Of all the popular clichés in American politics, bipartisanship has to take the gold medal for the difference in its use in speeches and its actual practice in Congress. The truth is, as much as politicians hail bipartisanship and compromise as a political goal, their terms in office usually center around the battle between conflicting ideologies. Universal health care, environmental and economic policy are all examples of issues that were once promised to be solved by working with others “across the aisle,” yet have devolved into the typical fight between liberals and conservatives.

We live with this reality, and for better or worse, must accept the fact that this country will always have large diametrically opposed populations of liberals and conservatives. But what do these terms — liberal and conservative — actually mean?

Never mind the fact that the word “liberal” is derived from libertarianism, a branch of political philosophy that emphasizes personal responsibility, individual rights and small government (now a “conservative” ideal), or that conservatives traditionally have supported a large and strongly structured government in order to maintain the status quo. But what do these words mean now? My impression is that popular politics refer to conservatives as those who like small government, and liberals as those who like it big. Conservatives like low taxes, liberals and liberals who like them high. Conservatives are pro-life, liberals are pro-choice.

I can accept the fundamental differences between these political ideologies, as many of these issues are complex and have strong and legitimate supporting arguments for both sides. I do, however, have a problem with many of the hypocrisies that arise out of these political labels. If Republicans are pro-life, that’s fine. But how can one believe that every life is sacred and endorse capital punishment? Republicans want small government that leaves individuals alone, but push federal legislation opposing gay marriage. Of course, the opposite argument can be made against Democrats. They want to secure personal liberty by legalizing the use of marijuana, but wish to ban smoking on the University campus, city streets and privately owned restaurants.

This list goes on and on, each one of the hypocrisies making me laugh just a little. How and why do individuals support and oppose such similar issues? Obviously the examples I listed are not black and white as they fall into different spheres of politics and economics, but there are still inconsistencies.

It seems problematic to call yourself a conservative but decide the things you don’t want people to have individual responsibility for, such as drug use and military service. What I find even more problematic is an individual who doesn’t pick and choose what they feel is the best choice in their judgment and instead directs every decision by what their strict political ideology tells them to think. There is value in having individuals think for themselves, who make informed and justifiable decisions that have nothing to do with political philosophy or tradition.

Individual thinking ought to be applied more often in politics, eliminating the need for labels. The aformentioned hypocrisies only exist when individuals and politicians cling to these ideologies and label themselves as such.

Many Congressional politicians fall victim to the labels of Republican or Democrat. Their decisions are often based on party lines, turning individual thought into herd behavior. Political party whips are specifically employed to ensure that no one in their party will think and vote differently. Is this the bipartisanship that our leaders in Washington promised us?

The only way to effectively trudge through our extensive list of political problems is too abandon our way of labeling people and politicians, and instead focus on individual arguments that are not biased by what color their state is. This may be difficult, as party organization is powerful and stable, but as voters we can and should pick and choose politicians who act genuinely and individually.

Max Levenstein can be reached at medl@umich.edu.

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