Binary thinking endangers US politics

There are two kinds of people, the old joke runs: people who think there are two kinds of people, and people who don’t think there are two kinds of people.

Most seem to think there are two kinds of people. Conservative or liberal. Student or faculty. Faculty or administration. Employee or employer. Player or hater.

We’re constantly cutting the body of society in two and saying, “You get that half, but I get this half. And, by the way, my half is great and yours sucks.”

Maybe this is hard-wired in our brains. That’s a very trendy school of thought these days. It all goes back to the hunter-gatherer period, some people say, when conservatives were killing mastodons with rolled up copies of the National Review, but liberals were inventing community by texting each other on stone tablets.

Maybe. There’s some interesting work being done that suggests that people who identify as conservatives or liberals are motivated by different inborn emotional responses, (

But, personally, I’m suspicious of binary alternatives. Some things are just true or false. Sometimes you have to turn right or left. Sometimes you have to go up or down. But more often there’s a third way, a fourth way, a plenitude of ways to understand the world that binary thinking misses.

Say you’re driving on a road and you believed you always had to go right or left at an intersection. You’d be missing a couple of obvious alternatives: straight ahead, or maybe flipping a u-turn and going back the way you came. If all you care about is following a preconceived rule (“Right or left! It’s always right or left!”), then there’s no problem. But if you are using the road to get somewhere, this is a bad way to think about roads.

Even worse would be if you said to yourself, “There are two kinds of people: left-turn people and right-turn people. I’m a right turn person! I always turn right, because ‘right’ means ‘correct’!” People like that would never get anywhere; they’d spend their lives driving around the same four sides of a square.

That would be stupid.

And yet, that’s how many people organize their political thought: right or left, this group or that group.

If the only way politics matters is to provide people groups to join, so that they can celebrate themselves and vilify others, then this isn’t a problem.

But if politics is like a road, if it’s a means to an end and not an end in itself, this is a terrible way to think about politics.

A policy is based on premises that are true or false. It has effects which are fair or unfair. These values (truth and fairness) are real, in a way that nametags like “conservative” or “liberal” can never be real.

Say our right-turn person is travelling along the edge of a cliff. He comes to a turn in the road where he has to turn left, or go straight or turn right and fall off the cliff.

The law of gravity doesn’t care if he is a right-turn person or a left-turn person. The law of gravity doesn’t care what reasons he has for falling off the edge of the cliff. The law of gravity will smash him on the rocks below the cliff and that will be that. When a left-turn person comes along the road in the opposite direction, and falls off the cliff rather than take a right turn, the law of gravity will smash him with equal enthusiasm.

This is an election year, and Ohio is a purple state — the kind of state that determines the course of a national election. All year long people will be screaming at us, telling us about left and right, left and right.

That binary thinking doesn’t matter. The questions we should be asking are: is this person telling the truth, based on the ascertainable facts, or not? Is the policy they are proposing (or denouncing) fair or unfair?

We can use politics like a road, to get where we want to go. But not if we can’t bring ourselves to look left as well as right.

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