Today’s vocabulary word is dualism.
Dualism is a noun for belief systems that allow for only two possibilities. Think “black” and “white” or “right” and “wrong” or “light” and “dark.”
Dualism is evident in the most common conversations about American politics. There are Republicans and there are Democrats, or there are liberals and conservatives, or, in the current presidential nomination contest, establishment and outsider candidates.
Dualistic thinking makes short work of complex political decisions. Skilled wordsmiths (whether politicians, political operatives, reporters or commentators) can quickly distill the issue of the day into a choice between A and B. They also easily can invoke certain essentially preconditioned responses we have to A and to B, making our choice easy.
As soon as we know a little more about a particular political issue, however, it becomes clear that dualistic thinking misses much, distorting our vision of reality and, sadly, prompting us to favor something we might actually be wiser to oppose, or vice versa.
Take, for example, the current situation in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Dualistic thinking fails us immediately because, while the majority of House members are Republicans (so they’re all the same, right?), the majority has had a very difficult time dealing with a variety of issues. That’s because it’s more complicated than just Republicans versus Democrats.
We’ve been hearing about this conflict since 2010, again in dualistic terms. There are the “Establishment” Republicans, and then there are the “outsiders” or “insurgents.” Sometimes these “outsiders” are described as Tea Party conservatives. Sometimes they are described as “hard-line” conservatives.
The Freedom Caucus, a group of roughly 40 House members, carries all of these labels, depending on which story you read. This group’s members also have been said to have contributed substantially to John Boehner’s decision to step down and Kevin McCarthy’s decision not to seek the speakership.
But as the alleged power of this group has been discussed in recent days, the rhetoric of the group itself appears to have changed . . . or, perhaps, it finally has cut through the dualistic media coverage.
So add another label to the Freedom Caucus: they claim to be a group of institutional reformers seeking to reduce the power of the speaker in favor of greater power in the hands of committee chairs and the membership more generally. They are, in a sense, democrats (note the small “d’”, champions of the empowerment of rank-and-file members.
To listen to these reform discussions, one might imagine that it never has had anything to do with right-wing ideology at all.
Of course, this “democratization” of the House might simply be their strategically chosen method of pursuing their ideological goals. The members of the Freedom Caucus have not been able to choose a speaker, nor to force the speaker (at least in the most recent session) to take certain conflicts with the Obama administration to the mat. Reduce the power of the speaker, distribute power more broadly among the members, and they might have a better shot.
The history of the U.S. House, like that of many large legislative bodies, has been a history of ebbing and flowing tides of centralization and decentralization, of stronger hierarchy and of more diffuse power. A battle within the majority party over the distribution of power is nothing new.
Similarly, such battles rarely reflect simple matters of political and organizational theory. Though cloaked in such justifications (and not without cause), reform movements of this sort are also about political advantage and priorities.
So suddenly, instead of seeing the Freedom Caucus as institutional anarchists who neither understand the political process nor care to understand it in their quest for ideological victory, one could see in the Freedom Caucus simply and importantly the latest in a series of membership efforts to redistribute power within the House, and the Republican Party leadership in the House as the group trying to hold onto its power against the insurgents.
Which is a very different take, indeed, on the family feud in the House.
Whatever level of credence one chooses to give to the rhetoric deployed by the rivals here, there is a broader lesson in political observation.
Parties to political combat rarely can be accurately and satisfactorily distinguished by simple, dualistic labels. Political engagements are about more than being more or less conservative (or liberal), more than about who has and who doesn’t have power. Even within the competing factions, there will be different constellations of motives and different political objectives.
Astute observation of politics, whether in the halls of Congress or in city hall, requires us to see conflict from many different vantage points, to resist simple labels, and to seek to understand the range of motivations of our leaders. Only then can we make informed judgments about their performance in office. Only then can we know which paths (there are always multiple paths) tend toward the future we want to see.