Are you someone's type?
On the "political typology" quiz that gives all the wrong answers
Even decent institutions sometimes cave to the pressure to generate buzz by putting clickbait on the Internet, and there's no surer way to get engagement than by promising that people can discover something about their own identities by taking a quiz. The Pew Research Center -- an honorable outfit -- has offered just such a purported window for self-discovery with their political typology quiz.
■ The quiz itself isn't particularly good nor bad; it is, as all such quizzes are, fairly reductionist. The first question asks nothing more than whether the quiz-taker would rather have a "smaller" or "bigger" government. Vast enlightenment does not follow. In its reporting on the use of this instrument to survey a sample of American adults, Pew says it can identify nine "typologies" of American voters, arranged on a conventional left-right spectrum.
■ The problem with bunching people as "Faith and Flag Conservatives" and "Democratic Mainstays" and "Stressed Sideliners" isn't that people are immune to this kind of bunching; it's obvious that American political parties are as coalitional as their European counterparts, with the difference being merely that Americans form coalitions before our general elections rather than after.
■ No, the real problem is that the typologies aren't very illustrative. A far more interesting taxonomy of American politics would survey who among us are "Wilsonian Activists", "Jacksonian Populists", or "Madisonian Federalists".
■ A joke? Not at all. American politics really don't change as much as we think they do. The individual issues may vary with the times, but people tend to align with certain consistent themes: Whether they want an activist government that tells them all of the ills from which it will offer to free them, or a limited government that leaves them free to make their own decisions. Whether they want to cast their lots with the will of a majority, or to stand up for pluralism as a good in and of itself that sometimes trumps a popular vote. Whether they want an America that looks after itself and its own regardless of the world around it, or one that engages with the international community in the interest of buttressing a favorable order in the long run even when it comes at a short-term cost.
■ Politicians and parties change positions, sometimes on a dime. But finding the deeper instincts, predispositions, and beliefs that animate how a person relates to the very idea of politics would actually tell a lot more than whatever this year's passing flavor of "typology" happens to be.
■ Just for example, a pro-trade, limited-government internationalist would have been on the right up until a hot minute ago, but those views hardly square in a coalition with those the Pew survey calls the "Populist Right" and "Faith and Flag Conservatives". "Right" and "left" are not only relative terms, they're so malleable that we can hardly agree upon what "conservative" and "liberal" even mean.
■ It may be a little too easy to slip into seeing everything that happens in America today through the lenses of Alexis de Tocqueville and the Federalist Papers, but they probably have more resonance in describing the "how" and "why" of what many American voters actually think -- even if the voters themselves are not conscious of the influences -- than anything that seeks to reduce ideas down to a simplified left-right spectrum.
■ Humans, it turns out, are animated by human nature. And human nature changes far less than the winds of technological progress and current events. It wouldn't hurt us to be more conscious of anchoring our understanding of identities in those things that remain steady, if not permanent, about who we are. Not that useful as clickbait, but far more predictive of behavior in the long run.