Why we're all of one party

The ideal is the voters swing from party to party in a contest of ideas. The current reality is that birds of a political feather flock together.


Politics occurs throughout the animal kingdom (vegetable, too, I suspect, but tracking that is as exciting as watching grass grow). Over the years, I’ve cohosted cats, dogs, parakeets, guinea pigs, chickens, and goldfish. If you live with one critter at a time, you develop a special relationship. My mom was fond of a chameleon named Speedy that loved to hang out under the cuff of her sweater. If you have two or more critters, though, you quickly learn that you’re not as important to them as they are to each other.

Our four parakeets, for instance, choose and change sides all day, chattering all the while like TV pundits. Dogs often have harsh words before reaching a political accommodation so that they can dine and doze in peace. A few years ago, our chicken coop was ruled by the “Party of the Joanies” – a pair of buff Orpingtons that were virtually identical though completely unrelated. They teamed up because, as near as we could tell, they thought looking alike was reason enough to distinguish them from the rest of the chickens.

While the Joanies might have had novel ideas about coop governance and tax policy, their biggest reason for allying was to perpetuate rule by Joanies. They held office for four years. Changing circumstances (hawks, winters) saw them out and led to today’s “Party of the Specs.” These are black-and-white Wyandottes, also of random provenance, that teamed up because, as near as we can figure, they thought looking alike was reason enough to distinguish them from the assorted Rhode Island Reds and Araucanas.

Those heterogeneous hens have never put together a successful coalition to challenge rule by the similarly feathered. And here the metaphor stops (and thank you for not wondering when it would). Much of politics seems to be about sorting like with like, asserting that your party knows best, and disapproving of rivals – Athenians versus Spartans, Tories versus Whigs, Democrats versus Republicans. We’re right; you’re wrong.

The ideal of democratic politics is that voters swing from one party to another after carefully considering the ideas and individuals who seek to govern. The reality – at least the current reality – is that voters sort themselves into like-minded teams. Never mind that large numbers of people describe themselves as independents. There are actually very few real “swing” voters out there (as Peter Grier and a team of Monitor correspondents show in this Monitor cover story). Most people know what they like and, just as important, what they don’t like.

The more diverse a culture becomes, however, the more likely it is that people will look at the ideas that connect them rather than choose sides based on identity or color or culture. Humans (perhaps other species as well) can think in complex ways, can transcend the old birds-of-a-feather logic. Sure, we team up at times. We assert our values, which might mean disapproving of others’. But we’re all members of the same political party: the Grand Old Human one.

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