Who the Hell Are We, Anyway?: Identity and the Failure of Partisan Politics

Republican.

Democrat.

For a second, pretend those terms don’t exist. How do you categorize the American voter?

When we call someone a “Republican” or “Democrat,” we’re implying that they adhere to a well-defined group of values. So-and-so is a Republican; she must be in favor of low-regulation economics, tax breaks for the rich, and traditional “Christian” social values. Someone else is a Democrat; he’s in support of high taxes, LGBT rights, and expanded welfare programs.

Let’s take social issues. If you’ve lived in the US of A for any amount of time, you probably just thought of abortion or LGBT rights. These are easy “partisan” issues. Republicans are against abortions and gay people getting married; Democrats are totally okay with both. So if we sort people by their positions on that, we should get a more or less Republican-Democrat division, right?

The numbers look promising: according to PEW Research Center, we have a 57/40 split of people who are completely for or completely against abortion’s legality, respectively. For same-sex marriage, the approval/opposition ratio is 62/32. When we sort these people back into parties, however, something interesting happens: the numbers don’t add up. Only 65 percent of Republicans are against legal abortion, and 25 percent of Democrats are. Forty percent of Republicans favor same-sex marriage, and 27 percent of Democrats aren’t entirely in favor. For lack of a better way of putting it, people on both sides of the aisle are on each side of many different aisles, and the same people don’t always end up working together.

So maybe these stats aren’t that surprising. People don’t always agree with everything that their party stands for. That’s just the nature of political parties: their platform groups general attitudes that a demographic for the most part holds in common, allowing the party to rally behind a candidate that supports the identity of the party.

The problem here is obvious: the phrase “for the most part.” Inevitably, no one is going to have a set of opinions that lines up precisely with the platform of their party of choice. People are individuals; that’s just kind of how people work. On the individual scale, this isn’t a huge deal, of course. One person rarely has a measurable impact on party identity. Revolutions begin when a minority group has an idea that something established is not right, and they gather enough support to make life difficult for the majority. An often-cited example is the Tea Party, formed after the 2008 election, and the far-right groups such as the Freedom Caucus that have held Republican agendas hostage time and time again — most notably during this year’s health care debacle.

Like most things, this issue of identity was highlighted during the 2016 election cycle and its fallout. Plenty of people have pointed out that last year’s election was a battle over identity, over the very heart and soul of America. The driving force behind this past election cycle, though, wasn’t a battle over our country’s identity; rather, it was a battle over how American citizens were represented. The façade of fighting for national identity was, in large part, a front for the deep internal struggles faced by both parties.

Again, the numbers tell the story: over the course of the election cycle, both candidates for president faced historic lows in approval ratings, with plenty of intra-party discontent. Hillary Clinton struggled to unify a base that was disillusioned by a primary cycle that many felt to be arcane and biased towards Clinton, the “establishment candidate,” as opposed to Bernie Sanders, the flashy outsider candidate with promises of holding the Democratic party to a higher standard of progressivism. While Donald Trump emerged from the GOP primaries far less damaged than his opponent, much of his appeal was that he was viewed as an outsider candidate who wouldn’t be swayed by the establishment.

Out of this anti-establishment sentiment in both parties came the morass of discontent that produced the 2016 presidential election. On the left, we had the Democratic party, with many demanding progressive positions and distrust of the leading candidate because of perceived shiftiness of character. What’s more, young voters saw her as so firmly entrenched in the cogs of government that she seemed to be a cog herself. On the right, a candidate took the lead riddled with moral quandaries: racism both overt and subtle, admission of sexual assault, and constant, unrepentant lying. And why? Because disenfranchised conservatives of all walks of life had found someone who was willing and able to shake up the system that they felt had left them behind. The dull WASPs that the GOP sought to appoint as their candidate didn’t stand a chance. They were the old guard of their party, and couldn’t live up to the phantasmagoric performance of the big-talking tycoon who gave the party a fresh identity. Gone was “political correctness” — in its place was a new boldness to say what was meant and mean what was said. Overnight, the GOP became the party of “shaking up Washington,” “draining the swamp,” and the like.

So this, then, is where we are: a modern-day America where partisan politics are failing and crises of identity abound. People don’t feel like their parties represent them anymore, and the future of both parties hangs in the balance. But this whole mess leaves us as Americans with a huge problem — or more precisely, a question:

Who the hell are we, anyway?

Our issue today, as has been said time and again, is action. That, of course raises another question: Nothing I’ve said in this whole article is news. So why did I write it? That answer lies in the identity not of our country, but of parties and people. We need to act not to change our country directly, but to define the parties that represent us. The Democratic party needs to decide how progressive it should be. Does it leap forward to the future, or does it take smaller steps towards a goal for further generations? The GOP faces similar issues. How does the party shun the identity of discriminatory conservatism that Trump has inevitably saddled on every Republican?  How does the party make progress while staying true to itself, even while struggling to define what it stands for?

So as this school year starts, I’m going to ask you to do one thing: think about what your party means to you. Don’t think in terms of candidates. Don’t look up a party platform, or what anyone else stands for. Go ahead and label yourself now. You’re a Democrat. You’re a Republican. It’s up to you to decide what that means. It’s up to you and everyone else who claims your party as their own to decide what that means. Find out what your party means to you. Find out where that lines up with what it means to everyone else. And then, maybe if you can find a group of ideals that everyone for the most part agrees on, you could have yourself a political party again.