photo by Danny Huizinga
“Republicans are evil,” my wife’s cousin said to me during a recent get-together. She knows I am a Republican, and she made no exception for my benefit, yet I did not take offense.
I knew she did not mean to say that I am personally evil. Notwithstanding my party registration, voting habits and published writing, I don’t think she considers me a real Republican. Republicans, as she put it later in the conversation, “want America to be a Christian nation,” by which she meant they want to impose a set of religious and social views that differ from hers.
I am a socially liberal Republican. I have favored same-sex marriage for over 20 years. (It was in my first book, published in 1994.) I support liberal abortion laws. My background is Jewish, though I think the late Sen. Jesse Helms, who was the sort of Republican my cousin pictures when she thinks of Republicans, would have called me a “secular humanist.”
If I allowed my social views to drive my political affiliation, I would probably belong to another party, or to none at all. But my views are aligned pretty well with the GOP’s across a broad range of bread-and-butter topics including tax policy, the scope and role of government, business regulation, education and the judiciary. My relative does not agree with me in most of those areas either, but she does not classify my positions on such topics as evil. Many of her fellow Democrats might disagree.
Neither party is especially popular right now, which is why an unusually large share of Americans call themselves independents. That does not mean they are true political vagabonds, however. As Bloomberg recently reported, we can classify people according to what they do rather than according to what they say - and if we look at how people actually vote or contribute money, we find that many so-called independents are just Democrats and Republicans who choose not to apply those labels to themselves. This is what is called “implicit identity.”
Perhaps because my views on social and economic issues cross typical party lines, I made the opposite choice: I want to publicly affiliate with the Republicans because if there were more Republicans like me, the party’s social views would more closely reflect mine. Plus, it forces those who demonize Republicans but who don’t actually despise me as an individual to reconcile their conflicting emotions. Easy shortcut: Just decide that I’m evil too, and move on.
My conversation with my wife’s cousin moved on, to a law recently signed by Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. She and her husband found it outrageous that under the new law, Michigan welfare recipients would be required to submit to drug testing if they were suspected of drug abuse.
It was not an issue I had followed, so I asked a few questions. Would a positive drug test result in loss of benefits, or just a requirement to obtain treatment? (The answer: just a requirement to obtain treatment and to submit to follow-up testing, or suffer six months’ loss of eligibility. Also, the new law is just a pilot program to be implemented in three counties.) Doesn’t it make sense to provide someone with treatment if drug abuse might otherwise impair their job prospects? Since welfare benefits are time-limited, shouldn’t we use that time to try to identify and address underlying problems?
My questions came from a typical Republican point of view. My relatives did not object to my reasoning, and they certainly did not think my questions were evil. They were simply convinced that the law was an attempt to target and hurt poor communities - the sort of things they figured Republicans would do, because Republicans are evil. Except for me, maybe.
In 1979, social psychologist Henri Tajfel posited the social identity theory, which holds that we draw pride and self-esteem from the groups with which we identify. We can belong to many such groups, ranging from nationalities to political parties to sports team fans.
To bolster our good feelings from belonging to a group, we distinguish our group from the “others,” and we tend to denigrate and demonize those others once we identify them. Tajfel had a sorrowful personal history that triggered his interest in this phenomenon. He was born Hersz Mordche into a Polish Jewish family that was wiped out, except for him, in the Holocaust. Mordche who had been studying in France when war broke out, joined the French armed forces and was captured by the Germans. He then claimed French nationality (which was actually granted in 1946; he later took British citizenship). Though he did not hide his Jewish origins, he survived the war in prisoner of war camps.
Social identity theory helps explain all sorts of prejudice, including the prejudice that leads someone who considers herself a proponent of tolerance to label all Republicans evil. As we have seen in many contexts, including the rapid development of same-sex marriage, one of the best ways to break down prejudice against a group is to introduce yourself as a member of the group. It is easy to be prejudiced against unknown “others;” it is much harder when the object of contempt is your co-worker or your mail carrier or your attorney. Or your cousin’s spouse.
So I continue my non-political campaign of identifying as a Republican. I don’t expect to change many minds or many votes when it comes to public policy, but if I can make people think before they label their neighbors and relatives as evil, I will have accomplished something worthwhile.