The birthmark: an identity is a difficult thing to change
Just recently I received an e-mail from a thoughtful reader who asked:
For most of my friends, being progressive is part of their identity. Changing their minds requires reevaluating who they are...Why do you think identity is so tied up with political beliefs?
In the post entitled "Beginnings" (part of my "A mind is a difficult thing to change" series), I tried to describe the process of formation of a political identity. A great influence is the political affiliation of a person's family. Although some people certainly break away and forge a different political identity than that of parents and relatives, there is definitely a tendency to stick with whatever is the ideology in which we are raised.
Here is a picture of the identity-forming process as a whole:
Memberships in organizations or collectives that serve as reference groups are typically emphasized as integral to the process of identity formation. These socially based identities provide potential sources of identity for the individual... Most findings suggest that identity is seldom restricted to one group...individuals may have a variety of identities or subidentities, each supported by group memberships.
So, the groups to which we belong--social, ethnic, religious, racial, class, professional, recreational, familial, political--all are pieces in the puzzle that creates our sense of identity. The majority of people are probably most comfortable when they perceive the elements within them as cohesive, and are uncomfortable when they see them as clashing with each other. But all sides--Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, "progressives" and anarchists and libertarians--take on an affiliation which becomes a basic part of personal identity and is consequently often very difficult to give up.
An excellent illustration of this phenomenon is Democrat Zell Miller, who gave a speech nominating G.W. Bush at last year's Republican convention. This earned him the enmity of most of his fellow Democrats, who considered him a traitor to the party.
Many people wondered aloud why Zell Miller had not switched parties in light of his strong alignment with the Republicans and his staunch opposition to the Democrats. A "conservative Democrat" seemed to be a sort of oxymoron.
Miller's answer? That he was born into the Democratic Party and considers his party label to be "like a birthmark"--innate, and difficult to eradicate.
Miller's not the only one who feels that way in his neck of the woods:
"We're a little bit different than the Washington Democrats," said state Rep. Charles F. Jenkins (D-Blairsville), who represents Miller's home county of Towns as well as Rabun, Union and White counties.
Jenkins said he understands why Miller refuses to join the Republican Party.
"You've got people up here who just will not switch from the Democratic Party because they've been Democrats since they were born," Jenkins said. "They're hard-headed mountain people. And hard-headed mountain people don't switch for anybody."
Well, most people are pretty hard-headed in that respect. But it's my impression that liberals may even be more hard-headed than most about changing their political identities.
That's because a liberal political identity tends to be so much more than a political identity--it's also a moral and personal identity. Liberals tend to equate their own position with such abstract (and non-political) qualities as goodness, kindness, lack of bigotry, intelligence--oh, a host of wonderful virtues. Any identity that is so identified is going to be particularly difficult to shed. Do some conservatives feel this way about their identity? Of course. But my impression is that it is a feeling even more basic to the political identities of liberals--at least the ones I know, and I know quite a few.
My sense is that this is one of the main reasons that my attempts to talk to my friends have so often been met with rage: to many of them, my espousing of any conservative causes means 1) I must be a bad (i.e.: selfish, racist, classist) person; and 2) if I ever were to convince them of the rightness of my arguments, they would be faced with leaving the fold, also, and becoming a bad person, too. Much better to let the whole edifice remain in place than to remove one little brick and risk the whole thing toppling down.