Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Do Political Parties Define Our Lives?

Regular readers of this blog (all three of you) know that I've railed against the tendency for people in general, and Americans in particular, to sort themselves into arbitrary tribes. I long ago included a "Tribalism" label for posts on the subject, and I haven't been shy about using it. Anyone can click that link at the bottom of this post and see what I've written previously on the subject.

But for all of that, even I was taken aback to run across this set of data today:
Republicans' LIfe Ratings Plunge, Democrats' Improve
The data, coming straight from the Gallup organization, is startling. The questions they're asking here are pretty straightforward:

  • Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?
  • Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. Just your best guess, on which step do you think you will stand in the future, say about five years from now?
Basically, they're asking people how happy they are with their lives right now, and how optimistic they are about the future. And the data - in particular, the first graph at the top of the article - demonstrates clearly that the answers vary a lot depending on your political party affiliation, and tend to move very sharply around election time.

If this is true - and given Gallup's track record, I have no reason to doubt their data - this is cause for very grave concern. Are we so given over to our political tribes that our views of our own lives, taken in total, are determined by which party team we associate with?

It cannot be objectively true that Republicans' lives are suddenly worse than Democrats' just because a Democrat won the Presidential race. For most of us, the "best possible life" for us involves our own personal circumstances, where we live, what our job and career prospects are, how much money we have, how healthy our children are, whether we have supportive and meaningful relationships with family and friends, whether our dog is happy and healthy. None of these things, and a thousand more we could add, are changed one iota by the results of an election.

The ability of the President or the Federal government or any other level of government to affect these things is marginal at best, and even that only over time. Yet based on the Gallup data, the lives of millions of Republicans suddenly got worse in November, and the lives of Democrats suddenly got better.

"Ah," you say. "It isn't about how things are now, it's about their views of the future." That seems to be the case, based on the Gallup data, but here again we're deluding ourselves. How well our own lives are doing in five years will be only tangentially affected by government decisions. That isn't to say that government decisions don't matter at all - but for most of us, their immediate impact on our personal circumstances is pretty minimal. My life is much better today than it was three years ago, a result which has nothing whatsoever to do with who was President then or now.

What this points to is, to me, a bit frightening. Far, far too many Americans have apparently drunk the toxic Kool-aid that political parties have been spooning out over the past couple of decades. We make fun of parties during election years for blasting us with "the world is going to end" and "thousand years of darkness" apocalyptic fantasies. But according to Gallup, a lot of us have apparently been listening to this nonsense.

For our own health and sanity, we need to find a way to detox from this sewage. For a people who pride themselves on "rugged individualism" to impute this much power to the state should be anathema. We may prefer some policies to others, but the range of possible political outcomes is pretty narrow. Our mythical "can do" American spirit should be able to work out its own way whatever the outcome of the policy debates. Our success and happiness should be up to us, not dependent on who wins or loses elections every few years. But we have let the political parties - both of them - poison our minds.

So if you find yourself chronically depressed because your guy didn't win the last election - get over it. If you are boldly confident about your future because your guy won, remember that your future success depends on your efforts, not his. And for all of us, let's take responsibility for our own lives and our own happiness - not as Republicans or as Democrats, but as Americans.

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