the candidates who get the big money support - and win. Locke would be so disappointed in this unamerican cycle.

    Sunday, November 26, 2023 Report this

  • Dave

    "Americans need to stop thinking about themselves as conservatives, liberals, libertarians, etc, and begin thinking of themselves as individual citizens capable of forming their own set of diverse views."

    I'm not any of the labels you list in the quote. I think for myself but I do skew liberal on most issues, and have little use for the current MAGA conservative folks. From what I can see there is no talking to them much less compromising - it "can be reduced to something so simple." Lib224 is right that there is one side that is wrong and that "sidism" is a copout.

    That said, our local politics aren't really left versus right. They are really wealthy versus regular folks. Follow the money as the saying goes. The local "haves," developers and other corporate interests, control who governs us with their contributions to the local, state and federal politicians that run Manatee County. And, I hate to say that "elections are rigged" like a certain former president, but the closed party primaries make it easy to keep control.

    Sunday, November 26, 2023 Report this