Whether it be the concept of good and evil, the bipolar world order of the past century, or the very syntax of a “yes” or “no,” human psychology gravitates toward the binary, seeking to simplify complex ideas as much as possible. Given how the structure of American politics exacerbates bias, it’s not surprising that American political thought reflects these trends to an extreme degree.
As society increasingly views political identity as absolute and self-defining, tribalistic instinct has taken the wheel, and both sides are digging their trenches deep. When engaging with American politics in the present era, the easiest way to relate to your audience is to classify a given idea as left or right with regard to political alignment, and the reason is obvious—it’s simple, easily comprehensible, and requires minimal follow-on thought for the average American to digest. But what often evades our consideration is the incredible nuance and complexity behind these terms that we toss around so frivolously. As you dive deeper into the political theory undergirding these descriptive tools (or lack thereof), you quickly realize that these instruments are actually quite blunt—they offer little more than simplification for the overburdened mind of the average American. Amidst a political landscape that is stubbornly committed to black-and-whites, the need for gray is becoming more and more urgent.
Influenced by flawed mindsets, obsessively partisan goals of government, and an unspoken commitment to preserving ignorance, the current structure of the American socio-political landscape is wholly inconducive to critical thinking. The boundless potential of human political thought is repeatedly stuffed into a two-dimensional spectrum that rewards complacency, discourages intellectual innovation, and perpetuates a simplistic, binary view of politics, and more broadly, life itself.
The results speak for themselves—Congressional voting patterns are more polarized than ever before, political discourse has reached absurd levels of hostility, and populism has made a resurgence through our restless quest for moral absolutes. The American voter is trained above all else to further entrench themselves in their own views rather than entertain any other perspective, to the detriment of themselves. Politicians profiteer off of the resulting hostility and intolerance, signaling to their constituents that baseless contempt is preferable to capitulation, even when facing otherwise indisputable truth. A politician has no room for a change of opinion, given that they would be abandoned by their constituents at a moment’s notice.
Given this architecture, it’s no surprise that running as an independent in any American election is essentially a death sentence. Those with beliefs that aren’t prepackaged and sold as either Republican or Democrat are nonetheless forced to acquiesce with one or the other. Binary political allegiance is the only path to meaningful influence. While some argue that having two major parties grants a more aggregately influential platform to minority ideologies that would otherwise be unsuccessful, the intellectual health and diversity of the multi-party system becomes more and more attractive with every contemptuous Tweet or brainwashed rant.
Unsurprisingly, the vast expanse of political theory isn’t constrained to the context of the American political system. Fully considering the multifaceted nature of political ideology reveals how incredibly short American politics comes to being comprehensive in its descriptive capability. Confusion, convergence, and contradiction abound in the devices we use daily to communicate ideology. For example, authoritarian regimes are often described as far-right and typically associated with fascism and nationalism. Yet many a dictatorship has been hallmarked by massive state control over every aspect of life, from healthcare to the means of production, which would be considered a socialist, left-wing concept in American politics. This is just one example of the inadequacy of a two-dimensional model of political theory, which continuously fails to consider plurality, incorporate more abstract ideology, and synthesize traditionally antithetical ideas. At its most basic level, political theory resembles a kaleidoscope more than a thermometer.
In the famous work, The Republic, Socrates observes that objective truth is often incompatible with government. His reasoning is hinged on the assumption that the philosophers in society—those who pursue truth and justice, are to become “philosopher kings,” or the ideal kind of ruler, because they are the only individual who can be trusted to rule well. Uninfluenced by self-interest and motivated only by a relentless desire for objective truth, these individuals embody what it means to rule justly. This explains why Socrates promotes aristocracy and opposes the idea of liberal democracy. Democracy, according to him, assumes that everyone in a society has the knowledge and wisdom to make educated political decisions. Everyone in a democratic regime is essentially their own “philosopher king.” While this approach presents some problematic implications, it does seek to highlight the worthwhile imperative of altruistic virtue—the kind of virtue that is lacking in a binary system. As long as massive profits accompany politics, Socrates might observe, politicians and voters cannot be trusted as sincere and responsible pursuers of truth.
As American democracy fights for its life against both unprecedented and familiar demons, I find my optimism frequently stalled by this seemingly incurable condition. What if we weren’t a slave to the intellectual biases the American system perpetuates so heavily? What if we could overcome the crippling self-interest that has plagued American politics for so long? How can we challenge decades of ignorant tradition and incentivize empathy and critical thought? While some of our intolerant tendencies can certainly be attributed to the trends embedded in us by systemic governmental processes, the ultimate responsibility to uncover truth is squarely on our shoulders.
In order to revitalize the health of our precious democracy, every sphere of American society needs to undergo a reckoning with what we believe to be true, re-engaging with the practices of dialectics, empathy, and genuinely unbiased research. In a nation that is tattered and torn by conflict, yet loaded with untapped potential, truth is now all that exists between us and the oblivion of autocratic thinking. Our embrace of it will ultimately determine whether we betray our founding virtues or draw closer to them.