If I had a dollar for every time I have heard “Bernie is a socialist” or “Trump is crazy” or “Ted Cruz is a Tea Partier” as justification to not vote for them, I would have many more dollars than I currently have. I get the sentiment. People with similar perspectives will feel emotional resonance with the statement and probably nod in agreement. Without a moderate option in this presidential election cycle, there is a heightened tendency to retreat into rhetorical echo chambers.
But there’s a major problem with these statements: they’re shortcuts. These labels carry connotations and implications but communicate little substance. The statement “he’s a socialist” could mean a hundred different things and be received in at least as many ways. Same for the statement “he’s crazy.” The more vague the statement, the less it actually communicates. Most of the time, these statements communicate more about the ideology, identity, and emotion of the person speaking them than they do about the subject matter.
Shortcuts in thought and communication aren’t bad. In fact, they are good and necessary. Just think of how much work we would have to do if we didn’t take mental shortcuts? We create frameworks of thought and rely on others to aid us in this process all the time. If we didn’t, our time would be consumed making even the most menial decisions and we would never get anything done. We have to be able to mentally categorize and simplify in order to effectively reason through big issues.
The same is true with communication. We build frameworks of language and rely on others to do the same. If we had to exhaustively re-define all of our labels every time we communicated, we’d still be living in caves. Where problems start to arise, though, is when we rely on these shortcuts too much – when they become assumptions rather than frameworks of interpretation.
To consider oneself a Republican, Democrat, Conservative, Liberal, Progressive, Libertarian, etc. can be helpful. They each provide some sort of framework to process the political landscape. They provide principles and values that assist in making decisions about complicated issues that we may not have any first-hand experience with.
But the world is more complex than our words can handle. Because the purpose of these shortcuts is to minimize complication, any use of them as an absolute is a misuse. It is asking them to do something they can’t do.
When shortcuts become absolutes in politics, we speak of the values and principles as the realities themselves rather than the issues that are supposedly being addressed. Citizens and politicians support policy because it is “conservative” or “liberal” with little regard to the actual impact of the policy. We build categories and labels to help us visualize the world, but too often, we become slaves to those labels, answering to ideology rather than reality.
In politics, ideas and principles are never abstract. They must be worked out in real time and space. This is why refusing to vote for a candidate because “they’re a socialist” or because “they’re crazy” is problematic. If a goal of politics is to figure out how to bring together the complex web of institutions, communities, and systems in our country then speaking in shorthanded absolutes is rarely helpful.
However, this is really hard in our political culture. We rely on shortcuts to the point of them becoming identities. This is a major contributor to the current polarization of our political discourse. We have turned guiding principles into absolutes and become prisoners to our own frameworks. We have to break out of this prison we have built for ourselves. Specificity in support and critique is one of the most radical political actions one can take in this election cycle.
So if you think Bernie has terrible ideas? Great. Tell me why. If Donald Trump scares the hell out of you? Have at it. Convince me without echoing his hysteria. In a haze of ideology, platitudes, and coded language choosing to engage on a different rhetorical register is a giant step towards healthier political community.