Why Emphasizing Less on Political Identity Could Benefit Us All

Written by: Eugene Steuerle

Identity is essential to all of us. I belong to many groups and am proud to live or work with them. Still, I wouldn’t say I like applying group or tribal labels to myself or others. Pinning labels on any of us tends to be limiting and exclusionary while defining no one well.

My visceral reaction comes from my family background. One set of my grandparents was an unusual combination of Jewish and Southern Baptist, the other German-Catholic. My mother was Presbyterian, and my father was Catholic. A Muslim exchange student still calls me “Dad.” Family lore has the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross near the general store run by my Jewish-Southern Baptist grandparents and their children being called Jew-kids in the Catholic school to which their parents sent them because it was the best school in town.

While I was sometimes jealous of my friends who would brag about their Irish or Italian backgrounds, I remember no ethnic identity ever being claimed by members of my family as I grew up. Much later, I concluded that two wars with Germany led the German side of many American families to abandon ethnic identity even before the decline of ethnic neighborhoods. A loving aunt had another way of bragging about our heritage: we descended from ancestors from multiple backgrounds who fled want, lack of freedom, and persecution (perhaps by other of our ancestors) to bring us liberty. I’m a mutt and proud of it.

Even to this day, I hear some Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims claim some level of superior connection to God because of the Eucharist, the Bible or Koran, or a special covenant with God. With my background, however, I always found it ridiculous to claim that some members of my family were automatically more holy or favored by God than others. Sorry if that threatens any of you. The appropriate translation is that we have all been granted special blessings—I don’t deny difference—but those blessings come with an obligation to share them, not some status of superiority.

With that background, it’s not surprising that when I hear people smugly proclaiming their superiority because they adhere to Progressivism or Conservatism, I cringe. There are legitimate progressive and conservative principles that are universal and, in my book, a part of natural law. Among other tenets, progressivity implies that those with more ability to pay must contribute more. After all, don’t parents need to support their children, and don’t those without severe impairments need to contribute more on average in taxes than those less advantaged? Also, equal justice demands treating equally those in equal circumstances.

Conservative principles include recognizing wisdom from the past, the limits of our understanding, and the right to receive the fruits of our labor—the last, a third, legitimate standard of equity that sometimes clashes with progressivity. Our American forebears created a Constitution to provide non-violent ways to compromise among legitimate principles and claims of interest groups, principled or not.

 A few of my readers and friends have accused me at times of being a two-handed, “on the one hand, on the other,” economist. While probably fair in some instances, I try to understand different sides of an issue and often withhold judgment when mine is not called for. I accept dilemmas and complexities that don’t allow for simplistic conclusions.

Political “Isms” or doctrinal systems like communism, socialism, Marxism, Fascism, and even, to some extent, libertarianism tend to degrade individual identity and thinking for oneself. They try to define belief in the proper role of government along some single vector of government control or lack thereof. At first, they seem to provide a simple catechism of answers. Yet their propagandists resemble those who defined the movement of the stars as within a universe with the earth at the center—brilliant at some level in their mastery of layered arguments but ultimately delusional in their blanket conclusions.

Religious adherence to a political party doesn’t involve the same order of intolerance, but it’s still a bit silly. Don’t get me wrong. Of course, one votes for and sometimes works with a political party in elections. Still, a political party is merely an assemblage of diverse interest groups that combine to attain power. It’s not a belief system, much less a coherent one. “I’m not a member of any organized political party; I’m a Democrat,” Will Roger’s quip, can be applied to either party today. Nor do those combined interest groups remain static. The party of Trump is not the party of Reagan or Lincoln. Nor is the party of Biden the party of FDR or Wilson.

Even when elected with a majority of votes, the winning party’s elected officials and political appointees fail to represent a majority of the public since both independents and political opponents post-election are both largely excluded from the elected or appointed seats of power. (More on the dangers of excluding those without strong party affiliation at another time.)

Finally, I don’t feel a need to extol powerful politicians, even when I might agree with them on many matters. Working in Washington for a long time, I’ve met many fine politicians but none finer, and many less so, than members of my extended family and, I’m guessing, yours. OK, the apparatchiks in each party need to play the praise game to gain or retain power. But the appeal to identify with people of power should not allure us more than all the other advertisements bombarding us daily.

Why do I occasionally struggle with identity issues in this column? Much of our modern inability to work together on government policy derives from the need to belong to groups and the fear that those outside our groups disparage our worth. For now, I’m suggesting that maybe a little less stress on our political identity would help us better confront mutual problems and seize joint opportunities. You and I need no better proof than the idiotic campaign solicitations we receive daily. They tell us that we can only identify with the side of justice and patriotism by providing money to their political appeal.

Related: Money’s Role in The Meaning of Life with Daniel Crosby, Ph.D.