Free to Think

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The Liberty to Think

Do we have freedom of political thought in America? Your first reaction may be, “Of course! What a silly question!”

But do we? Or is it possible that our thinking has become narrowed by the choices from which we’re forced to select?

That’s a pretty bold accusation. And one that might make an intelligent American bristle. Obviously politicians can’t tell us what to believe or how to think! We form our own conclusions, thank you very much. Are we supposed to believe that our political system has the ability to actually alter our thought process?

Let us consider.

Our desire to identify with a political group that shares our world view is natural. We feel comfortable surrounding ourselves with those who think like us and understand our points of view. But the problem with a firm alliance to one group is that we may find ourselves pigeon-holed into a certain way of thinking without even realizing it.

Loyally identifying with a single political party stifles us in numerous ways:


  •        We recognize that stereotypes aren’t accurate within our own group, but we’re still inclined to generalize about our adversaries.

We tend to classify ourselves and our rivals with oversimplifications. Compassionate people are Democrats, responsible people are Republicans: choose one.

But people who identify with the Republican Party will read this and say, “Wait a minute! I’m compassionate too!” Democrats will think, “Of course I’m responsible!” While we may be willing to assign negative stereotypes to other groups, we recognize that those labels are preposterous when relating to ourselves.


  •        To remain loyal to our party we overly simplify issues instead of giving ample consideration to points from both sides.

Issues aren’t black and white and neither are solutions. We often reflexively discount ideas that don’t come from our own party. Loyal Democrats may dismiss any accusations of labor union corruption because they believe it’s their party’s position to support unions. Staunch Republicans may reject any discussion of crony capitalism, because they feel it’s their job to support business.

But if we don’t permit ourselves to consider the elements of truth in both liberal and conservative viewpoints, we’re not thinking for ourselves.


  •        We justify and rationalize when it’s our guy.

Being loyal to one political party leads us to rely on party affiliation rather than evaluate all politicians equivalently and unbiasedly. Conservatives complain heatedly when Democrats raise the deficit, but must be understanding when Republicans do exactly the same thing. When foreign prisoners languish at Guantanamo Bay under George Bush, Democrats can claim it’s an assault on American values. Yet when Barack Obama continues the same practice, they must feel there is good reason.


  •     We’re forced to lump together several unrelated issues.

If we’re fiscally conservative, we must also be in favor of a large global military presence. We must be against abortion. If we believe in freedom of marriage, we must be against school choice. We must believe that the federal government needs to play a dominant role in the economy.


  •     We may feel politically homeless, unable to embrace either party’s platform.

If we’re not willing to lump unrelated issues together we have nowhere to go. But where do we fit in if we believe that one should be free to marry who he chooses and be free from massive government debt? If we want to eradicate police brutality and question the national healthcare plan? If we want to rein in the abuses of big business and big government?


  •        We fail to recognize that the labels don’t really fit the political parties.

“Liberal” once meant “tolerant of all views.” But if one doesn’t support the government’s powers to redistribute our wealth or if he questions the efficacy of the welfare system, then he is apt to find the liberal party doesn’t tolerate his views very well. “Conservative” once meant “restrained, cautious and moderate.” But today’s conservative party is not restrained when it comes to imposing their own morality upon us. Neither are they typically cautious or moderate in their foreign policy.


  •        We simply rely on our party’s reputation rather than impartially evaluating its actions.

Democrats think of themselves as the anti-war party. Republicans consider themselves the small-government party. We see little protest from loyal party members when these reputations are not upheld.


People are drawn to choosing sides. Our two-party system thrives on rivalry. Politicians often pit American against American, rich vs. poor, black vs. white, liberal vs. conservative. But those over-simplified rivalries just keep us from focusing on the real issues. “Us” and ‘them” are all in this together.

A Pew Report found that combined, “consistent liberals” and “consistent conservatives” make up only 20% of Americans. Yet, unsurprisingly, these are the people most likely to run for office and initiate political discussion. This exaggerates political polarization and limits opportunities for open-minded dialogue between the rest of us. We’ve allowed the fervent minority to drive us into one of two ideological camps, or to become disenchanted and disengaged from politics altogether.

We may never be able to convince solidly loyal party members to have an open mind. But the other 80% of us need to think for ourselves.


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Do we have freedom of political thought?

Do we have freedom of political thought in America? Your first reaction may be, ‘Of course! What a silly question!’

But do we? Or has our thinking become narrowed by the limited choices presented to us?

If you’re like me, you’re discouraged by an ever-expanding chasm between left wing and right wing thinking.

You don’t always agree with your party’s politicians or with certain portions of your party’s platform, but don’t speak out about them. Endorsing the lesser of two evils seems to be the only alternative.

Perhaps you even feel politically homeless, unable to embrace either party as your own.

You see the problems in America escalating with no solution in sight. You may have even begun to think voting is a waste of time.

The good news is that most Americans would agree on one thing: that our American way of life is worth fighting for.

In the United States we’re given a left vs. right choice that theoretically makes up the entire range of political opinion. But it doesn’t. Instead we are funneled into two-dimensional thinking that eliminates a whole spectrum of thought.

Instead of focusing on whether ‘our’ side is correct on particular issues, perhaps it’s time to examine the failings of our two-party system as a whole. While we’ve been occupied with topics of the moment such as “fiscal cliffs,” gun control and abortion, we’ve lost sight of some of the basic problems that mar our system.

Perhaps the problem isn’t that people have become too liberal or too conservative. After all, our nation was conceived in the name of freedom. The laws of our land were designed to allow us all to enjoy our own manner of living and our own ways of thinking, as long as we hurt no others.

So why have our differences in lifestyle become more problematic than ever before? Why so much animosity today?

Because when government becomes the arbiter of morality, and is given the task of solving all society’s problems, they must encroach on our lives, whether it’s in our bedroom, in our pocketbook, or in our pursuit of happiness. Our differences become more than a disagreement. They become a fight for our way of life.

As this series will illustrate, when government focuses on a strictly limited agenda that curtails the political power of bureaucrats, big business and special interests, while enforcing personal liberty, tolerance and justice for all, many of the issues that seem to have become unsolvable suddenly become quite clear.

Once, “liberal” meant open-minded. “Conservative” meant restrained. Despite the rhetoric, we must recognize that neither of our political parties are truly either of these things today.

Freedom of thought gives us a greater ability to look at both parties critically. When Americans stop feeling compelled to strictly defend one platform or another, we have the ability to support messages that make sense whether they come from either party, or neither of them. Political candidates can then feel less afraid about being autonomous, and can assert independence from rigid party dogma.

To discern why government seems to be failing us in so many ways, we must take a giant step outside partisan biases and look at the big picture. We need to be scrupulously impartial, logical and consistent in our arguments. It’s harder than we think.

We get the message from multiple sources that we should be fearful of freedom. But perhaps what we should fear more is a government which, by focusing on partisan priorities, is eroding our civil liberties from both the left and the right.

If you believe that you already consider political issues with an open mind, this series will test that conclusion.

Please chime in!