Before you can think clearly about politics, you need to have a clear understanding of your own political beliefs. Most people have a good idea of whether they are conservative or liberal, or perhaps even radical in their politics. That’s easy to know. What’s harder to know is the source of your beliefs. — Why do you believe what you believe? What’s also hard is being clear on the difference between what you believe and what you know about each issue. So the purpose of this page is to give you a clearer understanding of yourself politically, so that you can more easily hear and understand the views of others. Understanding the source of your values and beliefs is one part of critical thinking.
Looking at Yourself
Here are a few questions to help you get an idea of where you stand politically.
1. When you vote, whose interests do you vote? In other words, on whose behalf do you vote? Check all that apply:
__ Your family
__ Members of a group you belong to (such as your union or professional group)
__ Your religion or religious group
__ Your local community
__ Some oppressed group
__ Your business or company
__ Your broader social circle (such as your race, class or gender)
__ The environment
__ The long-term interests of all humanity
__ Other ________________
2. People often label each other as conservative or liberal, but we’ve learned that those labels can be confusing. There are at least two different meanings to conservative, and two different meanings to liberal. One set of meanings is economic; another set of meanings is social.
Generally, someone is economically or “fiscally conservative” when they are for free markets. In other words, they want very little government interference–few laws and rules that help or hurt businesses. Republicans are usually but not always fiscally conservative. On the other hand, someone who wants government to influence the economy, would be economically liberal. Democrats are usually but not always fiscally liberal. By the way, don’t be confused by the way “Libertarian” sounds: Libertarians are usually fiscally conservative, not liberal.
Generally someone is socially liberal if they they are for maximum personal freedom. Democrats are usually socially more liberal. (And here’s where Libertarians are liberal.) But they are socially conservative if they believe that tradition and authority (sometimes religious authority) should be followed. Republicans are usually socially more conservative.
So, economically, which are you, liberal or conservative? ________________
And socially, which are you, liberal or conservative? ________________
3. How would you rate the following as priorities? (Put a 1 for the highest priority, a 2 for the second, etc.)
__ Health care issues
__ National security
__ Jobs/ the Economy
__ Economic Inequality
__ Education issues
__ Foreign affairs
__ Social Justice
__ Promoting Family Values
__ Other ________
4. In each of the following pairs, check the one that most closely describes your view. If you are exactly in between, check both. If neither is close to your views, don’t check either. (Notice that the statements are not mirror images of each other. — That’s okay; this exercise is just to give you a general idea of your views.)
__ Corporations and business owners are greedy.
__ Corporations and business owners make the country strong.
__ America is supposed to be a Christian country.
__ American is a country where people can practice any religion or no religion.
__ Unions are good. They protect workers.
__ Unions make America less competitive. That hurts workers.
__ People are basically good and should be allowed to do what they want within reason. They should be allowed freedoms, as long as they don’t interfere with other’s freedoms.
__ People are basically selfish and irrational. If their behavior is not controlled through laws and authority, they will harm each other.
__ Things are better when action is centralized and occurs at the Federal level. It’s more efficient.
__ Things are better when action happens locally or at the State level. Then programs can be more flexible and better tailored to the local situation.
__ America needs to take an active role internationally — to help other nations and to protect ourselves economically and militarily.
__ America should not try to run the world. We should mind our own business, and let other nations decide their own destinies.
__ The federal government should try to control markets so that inflation and unemployment stay low.
__ The federal government should not try to control markets. Markets should be free, and the government should do other things to reduce unemployment and inflation.
__ Environmentalists are generally unrealistic. The priority is to compete economically, and markets will eventually take care of environmental problems.
__ Environmentalists are very realistic. The priority is our long-term survival, and so employment come second.
__ People should be legally allowed to do what they want sexually, as long as it doesn’t harm or disturb others. That’s what freedom’s about.
__ Much of what people want to do sexually is immoral and selfish. Giving in to it will gradually destroy America. That’s why we need laws about morality.
__ Affirmative action is good. It promotes fairness.
__ Affirmative action is bad. It gives unfair advantage to some people.
__ In general, survival of the fittest is the way things are. We need compete economically and stay on top militarily. Both in this country and around the world, people need to stand on their own two feet. Helping people in need too much just fosters weakness and it depletes our strength. Limited natural resources are the reality in this world. Survival of the fittest is the reality.
__ In general, people need to rise above a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. All religions teach compassion and care of the needy. We are not just animals. Cooperation is better than competition. Cooperation will help us get the most out of limited resources.
5. Now for the tough part: Separating what you believe from what you know. We’re going to ask you to go back to each pair, and try to figure out why you believe something, or have a certain attitude toward something. For instance, do you have facts about all corporate greed or average corporate greed, or is this just the impression that you have from a few news stories that you’ve heard or some movies you’ve seen?
Another example: If you checked off the sentence that says America is a place where people can practice any religion, how do you know that? Is it written down somewhere in the Constitution?
In general, beliefs are fine if they are based on reason and information. The following are good reasons for belief:
– Some principle that applies.
– Reasoning from enough factual information.
– Some precedent that is very similar.
– Some statistical survey or observation.
– Broad and deep personal experience, that’s reflected on with some objectivity.
And here are some weak reasons for belief or having a certain value:
– You picked up the attitude or belief from someone you respect or like.
– You have a very limited experience. (For instance, you met one environmentalist who was flaky, or met one businessman who was greedy, so you just decided they were probably all like that.)
– You read a single article about the subject, and that’s what the author says.
– It’s just a gut reaction or intuition that you have.
– Most of the people in your social group (your workplace, neighborhood, particular worship congregation, or school) have that value or belief.
(Note: sometimes gut reactions and intuition can be very good. For instance, you might a gut feeling that you don’t trust a certain politician. If your intuition has proved correct in the past, you may have reason to trust it. But sometimes gut feelings are wrong. In the example mentioned, perhaps the politician might just resemble someone you didn’t like, or you just don’t like their way of talking. So, sometimes intuition is like instant reasoning: you pick up a pattern all at once, and later you can figure out the reasons. But at other times, intuition can be reacting to something superficial.)
Now, looking back at what you checked off, what are the sources, what are the origins for what you believe about…
Religion in America
Whether or not people are good or bad; and whether or not they need to be controlled through laws.
Action at the federal level versus action at state and local levels
People of other races (Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Whites)
Foreign policy: (Should we be involved or isolationist?)
Making laws about sexual behavior
Competition versus compassion.
If you are honest with yourself…
Most people, if they are honest, will realize that many of their political beliefs have weak foundations. This is to be expected because most people are busy with other things, and few people naturally gravitate to politics. Also, when they are young most people don’t carefully evaluate the political opinions that they take in. This is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it can lead to three great benefits (if you stay honest and open):
First, you’ll be more eager to become a critical thinker and, if you agree with us that politics is important, you’ll pay more attention to other views. Then you will gradually replace opinions and gut-reactions with well-thought-out views.
Second, you will be more open to other people’s arguments and views. They could be right, in whole or in part. On the other hand, it’s the people who are so sure that they are right who can’t listen to others.
Third, if other people do have weak reasons for some of their beliefs, you are likely to be more tolerant and forgiving (since they are like you, but just started out with other opinions.) Perhaps they just adopted the views of their parents or friends, and never really thought about it. A lot of people are like this.