I wrote this in about four hours while reflecting on political issues in America. While this does not necessarily discuss urban semiotics or social disorganization, it is relevant as I firmly believe that major problems in our society cannot be resolved until we return to the basics of good governance. I had hoped to develop the role of culture in influencing political affiliations, but I think that has to be developed a bit more.
Sometimes I forget about the larger social structures which can influence civil disorder. For example, the political polarizing of America is often believed to a result of the major political parties and their manipulation of the media to exploit their rhetoric to rally people to their cause. Yet, I believe there is a lot more going on with this polarization, one which each American should become aware of. The fragmentation of America over political ideology is but one symptom of something far more nefarious; we are fragmenting over clashing values and culture. This is largely being accomplished without people even being aware of it.
This essay will discuss the problem of political parties. I view political parties as problematic because they are rooted in ideologies that people are often unaware of. Typically, people affiliate themselves to a party because of either tradition or because they see some matched values between themselves and the party. Either of these reasons can be flawed.
In reality, I argue that many Americans affiliate themselves to a political party due to their cultural upbringing. That’s really not unusual, since culture tends to provide us with strategic devices to survive in both the social and the physical world. What has been passed down from generation to generation is a series of known methods that have worked to better strengthen people of that culture. It does not necessarily mean that those devices or methods are the optimal ways to promote their best interests; humans operate rationally, not always optimally.
Political parties are an adventure in the constraining of the people of America. They tend to protect segments of the population while leaving exposed many other people in the process. Many people choose a party almost akin to the process of felons in prison choosing a gang: for protection. Many Americans believe that affiliating with a political party is the only way to get their interests heard. But is this truly the case?
This essay will consider the ways that culture and political affiliation have become intertwined in contemporary society. First, I provide an example of how politicians have exploited culture to maintain power. Second, I consider what happens when cultures are fragmented. Third, I look at George Washington’s Farewell Address in which he warned of the outcomes of political parties. Finally, I discuss what I believe way that the political process was intended by the framers of the Constitution, thereby advocating citizens to maintain independence from political parties. While I am certain many people will disagree with my premise, I only ask that people can at least question why they are affiliated with a political party. Over time, I am sure to re-visit this essay and improve it.
The “Melting Pot” and The Falsehood of Pluralism
Pluralism does not exist in the United States. I realize that this is a heated statement; one which I am sure will lead to much vilification upon me, for many people in the United States love to discuss the so-called “melting pot” and how it leads to greater unity among all the various immigrants, past and present. However, it does not exist; people do not merely “melt” into the prevailing culture. Instead, it takes generations of people before they can assimilate, and even then they may not fully assimilate.
Consider political history and the way that it has rallied people around race and ethnicity. For example, Tammany Hall in New York City politics exploited ethnic enclaves to assure their political power in the 19th century through the 20th century. The Irish remained somewhat secluded, but gained political acumen because they understood that their unity meant better opportunities for themselves. They weren’t worried about the Yanks, Slavs, or other groups in New York City who were in the same conditions as themselves. They surrendered their votes to Tammany Hall in exchange for patronage; Tammany Hall provided these immigrants with a prosperous survival path than had they gone at it alone.
People who advocate pluralism, on the other hand, often suggest that people in the same circumstances will rally together and form a similar mindset. Why didn’t other groups of immigrants succeed as quickly as the Irish did in New York City? Humans really don’t coalesce with others once they understand that the group they are a part of is viewed by the mainstream as “outsiders”. Generally, they will rally around their own group and attempt to gain better positions mostly as a survival strategy, not so that they can become “good Americans.” Looking back on the Golden Age of Immigration, I am compelled to argue this point; people came to America for better opportunity, not necessarily for civic discourse.
What happens when groups begin to successfully gain political acumen and better resources for themselves? In 1924, one of the most strict and racist immigration laws was put in place, restoring a balance in which white protestant peoples had a higher likelihood of immigrating to America; those from southern and eastern Europe were severely restricted as were Asians. For many Americans, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, southern and eastern Europeans represented peoples who were not white and did not fit the “Yankee” template. Plus, many of these immigrants were believed to be bringing anti-American ideas regarding government from their homelands, such as socialism and communism.
Yet, over time, things changed and some groups who were once viewed as non-white became seen as white in American society. The clearest example of a “melting pot” emerged out of the Depression of the 1930s and World War II. Douglas Massey (1995) argued that a kind of social pause occurred (“breathing space” as he called it) as a result of these three conditions (immigrations laws, the depression, and the war). Even so, just under a few layers, elements of ethnicity could easily be seen. For example, it was not uncommon for soldiers to use ethnic slurs against one another when they first met, or even in heated moments (this is well-portrayed, for example, in several episodes of the mini-series Band of Brothers. In one scene, while the troops were traveling on boat to England, Bill Guarnere describes some of the officers in the company along religious and ethnic lines, commenting that Captain Sobel was a “son of Abraham”; a Jew. This infuriates Liebgott, a Jew, who then fights Guarnere).
African Americans and Latinos who endured the same conditions as these other groups did not fare as well in the post war era. In fact, as the Depression worsened, many Latinos (some of whom were natural citizens) were sent south of the border because it was believed by Americans that they were taking up jobs that “good” Americans needed. African Americans were not permitted to serve in fighting units in the service branches and remained in segregated units.
So, while some groups were able to coalesce, others remained in the “outgroup,” chiefly the result of a systematic process that was promoted by the government. For example, the government created the Home Owners’ Loan Company (HOLC) through the National Housing Act of 1934, which was designed to assist people to improve their homes or to gain access to mortgages on homes. The Federal Home Loan Bank asked the HOLC to evaluate 239 cities and create “residential security maps” to develop protocols by which banks could use to determine whether homes or areas in which were located met the government criteria. Maps were created based upon assumptions about the community rather than on the ability of the blocks to be a viable investment. The maps consisted of color-coded lines and houses which were in areas that were “red-lined” could not receive government assistance. Generally, these areas included houses that were of old stock, run down, or had any Jews or African Americans residing in them. In the post-war era, ethically questionable practices emerged among some realtors who used “blockbusting” as a means to move people from older, well-preserved neighborhoods to suburbs where newer homes were being built. This practice exploited the people who most desperately wanted to own homes, but had to endure terror on two fronts. On one front, the white Americans who wanted to preserve the integrity of their neighborhood knew that all it took was one African-American to drive down the value of their homes. The second front was the exploitative practices conducted by home lenders, whereby high interest or floating interest rates could suddenly impact the loan. The African Americans who bought their homes – many of whom merely wanted to live in better housing than they had available to them – put so much of their income into their payments, so much so they could not conduct house repairs. Later, the jobs that they felt secure about suddenly abandoned the cities, leaving them with a loss of income and ultimately a loss of income. Thus, middle-class white Americans who left for the suburbs left to better housing and took the jobs with them. The cities lost their tax base and home values plummeted, while cities attempted to correct the course by increasing taxes on businesses, which prompted businesses to head to suburbs where taxation was lower. Lower-class Americans thus remained in the cities, entrenched with debt and decay, and the response by many white Americans has been “why don’t they just move out of the city?”
I illustrate this for one simple reason: this country has always been divided between in-groups and out-groups, and it has been done at all levels of society. It has occurred at the neighborhood level. It has occurred at the city level. And it has occurred at the national level. Specifically, structures at these various levels have been able to manipulate various groups to either position them for better or for worse. It all depends on whether you are a part of the mainstream or not. This has had severe consequences for many different groups of people, not the least of which has led to the formation of various cultures.
The Production of Multiple Cultures
In a fictional story that I have been writing on and off for about a year, the protagonist, a survivor of the Civil War, reflects on what he perceives as the main cause of the war. His belief is that, despite all of the rhetoric concerning slavery or states’ rights, he thought what caused the war was a lacking of a common American culture. He reflects upon the great empires of the past, such as Rome, and (at times erroneously) believes that a common culture helped unite the citizens. Thus, he argues that to fix the country so that it never encounters a civil war again is to produce a truly American culture.
Today, we see various cultures existing simultaneously in the country. This is easily manifested by the many variations of the American dialect in different regions (for example, consider which parts of the country refer to soda as “pop”, “soda”, “soda-pop”, “coke” etc. In fact, many southerners, particularly from the southeast, refer to all soda as coke, perhaps due to the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia).
What exactly is culture? Culture is composed of complex rule-like structures which influence strategic use of the environment to negotiate it as well as to attain desired resources and outcomes (Bourdieu 1990). In this view, people use culture in strategic decision-making (DiMaggio 1997). But culture is also salient; it can constrain people limiting the shaping of strategies to meet desired resources or ends (Bourdieu 1990; Gramsci 1990). This is due to how one’s culture impacts ones schemata – representations of knowledge and information-processing mechanisms – in simplifying cognition by biasing thought (DiMaggio 1997). With this view in mind, one may be able to understand the implications for areas which have their own cultural identities, especially when their expression differs from other cultures in the city.
If multiple cultures exist in an area, then people will use different strategies to meet desired ends. This is often the root of many cultural clashes between different groups of people. Consider also that Americans value attaining the so-called “American Dream”, basically attaining wealth and expressing it to show success. There are varied paths by which one may achieve this goal depending on one’s cultural background. For example, Poles in the late 19th century made significant sacrifices to become homeowners and to expand their homes on the south side of Milwaukee. They often resided in dirt basements and rented out their small cottages to pay their mortgages. This had a significant impact upon their health, and they were largely dependent on their employment (a recession could have dire impacts on families in these families). Yet, to become land owners (something they could do in the former Poland) and home owners was such a significant sign of success that they were willing to make sacrifices. On the other hand, Yankees viewed these sacrifices as lower class and unique only to the Polish immigrant, even though the Polish immigrants were attempting to attain the same status as their Yankee counterparts. Accordingly, the late criminologist Robert Merton (1968) suggested that some criminal behavior occurs because of the pressure of society to achieve success; different strategies, including criminal activity, may be employed to achieve the American Dream.
Bearing this in mind – varied cultures use different means to attain different ends – one can see how varying strategies can eventually lead to balkanization of groups. Not surprisingly, I take the view that we have so many views which are seen through varying cultural lenses, that in fact we have very strident political views which are, oddly, not so fragmented. Instead, what I think is happening is that many people have learned political views via their culture. So, what does that portend?
Left versus Right
George Washington’s farewell address was written to the “People of the United States” and was originally under preparation in 1792 when he was finishing his first term as president. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, concerned about growing divisions by people aligning themselves as Federalists and others as Democratic-Republicans, convinced the President that he should run for another term, which he did and won. Thus, in 1796, Alexander Hamilton assisted the President in writing his address.
In paragraphs 20-25, he presented a stern warning on the creation of political parties. One of the most important parts of this speech is as follows:
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”
George Washington makes two major points in this passage. First, factions rip apart the liberty of America; we cannot achieve the things that we should be achieving because everything will be rooted in emotion, especially revenge. If one party gets a foothold and later loses it, the victorious party will rip apart anything that was done previously not for the good of the Republic, but rather, simply for revenge. Secondly, political parties, by coalescing people, become too powerful and they are the antithesis of what the founders were trying to accomplish at the advent of the Republic. Statespersons should be elected on their own merits, decided by the people, and not by political parties and the outside agents who influence the decisions of who may run as representatives of those parties.
Another point that George Washington makes concerns how parties can weaken the American resolve:
“[The actions of parties] agitates that Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.” (Paragraph 24)
Parties can, thus, create hegemony by which they will maintain their power base. And if that is not enough to evoke concern, he argues that foreign influence could penetrate the government via political parties.
Looking back at this document, Washington’s address certainly brings some rather poignant points to light. Perhaps one thing that he and Thomas Jefferson would not have seen, though, was how parties achieved their own culture and have rooted themselves into ideology. In fact, the idea that citizens would vote a straight party line on any voter card would probably have been an inconceivable notion; they would have thought that citizens (the term citizen was initially severely restricted to landowners) would have been taken the time to conduct their homework on who they were to vote for.
Many people today surrender to political parties. When you ask a common citizen how many political parties there are today, they generally state two: GOP and Democrats. If you name other people who are not in those two political parties, the common citizen will say that they have never heard of that candidate. This is what worries me more about the future of our country: our citizens don’t know who they are voting for!
Onward the Republic
I occasionally ask this question of my students in sociology classes that I teach: “Which document has the word ‘Democracy’ written in it? Is it the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the State Constitution?” Often, students will say all three or, at the very least, the US Constitution. The correct answer? None of them.
This is a quandary for many students, and I suspect for many people in general. We often hear our leaders espouse the virtues of democracy. Some of our greatest speeches include the word democracy. And yet, it is a word that is omitted from our most important documents. Why?
True democracy failed in ancient Greece, and democracy would not work in our nation today. In fact, had we set up a democracy instead of what we have today, I would argue that the United States would look quite different. The reason? True democracy yields mob rule. If every citizen had equal say and equal vote, it would be arduous to even complete a vote, much less attempt to create any legislation to vote on. Many voices would become lost as the majority would always get its way. Democracy also has a greater preponderance to corruption as it moves too slowly to resolve problems.
Consider this dynamic and then consider this at a broader level. You work in an office and the office has been tasked with completing a major project and the office works using a democratic form of organization. Suppose the deadline for completing the project is three days. The project is intricate and will require a significant amount of hours of work to coordinate the work as well as complete it. Everyone in the office has an equal say and the project cannot get started until everyone is able to meet and discuss how to complete the project. Several hours pass before everyone meets, perhaps even a half day. Once everyone meets, the project must then be discussed and analyzed and it has to be agreed upon by the majority that the work will be doled out. Yet, suppose also that the minority does not agree with the work that has been meted out or the direction of the project; they have a more efficient way to complete the project. The majority – all of whom know each other better and have a history of working together – disagree with the minority and a vote is take and the majority wins. The project is completed, but it is not efficient nor did it reach its full potential. The minority’s voice was silenced, as will always be in a democracy.
Democracy equates to mob rule in which the minority loses its voice. This is why the tyrants were able to attain power in the Greek city-states. And it was something that was discussed at great lengths by the authors of the so-called Federalist Papers as well as the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Ultimately, what was developed was a representative form of government: a republic. A representative form of government allows people to have an equal say in government. Regarding the former example, consider the office project again. Instead of a democratic arrangement, there is a representative organization or workers (which is typically how offices are arranged anyway!). Each representative has an equal say in how the work is to be completed, thus all possibilities are examined and can move far more efficiently than awaiting a democratic vote. The decision to proceed is based on consensus and not by mob rule. Eventually, the work that is produced is done smarter, quicker and allows for a great deal of innovation.
The republic is strained, however, by two overarching problems, in my opinion, and they may not have been considered at the writing of the Constitution. Problem one: the main dilemma of government is dealing with infinite demands with finite resources. Problem two: the power of political parties. Let’s consider each of these two issues.
How does the representative form of government contend with infinite demands on public resources when the main tool to resolve the dilemma is consensus? Governments will often develop “mandates” to identify the resolution of problems. This is merely prioritizing problems in society, but it does not necessary resolve problems. Prioritizing problems essentially resorts to mob rule. How can this be? It seems that prioritizing problems can help resolve them systematically, right? The problem lies with the tool that governments use – in fact almost all politicians use – to prioritize problems: public opinion polls.
Why do politicians care about public opinion polls? Because many voters read them, even if they do not participate in the polls. This is a huge conundrum, and it’s one many people probably don’t consider. This issue really is this: public opinion polls cause elected representatives to stray from the voice of their constituents. Rather than listen to the people who live in their jurisdiction, it’s easier to get a read on general issues by reading polls. But not everyone really has access to participate in these polls (regardless of the scientific methods employed, many people’s views are not solicited). And voters should be alarmed by this because, rather than consider your voice, politicians are considering the polls…ergo, my claim that polls are perpetuating mob rule.
Basing the prioritization of public resources on public opinion polls has an additional component to it, which is related to public opinion polls. Politicians are more concerned about resolving issues that can be done in four year increments. That is, they want credit for solving problems so that they can use this as a way to convey their prowess to their constituents when it’s time for re-election. So while major problems abound, some of which may take a decade to resolve, politicians will often target lesser problems that can easily be resolved, often at the beginning of their terms. These are still problems that often register on public opinion polls. So, to gain political capital, the easy path to maintain power is to solve easy problems that can be resolved short-term.
The political party issue is even far more pervasive. Previously, I mentioned that political parties are rooted in ideology, and as such, people tend to surrender to them even though they are not aware of it. Many people align themselves to a specific political party because they have learned to through their culture. That is, families align themselves often based on tradition as opposed to each individual aligning themselves because they have done their own research on the party. Sometimes, people align themselves with a particular party because there are values that the party espouses which are comparable to one’s own values. For example, when I was younger, I aligned myself with the Republican party for several reasons: 1) my parents were Republicans; 2) they supported economic policies which I believed at the time would benefit the nation; 3) they supported strengthening the US military; and 4) they seemed more Christian. Honestly, my views changed over time as I became more educated. I questioned, for example, the viability of the death penalty and the continued war on crime as viable policies espoused by the GOP. I soon realized that my values didn’t match perfectly with GOP or Democrat party values, but I did vote in 2000 the straight ticket GOP. Why? Because of tradition.
If you have selected a party because you have learned to do so culturally, then you may wish to question whether the party actually matches your values. You may be surprised to learn that you will have conflicts with some of your party’s values (or maybe not).
The real issue, though, is that political parties typically make it easier for Americans to get out and vote. Many voters do not wish to take the time to research the candidates, so it is easier to vote if you more or less agree with a party. But what if the party creates a machine that can run roughshod over the constitution? It happens. Wisconsin voters are amazed by the GOP response to gaining power. Some voters are expressing regret at losing collective bargaining rights for public workers, new voter ID laws that are being quickly run, and the stripping away of environmental laws. On the other hand, many people who voted for President Obama have expressed outrage at some of the policies that have been enacted in his administration. But, had voters actually done their homework, they might have understood fully what it was they were voting for.
The key issue with political parties has to do with ideology, and I will state emphatically that the average American is unaware of this issue. It’s one that George Washington warned us about in his farewell address. Ideology, in general, doesn’t have to be a negative. Ideology permits vision, and any leader should have a clear vision of what she or he is planning to implement. But the main issue with political parties is that they have well-developed ideologies, but they rarely express them entirely to the public. Instead, the typical American voter is exposed to vestiges of ideology, often rooted in emotion, via the media. A kind of shock value is attached to political campaigns (especially in commercials) to tap into specific values…therefore, a hegemonic approach is used to attain voters so that the party can gain power and implement its ideology. Fear as a decision-making tool was NOT something that they founders of this nation had foreseen. They honestly believed, in my opinion, that each citizen would vote for candidates based upon their merits.
A representative form of government can only be efficient if each elected official truly represents her or his constituents. Our modern-day government does not do this because, in general, people cannot see through the rhetoric or the ideology that it attached to political parties.
A Call for Independents
It’s an expensive proposition to become an elected official. The major political parties have a foothold with regard to this issue as they have for over a hundred years been able to attain great financial connections. To be able to run on a party ticket assures access to great resources which can facilitate a candidate’s ability to be seen more in public via many networks, not the least of which is the popular media. To run a campaign outside of a party is difficult…but it was the way that government officials were intended to be elected.
I have occasionally made statements to people that being affiliated to a political party is really un-American. I generally acquiesce, though, if the person I am discussing this with has obviously done her or his homework and is satisfied and knowledgeable of their party’s ideology. Otherwise, I typically challenge people on whether it’s necessary to align with a party.
I am probably of a small minority when I state that I advocate the elimination of political parties in the US. This is why I declare myself an independent, politically. It also means that I have to do additional work to consider political candidates. But I truly believe that to be an effective voter each of us should consider each candidate’s merits carefully, and be quite cautious of political ideology that could be lurking behind the candidate’s party affiliation.
Recently, the so-called Tea Party has managed to assist conservatives into getting elected. Their voices seem to shake these elected officials quite a bit, so much so that the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, came out against raising the debt ceiling without making significant cuts. This position was largely influenced by Tea Party activists who claimed he was becoming a “surrenderist” to the normal operations of the political process. Imagine what can be accomplished if, instead of a very loud minority, every constituent could voice her or his opinion and influence the actions of the elected officials. This was, after all, the intended way the political process was supposed to be. Elected representatives bringing the views of their constituents and then working out issues through consensus…that’s what was intended. But that’s not how things have been.
Political parties are influenced by a large array of interests, all of which impacts the direction of a party’s ideology. It’s not just big business, but anyone who wants easy access to the government. Because, you can never convince me otherwise, once you have received a favor (such as an “endorsement” or a “political campaign contribution”) you are going to be expected to return the favor at some point, regardless if it is for the best of your constituents. Thus, if a business wants to build on an environmentally protected area, it may be prone to contribute to a candidate or a party for the purpose of later requesting a change to the area. It’s the way the process works, but it was not supposed to be this way. If you read to George Washington’s Farewell Address, you can see for yourself that he did not expect this as the government was being formed.
It’s far more constructive to be independent of political parties. In order for constituents to really have access to government we have to strip away outside interests and allow government to return back to its main function: to deal with the infinite demands and finite resources and solve the demands based upon consensus. Any other way fails us as a nation.
Why should a future urbanist be concerned with the way that politicians are elected? The answer is quite easy: politicians determine who gain resources who does not. Political ideology can greatly influence decision-making, so much so that I think we as a nation have become inured to it.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990 . “Structures, Habitus, Practices.” In The Logic of Practice, Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 52-65.
DiMaggio, Paul. 1997. “Culture and Cognition.” Annual Review of Sociology, 23, pp. 263-287.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1990. “Culture and Ideological Hegemony.” In Culture and Society: Contemporary Debates, ed. J. Alexander and S. Seidman. New York: Cambridge University Press. Bourdieu, 1990.
Lipsky, Michael. 1980. Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Service. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Massey, Douglas S. 1995. “The New Immigration and Ethnicity in the United States.” Population and Development Review, 21(3): 631-652.
Merton, Robert K. 1968. Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: The Free Press.