March 7, 2003

Left-right spectrum incorrect

It is often the case that students here who oppose Taco Bell are also opposed to the war with Iraq and are in favor of less stringent drug laws, while those who want to attack Iraq also oppose gay marriage and high taxes. While there are certainly some students who fit into neither category, this article is discussing the problems of choosing a political bent and sticking to it on all issues.

Left and right wing ideologies in this country consist of relatively static positions on a variety of frequently unrelated issues. It does not follow that a person in favor of handing out condoms to high school students would want a large government, unless you count those scores of extra government workers who would be needed for the distribution.

When a person has just one or two strong opinions, well thought out, or some combination, he votes for candidates whose platforms best match his own sentiment. When we vote, we have a limited number of choices from which to pick, and, often enough, pick whomever we see as the best of the worst. Each vote for a candidate is not a vote for every last thing he stands for, yet once elected, officials tend to do their jobs as though that were the case; this is the compromise of living in a country in which only a few are active participants in the government.

The problem comes when someone feels that, because he is against the war, he should care more about the wages paid to low-income workers, or that because he is in favor of ousting Saddam, he should support vouchers. People should not feel the need to join up with ideologies whenever deciding to support a specific cause.

Joining a coalition simply because you believe in one of many causes it promotes can be dangerous. The group you support may also promote causes you detest, or ones you have never given any though to. This is why, in situations other than voting, it is best to be as specific as possible when expressing your beliefs--wear a single pin, write an article, or form a group devoted exclusively to that cause--rather than simply declaring yourself entirely conservative or liberal.

The obvious reason groups take on a variety of unrelated causes is that political groups, like all others, appear stronger when larger, and merging issues is a surefire way to increase the size of a political group. But a group made up of people who join for a variety of different issues must convince its members that, to be a part of the group, one must take a specific stance on each issue. Thus such a group will inevitably include members who care very little about the issues the group ends up spending the most resources supporting. There is nothing powerful or impressive about a group composed of members who, in the name of empowering their group, support causes entirely unrelated to the ones they care about.

Coalitions alienate many who would otherwise support their primary cause when taking on a unrelated ones. Andrew Sullivan has written in his weblog critiquing the gay left's support for the Palestinian cause and other leftist issues. The gay left's support for Palestinians is a perfect example of two entirely unrelated issues being united simply on account of both being left-wing. Conservatives are no more innocent than liberals. The right, in its often lax treatment of the separation between church and state, alienates those who are not religious Christians but who would like to support conservatives on issues such as fighting terrorism.

Issues like the potential war with Iraq are often decided in people's minds on the basis of how they see themselves politically, not on what they think about that issue in particular. We are in danger of fighting the wrong wars and ignoring the ones that are justified if people's stances continue to be based on generalizations they make about their own views as fitting into specific packages rather than on the issues themselves.