Some might say becoming a political independent during the age of Trump is poorly timed.
I doubt there’s a good or bad time.
But why now? Why become a political independent during the Presidency of Donald Trump, and during one of the most divisive times in political memory? Let me tell you a little bit about my political evolution over the years.
My interest in politics actually started quite young, sometime in middle school. Between those prepubescent years and now, I have held nearly every single political position in the political spectrum.
“That’s not impressive, everyone has their politics change as they get older.” True, but when I say my politics have been all over the spectrum, I mean I have been a paleoconservative, a progressive liberal, a libertarian, a technocratic utopian, a radical environmentalist, a centrist, and a dozen different flavors of socialism – not in that order, or with smooth transitions between positions.
The only thing I haven’t been is a fascist or an authoritarian communist – I plan on keeping it that way.
One thing that’s become clear: all conventional wisdom of how a person’s political beliefs are supposed to develop has utterly failed me. Conventional wisdom I’ve been told through my life holds that you’re supposed to start off really liberal, and then get more conservative as you get older. Winston Churchill (and a dozen other political thinkers) supposedly said that “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”
Meanwhile (in broad terms) I started off in right wing politics, became a libertarian, entered left wing politics, and then came around more toward the political center. Maybe that puts me right on track to being an adult conservative, but for all I know I’m going to shift gears and become a Trotskyist. No, I don’t think that’s likely.
Why have I held so many political positions? I’ve been reflecting on this, and there are a lot of reasons – the process of growing older, learning more about history, encountering more ideas and thinkers, all of which are pretty normal reasons people point to in their political development. Aside from those, I think there’s a larger reason that’s stayed constant through my life.
Meeting Like-Minded People (Or Not)
Looking back, my life has been defined by realizations that the people around me that I think are like-minded don’t actually share my beliefs… or understand them very differently than I do.
I’ll meet someone, and we share a common goal or ideal. While talking to them, I’ll bring up what I think is a related goal, or a goal that comes from the same principle… only for them to start insulting me, accusing me of derailing, or not being a true [political position].
Or maybe I’ll be around friends who share my ideals, and I’ll make a seemingly simple suggestion or uncontroversial statement, maybe related to our shared politics, but maybe not. Suddenly they’ll start accusing me of everything under the sun, of secretly holding dozens of other possible views and traits based on that one suggestion… none of which are true.
Or worst of all: I’ll be talking to someone where we agree about how serious a social or political problem is, and they have a solution in mind. Hearing their solution, and noting some of the potential problems with it, I’ll suggest an alternative that lacks these issues. Maybe I disagree with the solution, maybe I just want all options on the table. Rather than discuss which solution is better, this person will declare me their enemy, despite knowing I agree about how serious the problem is.
When that happens it’s hard not to conclude: they care just as much (if not more) about that particular solution as they do about solving the problem – or worse, they don’t care if the problem gets solved! They’re just justifying the “solution” that benefits them most, regardless of whether it helps or harms anyone else.
The charitable explanation for all of these cases is that I simply misunderstood their views, and I lacked the social intelligence to know that ahead of time. The less charitable explanation is that I’m more open-minded than average (but everyone says that), and I’ll mix views and principles in ways that make sense to me and no one else. Or maybe if two people talk for long enough they’ll find something to disagree about, and I need to learn to deal with that.
I suspect it’s a mixture of all of the above.
Note that I’m not naming any particular issue or group: whether I thought of myself as left wing or right wing at the time, no matter what social identity I had taken on, these kinds of events would keep happening with “like-minded” people.
“Okay, what does this have to do with becoming a political independent?”
Over the course of reflecting on these cases – of realizing that the people around me don’t share my ideals – I’ve realized that I’ve never actually fully settled in any political position. By the time I had ever declared myself to be one thing, I was already transitioning to something else, even if I didn’t fully realize it. But the people around me did. The “like-minded” people around me, fully settled into their views, sounded the alarm over and over again that I had political principles they did not, concerns they did not, and potential solutions they did not.
Looking back on my political development, it’s become clear that my ability to predict my own future beliefs is nonexistent. If you had told me about any of my future political beliefs at any point, I wouldn’t have believed you! Maybe that’s true of everyone… and if so, I believe I need to embrace that fact. I could be wildly wrong about many things (or even everything) right now, and I would have no idea.
Here’s a thought experiment I’ve been thinking about recently: If a time portal opened up, and out stepped the older and wiser version of you from the future… wouldn’t you want to know their beliefs? Wouldn’t you want to question them about how their beliefs differ from yours, if at all?
I know I would. If the older and wiser version of me believes something, that’s evidence (but not certain evidence) that’s the better belief to have.
Meeting the older and wiser you is impossible – but opening yourself up to the factors that will make you wiser, and rejecting those that make becoming wiser harder, are definitely possible.
If I want my views to shift towards the beliefs of the older and wiser version of myself, then I need to be radically open-minded. I need to open myself to all possible political positions, all possible political beliefs, and all possible political priorities.
But haven’t you already done that? You said you’ve held nearly every political position on the spectrum. True. But the difference is that if you pointed to any point in my political development, and asked me if I was open to going towards a past or future point in my development, I would have said no. If I’m going to be radically open-minded, I need to honestly consider the idea that I might become a conservative, or a liberal, or a communist, or a libertarian, and yes, even a fascist (fat chance of that).
If I’m going to be radically open-minded, my first and foremost political priority needs to be towards finding truth. Scientific truth, historical truth, personal truth, and every other kind of truth. If a force prevents me or anyone else from understanding the truth – whether by design, in the case of censorship and coercion, or whether by effect, in the case of political allegiance and social unpopularity – that force is something I need to reject. Or worse, if a force puts me in a position where I feel like I have to lie, I need to reject that force. Especially now, in a time where in my country, partisanship is at the highest anyone can remember it reaching. To my eye, more and more priority is being placed on declaring your allegiance, rather than on understanding truth.
If something is true, it is a part of reality, and not understanding it will only hurt me and the people that surround me. If something is true, I want and need to believe it, no matter what that fact is. My first and foremost political priority is creating a world where I can pursue truth, understand the truth, and publicly discuss or declare what I honestly believe to be true.
I want to be in a position where if someone states something to be true, and I don’t believe that’s true, I can honestly and openly state what I believe is true instead. If they demand that I stop, I can’t – it’s not personal, it’s strictly business. The same goes for if someone makes an ethical argument, where I don’t believe that’s ethical.
If I believe I have access to the truth in ways that others do not, I want to live in world where I can openly share and persuade others of the truth. Especially if I believe that not understanding that truth actively harms me or the people around me – in a case like that, it would be unethical to not persuade others of the truth, to try and avoid the negative consequences of people acting based on an understanding of reality that doesn’t match reality.
This is a hard path. It’s become clear over the years that for most people, their political views aren’t a collection of logical arguments they’ve brought together into a unified whole. Their political views are deeply personal, an intimate reflection of their personality traits, personal history, religious/metaphysical views, who they are friends with, and certain traumatic or life-changing events. Telling someone that one of their views is wrong, especially when it’s based on any of these deeply personal things, never gets a good reaction. But it’s not personal. It’s business.
So there I am. I’m declaring myself a political independent. Not because I’m about to #WalkAway from my political party, or because my views have radically shifted between this month and last month. I’m becoming a political independent because it has become clear that I can’t predict my future views, and if I want to pursue the truth in its unadulterated form I cannot let political allegiance or unpopularity stop me. I need to be free to form my own political views, craft my own political priorities, and pursue my own political objectives without external forces stopping me from doing so.
But what about other people? You talk a lot about creating a world where you can pursue truth and say what you believe freely, but what happens to everyone else? How are your other political objectives going to affect other people? What principles are you going to use to determine which effects are acceptable or not?
Those are all good questions to ask. I even have a few answers in mind… in another essay.