Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Political Glossary #1

After writing it, I decided to not publish my blog about my son-in-law’s deployment to Iraq.

Experience has taught me that our culture – and especially church culture -- no longer tolerates nuanced opinion. The prevailing belief is that one is either on the “right” or the “left”, and that all subcategories of thought, emotion and opinion assigned to those two broad labels naturally attach to one of these polar positions. Thus, we tend to select the media outlets most favorable to our stated position, form our friendships, alliances and even our churches according to how they revolve around one of these labels. We also tend to consider or dismiss issues and ideas according to how they seem to support or threaten our social and political identity.

This polarized environment leads us to speak in sound bites and clichés with those who agree with us and call the result, “a conversation.” Of course this is not real conversation at all but it takes a lot less work than a “real conversation.”

A real conversation requires the following:

1. A willingness to speak one’s true thoughts about the subject at hand

2. A willingness to listen to the true thoughts of another; without using the time when the other person is speaking to craft our own speech

3. The ability to maintain respect for the person with whom we are conversing even when we disagree with his or her opinion

4. Being more concerned with finding the truth about a matter (or at least gaining understanding the other person’s opinion) than with winning an argument.

I invite the reader to ask himself or herself if we have very many conversations these days, at least as I define “conversation” here.

I say all of this to point out the fact that it has become notoriously difficult to have a political conversation nowadays – at least with people who feel differently about political matters. One of the reasons is because we don’t always share with them the same definitions for the words we use to discuss political life. So I thought it might make sense to create a political glossary – defining our political vocabulary in an unbiased way and with as much “common” sense as possible.

We could begin a political glossary with the words “right” and “left.” The terms were first used in a political way in France, where the early attempts at parliamentary democracy resulted in hundreds of delegates sitting in a massive room, grouped by political orientation, from the royalists on the extreme right to the anarchists and socialists on the left.

So do those labels tell us anything at all, here in the United States, in 2008? Well, yes. They tell us whether a person is generally more interested in social change (left) or in maintaining continuity with the past (right). Few people sit on the extreme boundaries of these positions, however. Most people position themselves somewhere away from the extreme of their stated position. This means that a person who is somewhat more interested in social change than in continuity with the past will have a lot in common with a person who is somewhat more interested in continuity with the past than with social change. In fact, these two people will likely have more in common with one another than with those who “sit on their side of the aisle” but at the edge of the room.

At present, the American media seems to define us all as sitting at the edge of the room. Thus, if we are on the “right” side of the aisle (as I am) then we are expected to be in agreement with every idea and emotion represented on “our side of the aisle” and to find every idea represented by the folks on the other side of the aisle thoroughly repugnant and nauseating.

As I just said: I sit on the right side of the aisle. That tells you that I am more committed to maintaining continuity with the past than I am to facilitating social change. This does not mean that I am uninterested in social change at all, however. Actually, I am extremely interested in social change. I just want to experience change in a way that does not sever my social, spiritual and cultural root system. That makes me a conservative, although not one that a person like Rush. Limbaugh or Ron Paul (both of whom claim to be conservatives) would affirm. Both of those gentlemen (if gentlemen they are) sit further toward the edge of the room than I do.

I am also a Republican, or at least I have voted that way most of the time. Now what does that mean? What exactly is a “republican” or a “democrat?”

Here’s a simple explanation. Since the beginning, our country’s leaders and thinkers have been divided about whether the nation ought to be governed as a pure democracy – a place where every citizen has as much say about every decision as everyone else – or as a republic – where every citizen helps select the best and the brightest political thinkers among us to make those decision that most of us do not have the experience or training to make.

So. A democrat leans more toward the idea of pure democracy. A republican leans toward the idea of a republic.

Historically, republicans have kept democrats from degenerating into mob rule. However, democrats have kept republicans from forming an oligarchy. That’s why we tend to change parties every few years – to keep our nation from tilting toward either one of these extremes. Kept in power too long, each party tends to drift toward its most radical position.

In the last twenty-five years or so, both of our parties have shifted away from being republicans or democrats and toward being conservatives and liberals. Before, each party had both liberals and conservatives and had to work through the differences of the nation before arriving at a party platform. Today, the parties – and those who belong to them – are able to escape real conflict of opinion within their own parties. It is possible to read only those magazines, listen only to those radio personalities and to affiliate only with those people who are in substantial agreement with us. This creates a climate in which the opinions of the other party seem like insanity, like the babblings of madmen. It opens up a chasm between the parties that forces people at the center to choose between the extremes, least they fall into the widening abyss.

In such a climate, nuance and moderation gets lost and civility and respect colors one as cowardly or duplicitous. So the radicals and extremist rant while the centrists and moderates remain silent, shamed by their desire to maintain community with those with whom they disagree.

That’s why I thought I would create a political glossary before sharing my own views on the war, public service and political life.


Stargazer said...

Interesting...I feel like most of the people in my age bracket {18-25} are currently somewhere right in the middle. I, personally, want to see lots of social change. There are wars, poverty, sickness, and many other things that we should fight. I also, however, do not want to completely uproot all tradition, since many of the things that my parent and grandparents established are good and steeped in culture and tradition.

So, what do we call ourselves? Moderate is the word I hear used the most, but it does not do the job. How I wish we didn't have to be labeled, but America cannot stand for something to not be labeled. How will we know what someone thinks or feels if we cannot simply assume? We would actually have to have these conversations you talk about.

Thanks for the insight. I'm excited to hear more of your thoughts.

Brandon Palma

Dena said...

Thank you for the explantion. You did a great job. I have wondered why the parties are so far apart in what they believe. I think that a great deal of us are in the middle. We can think for ourselves and I think we can for the most part make healthy decisions. I like tradition as well. I am a Republican, however all of my family has been as far back as I can remember. There's always a glitch in the system. My niece is pretty severly handicapt and if Cal didn't offer all of the services from "Liberals" she wouldn't be able to get most of the help she needs. It's a problem.

I also am a mom so I have a deeper understanding of the illigal immigration issue. I know there needs to be some boundaries in allowing illegals in the country. BUT I also can imagine what it would be like to live in such a impoverished country and be in a place where I would do anything to help my children, my family not only survive but to want a better life for them. It's a very difficult decision and it's not nearly as cut and dried as some would have us think. Thank you Dan, you alway get me to thinking. I like that about you.

I look forward to hearing #2 and we are praying for Tyson and his Unit. His Angels are surrounding him and keeping all of them safe. In Jesus Name.


Eric Martin said...


You are right on with this article. I consider myself on the right side of the aisle, but fairly close to the aisle. I can't say that I feel shame to speak up with my opinion in contrast with the extremists. It's probably more to do with having more civility or maybe being tired of trying to be heard over their screaming.

The question I have is probably more psychological. Why do the extreme sides get the attention? Is it because people want to hear something shocking (extreme)? With all of the negative ads, it seems that many want to hear how "evil" (or almost evil) the other politician is. However, if people would actually dig into the details of what the other person is trying to say, you frequently learn that there are reasonable circumstances as to why a candidate voted or acted the way they did. I wonder if it just comes down to people being a little lazy in really researching their politicians.

Or maybe there needs to be a separation and regulation of the political parties just as the telco companies were regulated. :)

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Dan and writing them in this way which resonates exactly how I feel as well. Keep them coming.

Eric Martin

Marilyn M. said...

:-) tongue in check, may i (respectfully) brave the query of where the individual proclaiming nonpartisan fits into the ideal political glossary? e.g. I have one friend who sounds very democratic and another well educated friend, holding a Ph.D. from a prestigious university who sounds very republican, to my ears anyway... neither will claim a specific party of agreement. They do however smile rather than debate with me when i label them. Comments? ~mm