Because it’s an election year, our propensity to label every candidate and every proposal is on full display. Is Mitt Romney conservative enough? Is Obama a progressive, a liberal, or a European-style socialist as many of his critics try to portray him? And what exactly is a libertarian?
Maybe a more important question to ask is, “What are you?” The answer may not be as cut and dried as you think.
According to polls, 30 percent of people identify themselves as Republicans, 32 percent as Democrats, and 38 percent as independent; then there’s the broader conservative, liberal, moderate labels, which come in at 42 percent, 20 percent, and 38 percent, respectively.
So a sizable portion of Americans are moderate and independent. (Though not necessarily the same people).
But what does it mean to be moderate? Certainly not that you’re in the middle on every issue. Most likely you’re passionately conservative on some issues and passionately liberal on others. You share points of view with Rick Santorum and President Obama and Ron Paul. But because we push every candidate into an ideological box, it’s hard to see this, especially during a primary season.
During the Reagan years, when I was young, I thought of myself as a flaming liberal. Reagan seemed to represent everything that was wrong with conservatives. He funded the Pentagon while cutting human services budgets. He tried to break up unions. He believed in trickle-down economics. He was against funding Planned Parenthood. But mostly he was just the symbol of the other side to me.
I grew up in a liberal Democratic family. My parents campaigned for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. They voted Democrat, they supported unions, they believed in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
For years, the labels stopped me from considering anything but the party line. Then in my late 20s, I wrote a novel about an 18-year-old girl who was pregnant and chose to keep her baby. I got blasted from the left as if I were an unthinking pro-lifer. I was, in fact, passionately pro-choice. I had even spent time working in an abortion clinic, counseling the men who accompanied their girlfriends, sisters, daughters, wives to their appointments.
But the character in my novel took a very conservative position. She contradicted my black-and-white world view, and soon I was able to admit and recognize more contradictions in my thinking.
I was an outspoken supporter of public education in my community and yet two of my Jewish children when to private Catholic schools. Then I wrote an essay that The Wall Street Journal accepted. Apparently, conservatives and liberals could agree with my premise that the practices of insurance companies could be exploitative. I found that I had other views that readers of the Journal liked. And fiercely disagreed with. Just like the readers of The Christian Science Monitor.
I wrote a piece a year or so ago calling for the abolition of foreign languages as a requirement for liberal arts education. My liberal friends were appalled. (We were, after all, liberal arts majors). But it sparked dialogue.
I suspect we are all a pile of contradictions. We are all a mix of conservative, moderate, liberal. A mix of outrage and compassion. We believe in separation of church and state except when we don’t. We believe government should help the poor except when it helps too much. Life’s complicated. And so are we.
Political primaries push every candidate into a box. Our goal should be to look beyond labels and nurture our contradictions. Contradictions make life interesting. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that consistency is for the little mind.
A good way to break the labels habit is to read political commentators you disagree with. If you think you’re liberal, read George Will or Charles Krauthammer. See if they make sense. If you’re conservative, try Maureen Dowd or Nicholas Kristof. And in my opinion, everyone should read David Brooks. He’s one of the most thoughtful commentators writing today. And he’s a Jewish Republican writing for The New York Times. That’s a sentence full of contradictions.
As I got older, my father, who I labeled earlier in this piece as a standard-line liberal Democrat, started to get very interested in guns. He joined the National Rifle Association. He carried that card proudly next to his one for the American Civil Liberties Union. To him, this was not a contradiction. He believed both groups supported his right to exercise the Second Amendment.
If my father could find common positions, at least philosophically, between the NRA and the ACLU, then anything’s possible. So here’s to a new label I hope we can all embrace: contradictarian.
Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.