It is the role of political labels to blind and to bind. By calling yourself a conservative, libertarian or label of your choice you commit yourself to certain ideals, to certain prejudices and predilections. It provides you not only with a sort of family, a sort of identity, but also allows you to place yourself in the grand history of western ideals, to give you a place in intellectual history.
So it is natural to look back at the history, to see something of yourself reflected there, and to pick sides, and then, defining ourselves as the sort of person who would become a Montagnard, or Girondist, an Optimate or Populare, we start to identify with them, to defend them, to rationalise on their behalf. And if the temptation can be transmitted over millenia, how much greater is the temptation to map the struggles of the Jacksonian Democrats and the National Republicans, or Disraeli and Gladstone , onto our own. To subsume the tensions and temporary alliances of our current coalitions into merely the latest instantiation of an ancient and eternal struggle. There is a not inconsiderable weight of genetic evidence supporting this thesis. We probably have about the same Haidtian values as our forefathers. And yet.
I generally avoid labelling myself, not out of a disdain for labels, but as a temporary disavowal of self knowledge. There is no true self, there is no authentic soul, I am only what I do, and I am better at rationalizing than recognizing the patterns of my own behaviour. When I call myself anything I call myself a Tory squish, because while I have only ever voted for a single CPC candidate, it is the party who most often speaks in a language that resonates with me; the virtues of strong family ties, of bourgeois respectability, the Crown, Decentralisation of Social Policy, and Economic Integration, even where the policy is actively counter productive to those ends. And so, reading my History, it is inevitable that I side with the Old Man over Laurier. Yes the National policy was a disaster, but, if I’m honest, I’m a free trader more because my clique is than by intuitive conviction. No doubt if my clique went the other way I would happily join them.
But, once that illusion of eternal conviction is shattered I have to ask. Would my clique really still be my clique in the 1890s? A white, male, suburban, married, catholic, middle class westerner from a conservative leaning profession, my Tory affiliation in 2015 is more cliche than conviction. But all the same demographics that make me a Tory in 2015 would almost certainly make me a Laurier Liberal in 1896. How long could a Catholic sympathise with an inveterate Orangist like Charles Tupper. Would a westerner really vote for his own National Policy exploiters? My Father’s Father was a ethnic Swabian born in Prague, his parents refugees from the Russian civil war and the bolsheviks. How much sympathy would such a person have for my Monarchism really? A non-rural professional is basically the beating demographic heart of 1890s Liberalism, would I really be the exception? My Pluralism and Decentralising impulses are probably a better fit for the Laurier Liberals anyway, and once the switch in your head has been flipped, tribal identity will do the rest.
If I could get in a time machine, with all the same values, morals and upbringing, and go not even very far back, to a society I would still basically recognize, with most of the same institutions and culture, and totally reverse my ideology, in what sense is my ideology even a meaningful expression of eternal values? And if the same values would require a completely different label, why should I find any meaning in the battles of Disraeli, or Tupper, just because we both use the same label?
2 thoughts on “The Peril of Projecting Yourself Back”
I wonder if ideologies aren’t so much positive and negative declarations, but more about creating breathing room for certain underlying ideals and values. You know, “organic” (anything to avoid “authenticity”).
Well values need to be embodied in structures, and a programme is central to that. But most of a programme is contingent on what kind of coalitions sort themselves out. Valence will change with your allies. In the US favouring high marginal taxes is strongly correlated with secularism, and people will come up with grand unifying narratives of why that’s true, but there are plenty of places where the opposite relation holds.