Something that I've been thinking about recently is a person's political and social values and how that correlates to who they are as a person. More specifically, I've been reflecting upon the fact that some people seem to be able to make genuine and even close friendships with folks who lie on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
I've been given several explanations as to how this works and most of them have the similar themes: even though we disagree on politics, I know that if I ever needed him/her as a friend, they would always have my back; politics are separate from who they are as a person; and well, I don't really care about politics, so it doesn't really matter. I listen to these explanations and I realize where the disconnect for me happens. We differ on whether or not we consider the political personal.
During this past election I was sitting around with a group of people and one of the women related how her son's engagement was broken off over a debate over the presidential candidates. In an off-handed comment, his fiancee commented that she planned on voting for McCain because she agreed with McCain's financial philosophy. After some debate she wouldn't budge and he eventually broke it off. When pressed for an explanation as to what happened, he summed it up, “The way I see it, her vote was telling me that deep down, she was just a selfish bitch.” (personally, I couldn't help but wonder how he could have proposed without knowing that she was a republican...)
Do a person's politics reflect who they are as a person or not? Is the political personal? Is the personal political?
The marriage of the words “personal” and “political” traces back to 1969 in an essay by Carol Hanisch, “The Personal is Political.” The essay, inarguably part of the not only the canon of feminist writings, but also the larger social justice movement, is a response to the criticism that
“consciousness-raising was just therapy and questioned whether... [it] was really political... They could sometimes admit that women were oppressed (but only by 'the system') and said that we should have equal... 'rights.' But they belittled us no [sic] end for trying to bring our so-called 'personal problems' into the political arena – especially 'all those body issues' like sex, appearance, and abortion. Our demands that men share the housework and childcare were likewise deemed a personal problem between a woman and her individual man.”
Hanisch's point that the “personal is political” seems like such common sense these days that those criticisms seem shockingly unsophisticated.
But what still seems up for debate is if the “political is personal.” For me, it unquestionably is. Maybe it's just a personality trait. Political psychologists have coined the term Personal Political Salience (PPS). From a recent psych article:
“PPS can be defined as the propensity to internalize as central to one's self-definition, engagement with political events, issues, or ideologies. PPS is more than simple interest in following politics or holding political opinions; the centrality of politics to self-determination implies a deeper emotional investment in issues and events or those related to one's own group membership; rather, PPS describes a more generalized personality disposition to attribute personal meaning and/or emotional significance to political issues. Thus, for high scorers on PPS, engagement with political issues is a self-relevant domain.”
For those of us activists who have spent hours pondering the question, “how do we get people to care?” this makes total sense. (That's not to say we should be fatalistic about what can motivate people to get involved. I'm just saying, this helps explain some of the disconnect.)
Though most of the papers that study PPS don't print their explicit schema for measuring this trait, the brief summaries in the text of the studies suggest that there is bias towards a strong American identity. While I'm not sure how I'd actually score on their schemas, something still tells me that I have this personality trait. You can only cry for "the state of the world” so many times before you begin to suspect that you might take these things more personally than the average person. While some don't even blink an eye at the Harvard “final club” tradition, when I discovered their existence I had a panic attack and nearly vommed all over my friend's balcony. I guess I'm just sensitive.
In the end, I just can't divorce the political from the personal. Maybe it's because my politics are so strongly informed by my own values as a person. The same values that cause me to appreciate loyalty, kindness, honesty, and respect in my friendships inform my votes and my political causes. I can't help but draw the connection between politics and the daily lives of all creatures. So when someone says to me that “even though we disagree on politics, I know that if I ever needed him/her as a friend, they would always have my back,” I think, voting “yes” on Proposition 8 – the gay marriage ban – in California was “not having my back;” supporting a politician who doesn't believe in social benefits is equivalent to walking by an injured neighbor and not stopping to get help; and not giving any thought to financial priorities that the US government, a government that we all support financially and democratically, has is like giving a child a gun while at the same time forbidding them to go to school.