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The binary mentality will keep driving Americans apart

“Do you support Trump?”

That was the subject line of a survey I received by email the other day. More than the subject line, it was the entire survey. Do you support Trump, yes or no?

I sat staring at the email for a few minutes, wondering what in the world such a question even means. Support him in what? In what way? Is any action on my part necessary to qualify as “support,” or is it purely a state of mind?

Maybe I’m overthinking it. Obviously the question refers to Trump’s policies, his administrative goals. A reasonable person should be able to say whether he supports those, right? But here again, we run into the same problem. Trump’s policies are not monolithic. They are not even ideologically consistent. Unless you actually work for the Trump administration, how can any thinking person just check a box for “agree” or “disagree”, when doing so covers such a vast array of often contradictory positions?

If you are generally conservative, there’s a good chance you will agree with Trump’s stated goals of cutting taxes and reducing regulations. You might agree with his stated position on immigration, and you might even support his economically illiterate stance on international trade. If you are generally liberal, you might agree with his previously stated support for universal health care or his desire for increased domestic spending on things like infrastructure or the space program.

As a libertarian, many of Trump’s position horrify me, but not all of them. I want lower taxes and fewer regulations. I want to fire as many government bureaucrats as possible, and if Trump follows through with his promises, I’ll support him in those areas, while still resisting him on the many areas of policy where I disagree with him.

I deleted the survey without responding to it; I didn’t know how to respond even if I had wanted to. But it stuck with me. Something about those four words gnawed at my subconscious. Worse than any ordinary spam email, there was something deeper going on here.

It was not merely the fact that the question is poorly worded, poorly thought out, and reductionist in the extreme. It is also reflective of a troubling tendency in our society to classify people into binary camps. You’re either for Trump, or you’re against him. You’re on the Left, or you’re on the Right. You’re friend or foe.

It’s an understandable human trait to organize things into convenient, easy-to-understand categories, but when applied to complex social or political questions, this kind of thinking does a lot of harm. Life is not as simple as we like to make it out to be, and not everyone who disagrees with you on immigration is going to disagree with you on everything else. Not everyone who has a different perspective on global warming is your enemy.

Libertarians should understand this well, given our common ground with both the Left and the Right, as well as our disagreements with them. We should understand that we can work with the Left on civil liberties, while at the same time working with the right on fiscal responsibility, even if neither group shares our ultimately goal of a dramatically reduced government. Unfortunately, we are not immune to dualistic thinking ourselves, as the popular epithet “statist,” hurled with venom at anyone deemed sufficiently impure, demonstrates.

Surveys like the one I received are doing us a disservice by encouraging us to think of our fellow human beings as “on the other side.” We are invited to disregard all common ground we may share with others, and instead dismiss them as our ideological opponents, even when they only fill that role a small part of the time. We all might make much more progress towards our goals if we directed our efforts to working together when we agree, rather than to identifying and writing off supposed enemies.

One last thing…
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