Suppose I told you that this same guy despises ritual and thinks little of organized religions, seeing them as little more than a means to hold power over the masses. He’s certainly not a fundamentalist. At the same time, he takes a literal interpretation of Genesis.
Suppose I told you this same guy believes in preserving the natural world and even believes the government has a role to play in protecting the environment. Is he an environmentalist? Suppose I told you this same guy believes global warming is a hoax.
Suppose I told you this guy calls himself a capitalist, believes we have far too many regulations, far too many taxes, and is deeply suspicious of government meddling in the free market. Suppose I told you he is also deeply suspicious of corporations and recognizes we can never have a truly free market with them around.
Suppose I told you this guy believes the death penalty is justifiable in extreme cases, but that just because something is justifiable doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, and that the death penalty is bad policy. When the pollsters call his house asking where he falls on the issue, what does he say? Can we trust polls at all when they only record yes/no answers?
This is a real person.
In his 2007 book, The Political Brain, Doctor Drew Westen claims that most people have complex ambivalence about most issues, and that the Republicans offer only black-and-white so they can offer a principled stance while the Democrats trip over their own nuances. For example, he claims that he himself recognizes that abortion is the taking of a life and not something to be taken casually, but that he still believes in the mother’s right to choose. He points out that many Democrats are against flag-burning and willing to make it illegal, but not to pass a constitutional amendment against it. By framing the debate as an all-or-nothing deal, Republicans make Democrats look unprincipled. Doctor Westen claims the “left” actually represents most people, including the middle, while the “right” is only a radical fringe.
Interestingly, Republicans make much the same claims – except in reverse. While President Bush and the Republicans supported military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, they were content to allow human-rights violations to continue in Sudan, and to work closely with another human-rights violator, China, in diplomacy with North Korea. These were all subtly different situations that needed to be addressed differently, but “the left” used the opportunity to paint Republicans as inconsistent and unprincipled. Rush Limbaugh pointed out on his radio show that Bill Clinton vetoed the partial-birth abortion ban even though most people (even generally pro-choice ones) were for the ban. Also, John Kerry voted against parental consent laws (concerning abortions for minors) even though most people (including generally pro-choice ones) were for parental consent. Limbaugh’s explanations? The “right” represents most people, including the middle, while the “left” is only a radical fringe.
It is my theory that most people are in the middle somewhere and that they do not fall into neat groups at all – and certainly not only two groups (conservative and liberal). Framing the debate this way allows both sides to play us off each other and stay in power while ignoring the real solutions that lie somewhere in between. How someone is classified depends on the questions asked and which side they fall on depends on the frames used.