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Contra Bridget Phetasy, We Should Not Abandon Partisan Politics

(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Given the fact that humans are competitive by nature, how could politics not become some version of a team sport? It is true that hyper-partisanship is not great, but the game is what it is.”

The “politically homeless” people are convinced they have it all figured out. When it comes to politics, both sides are crazy! The Republicans are corrupt, the Democrats have lost their minds, and since there really are not any respectable third-party options—count me out!

It is difficult to blame anyone for feeling this way. Politics has become so hyper-partisan that it all just feels gross. And many never-Trump conservatives are facing a real political identity crisis as they navigate away from the Republican Party. All this might reasonably lead one to ask: If there is an option to step back while the two political extremes fight it out, isn’t that the enlightened thing to do? 

In fact, it is not enlightened at all. At best, the politically homeless movement props up the false notion that it is even possible truly to be an enlightened centrist. At worst, it promotes weaponized political apathy—a form of apathy that not only encourages people to stop participating in the democratic process but makes them feel smug while doing so. 

More to the point, the politically homeless movement willfully ignores anything remotely resembling smart political analysis. Instead, it is largely rooted in social media-friendly “takes” that are either beside the point or easily refutable. 

The term “politically homeless” first appeared as a blip in online search data around 2005. Since then, it never really took off (e.g., see it compared to the term “centrist,” which has actually risen in recent years). Aside from appearing in the occasional op-ed, it barely exists outside the commentariat on Twitter and YouTube. The closest thing we have to a manifesto is Bridget Phetasy’s article in Spectator USA, “The battle cry of the politically homeless.”

I appreciate Phetasy’s work and often get a kick out of her “Dumpster Fire” channel, which humorously mocks the “craziness” across the political spectrum. Calling out hypocrisy is a valuable American pastime; I support it all the way, especially when it is entertaining. However, her manifesto in Spectator USA, much like the banter about political homelessness on Twitter, has virtually no substantive case.

The idea that “both parties demand totalitarian-like devotion” is not just a straw man of the two-party system; it is a straw man of the political binary represented on social media.

Since August, 2019, Phetasy has had this quotation from her article pinned to the top of her Twitter feed: “Both parties demand totalitarian-like devotion to their ideology and if you’re indifferent, apathetic or nuanced in your approach to politics, you’ll end up in the wasteland of the center—tribeless, unprotected and increasingly insulated.”

This quotation (and the rest of her article) represents the mindset of a person who has spent too much time on social media. In the real world, this statement is flatly, objectively false. Any number of political statistics could disprove her thesis; here is one data point from Pew in 2020: “conservatives and moderates continue to make up about half of Democratic voters (51%).” If one were to take Phetasy’s argument at face value, one would think all Democratic voters were unhinged leftists trolling Twitter to cancel people over the smallest social infraction. In fact, most Democrats do not even consider themselves to be liberal!

The idea that “both parties demand totalitarian-like devotion” is not just a straw man of the two-party system; it is a straw man of the political binary represented on social media. Even the most extreme characters on Twitter regularly voice nuance on a wide range of issues. Just as one example, at the moment of this writing, leftist political commentator Jimmy Dore is trending for this tweet: “I interviewed a member of the Boogaloo Boys, I was completely floored when he said he is: pro LGBTQ, pro Black Lives Matter, anti police brutality, anti racism, anti ICE, anti war.”

Perhaps this Boogaloo Boy’s admission of leftist views is a unique situation, but social media constantly presents Democrats and Republicans each holding non-party-line viewpoints. Even if it were true that the political binary on Twitter demanded totalitarian-like devotion, only about 13% of adults on Twitter engage in commentary about national politics. In no way, shape, or form do these people represent the true face of the American people.

I would not deny that there are instances of “totalitarian-like devotion” on certain hot-button issues, especially during moments of political or social unrest. And I similarly would not deny that cancel culture is a problem (for both the Left and the Right). Also, it is clear that both the Left and the Right have established lame purity tests associated with a number of specific issues. But recognizing all of this should not serve as the foundation for one’s political identity, even one’s “politically homeless” identity. Rather, it seems much more reasonable to recognize these issues, criticize them, and then move on to discussing more substantive issues.

Running up to the 2020 election, we heard Phetasy and others in the ever-proud politically homeless camp talk a lot about then-candidate Joe Biden’s cognitive state. However, these figures provided very little—if any—commentary on his tax policies. Or his prison reform policies. Or his drug reform policies. Or his immigration policies. Or his trade policies. It is almost as though the people who have abandoned the business of choosing a side have done so out of sheer ignorance about issues that actually matter—issues that will impact millions of people’s lives irrespective of a President Biden’s exact cognitive prowess. Or, if they are not ignorant of these issues, I can only assume they have not taken a moment to balance the importance of these issues against the negative emotions they feel toward each party’s obnoxious fringes.

Keeping with the theme that “both parties demand totalitarian-like devotion,” Phetasy ultimately arrives at this ominous conclusion: “Democracy doesn’t die in the darkness; it dies when politics become team sports, in full view of a bloodthirsty, cheering electorate.” Again, Phetasy makes many valid points in her article, but this conclusion is simply, objectively false. Democracy does, indeed, die in darkness—i.e., no democracy can reasonably function without a robust fourth estate shedding light on the political system. This is literally how democracies fall: when dictators silence the press. 

And the idea that democracy dies “when politics become team sports” I find equally not true. A healthy democracy has two sides: people who want to create new ways forward (liberals) and people who want to conserve the current ways of doing things (conservatives). Given the fact that humans are competitive by nature, how could politics not become some version of a team sport? It is true that hyper-partisanship is not great, but the game is what it is. 

In his song “There Is a War,” Leonard Cohen sings of the war between the rich and poor, the Left and Right, the odd and the even. There is even a war “between those who say that there is a war, and those who say that there isn’t.” But Cohen does not make this observation in order to encourage people to give up and drop out of the fray. Rather—and this is my plea to Phetasy’s “exhausted majority”—Cohen entreats us to “come on back to the war; it’s just beginning!”.

Peter Clarke is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. 

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