Diagnosing what ails the American republic is a national pastime that has indicted particular culprits such as new technology, economic inequality, and Newt Gingrich. At the risk of adding yet another sky-is-falling tome to this burgeoning literary genre, there is another clear and present danger threatening political discourse. American politics has been afflicted by rampant reductionism, otherwise known as “Labelocracy.”
In many ways, Labelocracy is an intensified form of the scourge of identity politics. It is most clearly revealed when, as Congressman Dan Crenshaw aptly described, one entity labels “someone as an ‘-ist’ who believes in an ‘-ism’” and dismisses their statements, sentiments, and experiences altogether. Identity politics is the assertion of one’s own labels; Labelocracy is the imposition of labels onto another as a means of suffocating debate.
Its practice requires multiple fallacies and logical leaps, not least of which includes assignment of guilt by association. Despite its crudeness, it remains a growing symptom of America’s political dysfunction. The Pew Research Center finds a majority of both Republicans and Democrats cite the opposing party’s harmfulness as a major reason for their political preference. When what we oppose means more than what we favor, it becomes quite easy to reduce the other side into a single-minded force for evil. The polarization that grows stronger each day feeds this process and drags the country deeper into the darkness of rampant reductionism.
A democratic system can only be as effective as the deliberation that is supposed to make it work. When the prevailing political rhetoric is coarse and destructive, so is governance. The reduction of political opponents to mere labels justifies the unending gridlock in Washington. When the other side is filled with “racists” or “socialists,” compromise is reframed as treason and complicity. It pulls us even further away from the already distant middle ground by dehumanizing the “other;” a tactic normally observed in war zones and concentration camps. Labelocracy shifts political debate away from a competition of ideas to the valuation of other people.
As a result of this shift, the policymaking process is short-circuited. When Congress undertook healthcare reform during the Obama administration, the public debate was infested with labels. Obamacare was, and often still is, derided as “socialism,” even though it was very similar to a set of market-based reforms originally implemented by former Republican governor of Massachusetts and presidential nominee Mitt Romney. This does not mean that the Affordable Care Act does not deserve to be criticized, but rather, ideas deserve more scrutiny than merely being categorized and dismissed. Policy problems are rarely simple; as such, their solutions won’t be either.
Unfortunately, the American public is not unlike its ruling class. Labelocracy also rules our everyday life. The nuance of policy debate is reduced to the dichotomy of good-versus-evil, and we find ourselves justifying our own bad behavior on the grounds that the other guy is worse. “We the People” have granted ourselves the license to exclude and estrange our fellow citizen while outlawing any notion of forgiveness. National Review columnist David French observed the trigger-happy willingness of our culture to name and shame those who breach cultural norms. French writes that we live in “a society that’s all too often devoid of mercy — or in which the merciful don’t have nearly the same cultural power as the merciless.” Of course, norms make society work, but we cannot hope to function if we do not offer some form of reconciliation to others who have transgressed. Instead of living by norms for a culture of grace and progress, we live by rules of engagement for an endless culture war.
Perhaps no label has wrought as much salience in the twenty-first century as the designation of “racist.” The belief that someone’s character or intellect is tied to his or her appearance is a serious moral crime. No one in possession of basic self-dignity and morality denies this. Yet, we are often eager to assume another’s guilt without any presumption of innocence. We do not need to hold trials to decide who harbors malicious sentiments, but we do need to take care with such a portentous label. Again, there are hardened hearts with closed minds, but for most of us, there are good hearts with imperfect minds. There cannot be progress without reconciliation and forgiveness.
As a society, we cannot all be racists, and when we overuse certain terms, they become ugly epithets that cheapen the discourse. Waging a war against everyone helps no one. Speaking out for justice is right, but merely making noise is not the same as making a difference. True progress requires a clear sense of values—values which get diminished by overexertion and distraction. By dying on every hill, we hold ourselves back from moving mountains.
It’s hard to deny the harm from the abuse of labels, and it’s even harder to find solutions. Humans will not cease to categorize themselves and others any time soon. Everyone seems to agree extremism is bad, yet everyone has a different idea of who the extremists are. This impasse reveals a critical problem: our culture is more obsessed with calling out “bad” people than properly confronting bad ideas.
The fix must be simultaneously top-down and bottom-up. Our leaders at every level of government must hold themselves to a higher standard of conduct in the public arena. They inherited the mantle of leadership from Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt—they should act like it. This high bar must be enforced by the people. Reality shows may be good entertainment, but they will never be good government. Deliberating policy requires a vital level of intellectual rigor that won’t come on its own. The American public must halt the march of the post-truth movement and restore belief in facts and expertise.
These are not easy steps, and they cannot be signed into law or mandated by executive order. But the response to this challenge is as vital as any other threat, foreign or domestic. The United States may have been built as a nation of laws and a nation of ideas; but above all else, we are a nation, not of labels, but of people. We should start treating each other that way.