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It’s not you, it’s your ideology: Can a conservative date a leftist?

| Monday, August 31, 2020

I recently stumbled upon this video of Ben Shapiro’s titled “Can A Conservative Date A Leftist?”

What do you think, ND? Can a conservative date a leftist?

Spoiler alert: Shapiro says no.

Well, hey, you had a good run. Tell her it’s not her, it’s the politically-contingent and reflectively-acquired value commitments to which she is (tragically) beholden.

Actually, I implore you to wait before breaking up if you’re dating across the political aisle. If this post won’t save America, I hope it at least saves your relationship.

Ben’s Argument

Shapiro’s argument in the video is premised on a belief that most of us already hold: Healthy relationships have to be grounded in trust stemming from shared values. Two people’s differing positions along the left-right political spectrum reflect such a deep difference in values that that trust is rendered impossible to achieve. When two people have such an immutable mismatch in core values, they cannot form strong, long-term romantic relationships with one another.

Ben’s argument rests on two widely accepted beliefs that I’m challenging:

  • Political affiliations are essentially summarizable by a left-right spectrum


  • Our place on the so-called “political spectrum” reflects essential and consistently held value commitments of ours.

My Commentary

Much of my evidence will be drawn from this must-read article by BYU Professor Hyrum Lewis, whose commentary on the myth of the left-right political spectrum shows that Shapiro is wrong on both points.

Lewis offers two opposing theories of ideology formation. The first is the essentialist theory, which says that although politics may seem to be made up of many distinct issues, “there’s actually just one big issue … that ties them all together (e.g., change vs. preservation, equality vs. freedom, order vs. liberty, realism vs. idealism, etc.).” Lewis goes on to say, “If politics is unidimensional (about one essential issue), then a unidimensional political spectrum is adequate to represent politics.” On this view, what ties together our positions on apparently disparate issues is the relationship between these issues and the one big, really important, issue. So, when we adopt a political stance, we are really staking out our place on the battleground of political ideology. Being opposed on the “one big issue” makes for a much bigger perceived rift between ideologues than if they saw themselves as opposed on a collection of smaller, disparate, individual issues.

The second theory is the one Lewis claims is more accurately representative of how we interact with ideology: the social theory of ideology. This theory is that distinct political issue positions are only related to one another because they are connected with a symbolic, unifying, tribal identity (“left” or “right”). Lewis says, “If the right-wing team is currently in favor of tax cuts and opposed to abortion, then those who identify with that team will adopt those positions as a matter of social conformity, not because both are expressions of some underlying principle.” He supports this claim with evidence that people are more likely to change their political views to fit the stated views of their political party than other factors.

Basically, our political views usually reflect our socialization within a “tribe” more than they reflect one consistently-applied deep value, as the essentialist theory has it. Within parties and within the distinctions “left” and “right,” there are enormous divisions and ideological contradictions. Crispin Sartwell of The Atlantic writes here, “It’s awfully strange that Rand Paul and John McCain … are generally held to be on the same end of the political spectrum. I’d say they each disagree more profoundly and substantially with the other than either disagrees with Barack Obama, for example.”

To illustrate how some see beyond the unidimensional political spectrum to find common moral principles, I present this video of John McCain interacting with his supporters in a 2008 rally. In the video, a woman takes the mic and says, “I can’t trust Obama … I have read about him, and he’s not … he’s a … he’s an Arab” (My sincere apologies to any of my fellow Arabs for the problematic implication here.)

John McCain shakes his head, takes the mic back and says with conviction, “No ma’am, he’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is about.”

So while individual issues may cause friction between you and your partner, theoretically, being a person who identifies “on the left” doesn’t mean you’re morally and essentially at odds with every person who identifies on the right, or even that you couldn’t marry, date or befriend them successfully.

But we already sort of knew that, right? Lots of families are headed by a pair of parents who disagree politically but who agree in the way of things like religion, culture and upbringing. Friends get along and see one another as wanting the same sorts of things in life despite disagreeing politically on the best ways to achieve those ends.

To conclude, I think Ben Shapiro’s error is one we all have made, if we have ever bought into the essentialist theory. We may have bought into what Lewis calls, “the illusion that our party’s beliefs have an underlying (and righteous) philosophical coherence.” When we erroneously believe people reject our deeply-held values because of “where they fall on the political spectrum,” we are likely to attribute that to a deficiency in their moral character. Like the woman at McCain’s rally, we may feel unable to trust someone on the other side because we question that they could ever have good intentions toward us. Maybe we’ve identified the real culprit behind political polarization and escalation of political animosity in contemporary America: We find it difficult to trust people who we think entirely reject our deeply-held values. The consequences of oversimplifying people to their political affiliation is dangerous, and certainly not worth the damage done by a subsequent mischaracterization of their moral worth.

Renee Yaseen is a junior who majors in International Economics and Arabic. She’s currently on a gap semester doing lots of creative stuff and lots of un-creative stuff. She can be reached via the chat on a shared Google Doc at 3 a.m., on Twitter @ReneeYaseen or by email at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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