On January 21, 2017, I knew that the election season was finally over. I breathed the fresh, clear air of a newly anointed presidential administration, knowing that at last the earth had stabilized on its axis and God was now free to do His will (God’s, that is!) throughout all of creation, unimpeded by malevolent forces in the executive branch of the US federal government.
In the past God was able to use murderous, unbelieving kings to implement His will; but in a modern democracy God has to wait for vote-counters to tell him whether His favorite two-faced paper-pusher will be in charge, or whether He will have to withdraw from the world for four years and hope for the best.
I can only dream of having so much faith in the importance of a US president to believe that he plays a significant role on a celestial level and that I participated in the vast cosmic drama by bravely pushing a button in a voting booth. Even if I believed in the great march of history, I could not believe that it relies on me personally propelling it forward.
I grew up believing that Republicans were wealthy religious bigots and Democrats were communist radicals who started all the wars in the 20th century. Sure, I had also heard the positive case for each, but basically I thought that both sounded ridiculous; and lacking a desire to identify with any particular group, I ended up gravitating to individualists. The earliest inspirational essay I can remember reading was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” probably in the ninth grade.
If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers, — under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. And, of course, so much force is withdrawn from your proper life. But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself. A man must consider what a blindman’s-bluff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side, — the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister? He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation. Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right. Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere. We come to wear one cut of face and figure, and acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine expression.
That pretty well sums up how I see everyone who subscribes to a particular party that they always vote for. Every time the wind blows, their opinions shift to accommodate their party affiliation. They don’t actually own any of the words they say or write — everything is either dictated to them by the appropriate thought-leader, or else it is just the dumb parroting of whatever their favorite crowd is murmuring right now.
Every time I find myself agreeing with the people I like, it makes me nervous, because it means that my mind has hitched itself to my instincts and is ready to run off on its own, without the restraint of reason. Even worse, though, is the anxiety I feel when everyone I speak with agrees with me — that is a sure sign that I am likely to be deceived into believing everything I say. It is disappointing to let opinion fall victim to sentiment; but if a whole chorus is echoing my thoughts, it signifies that I am about to suffer a tragic end.
It doesn’t matter how many times I say I don’t care about political parties, because no one ever believes me. I seem so reasonable and articulate that they have to project their idolatry onto me: They are absolutely certain that if only I read this one article or watch this one video, I will immediately start chirping away and validate all their prejudices for them. Sometimes it’s easy enough to just reassure them that I support their good intentions, and not bother them with my own opinion.
Nevertheless, I have learned over the years how to identify my own perspective — not to submerge it under some bureaucratic policy statement or some empty slogan, but to anchor it to principles. For example, my parents taught me to place supreme importance on education and reading books, but that did not cause me to make public education into a political fetish — it caused me to make learning into a personal fetish. Because I wanted to learn so much, I adored my teachers and I despised all the rowdy, ungrateful, dimwitted children I was imprisoned with in public school buildings. When I read that the brilliant John Stuart Mill had been tutored personally by his own father, I was deeply envious, and I imagined my father teaching me from his science textbooks.
This led me to be sympathetic toward homeschooling, even though my father was at heart a public school teacher. My principles did not include wanting to use legislation, courts, and police to force everyone else to behave exactly the way I wanted them to — that would be an unprincipled political objective, as far as I’m concerned. It is unprincipled not because there may be justification for it only in an authoritarian fantasy world; it is unprincipled because politics translates personal prejudices into policy, and I don’t have a principle of trying to force everyone to be puppets.
However, that kind of principled libertarianism assumes that somehow most of the people in a representative democracy have similar principles, so that such principles will win out in the political realm. I floated along with that illusion for most of my life, and most people would probably say it took me way too long to learn that it was an illusion. It’s obvious that politics has more to do with an intrinsic sense of personal identity and tribalism rather than any ideology or policy, but in the past I would have said that was something trivial, something to be overcome.
No doubt, though, the desire to overcome or avoid group identification is a sign of a psychological disorder. It could be a sort of narcissism, if everyone else’s welfare depended on my good will — but I have never wanted to believe that vanity supersedes duty. It could also be a sort of sociopathy, if I considered everyone else to be a means for me to achieve my ends — but I have tried being a salesman and found that I am so concerned with helping people solve problems that I cannot profit by manipulating them. Another popular sociopathy is business management — but I have seen the sociopathy of executives up close, and it made me physically ill.
It’s more likely that either I have a congenital brain disorder or that I was conditioned by the anarchic lifestyle imposed on families by a military bureaucracy. I don’t quite fit the pattern for either one, but I have found that I identify with people who do fit those patterns far better than I identify with neurotypicals or civilians.