January 21, 2011

You're either with us, or you're on the (insert left/right here)

You're either on the left, or on the right. You're either a liberal or a conservative. You might be on the fringe--or somewhere stuck in the middle. When it comes to political affiliation here in the US, it seems that everything is based upon a pretty simply (and linear) logic. Nice and easy, right? The most interesting part of this is that all sorts of people adhere to this framework and even interact with other people based upon these categories. In effect, this graphic representation of political affiliations is what Bourdieu might have called a "structuring structure." In other words, people interact with one another, in some social contexts, based upon a few pre-determined points on a line. Funny.

Of course, from a certain perspective these categories have particular social meanings, and it's important to see how (and why) those meanings are constructed and maintained. The right is generally associated with a desire to preserve a particular social order, and the left with trying to change it. The right wants individual freedom when it comes to the economy, and the left wants it when it comes to social rights, behaviors, and choices. The right wants smaller government when it comes to the economy (the market, etc), yet they want more government when it comes to security of the state, border protection, and the military in general. The left supposedly wants more government on all counts--except when they want to reduce the size of the military and/or the police. There's my incredibly oversimplified version of the political spectrum.

While people often self-identify with the right or the left, and identify others based upon this spectrum, in daily practice it seems pretty likely that they actually make choices in a much more complicated manner. I doubt that few people ever completely adhere to an absolutely coherent set of categories that allow for such rigid compartmentalization. Despite contradictions and inconsistencies, however, these terms are widespread. Does it really make sense to take a few key positions on issues (abortion, war, economics) and assign one out of two categories for political identity? Maybe, and maybe not, but people do it all the time--and these categories carry significant meaning. They are kind of the two big political moieties (to use a nice old anthropological term) in US politics--you gotta join one or the other, right? Just watch any of the more polemic pundits on either side and the utility of the labels becomes pretty clear. People make a lot of money, and win elections, by identifying themselves as either proponents or enemies of a particular "side" of the political spectrum. Interesting, no?

All of this supposedly originates from 18th century revolutionary France, when political opponents aligned themselves along different sides of the aisle. So why do these divisions exist today? How did this even come about? In my spare time, of which I have none, I plan to research this very issue.* What really interests me is learning how people assign themselves--and others--to particular political categories. What makes someone feel that they are part of "the right" or "the left"? Are there in fact key issues that determine this identity? And what issues cause problems for these divisions? What upsets this rhetorical and social structuring of political identity? Overall, I would be a lot more interested to see how different people across the US actually explain their political affiliations--and understandings of what they mean--in their own words. Comparing those narratives with the political rhetoric of politicians and pundits might, in fact, be pretty interesting.

*Backburner research project #4,136, which I will get to after doing what I am SUPPOSED to be doing right now, and, of course, project number 4,135.

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