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Our broken yardstick of politics

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Deputy Opinion Editor

APRIL 26, 2023

I grew up in a predominantly Democratic suburb just outside of Los Angeles. 

The town of 20,000 people kept to themselves, and I remember the most animated issue in the local newspaper was intense fights over the closure of a pickleball court. The town was not foaming at the mouth with radical thoughts, and just voted Democrat down the ballot for the previous 20 years. 

When I became more invested in politics during the 2018 midterm elections, 15-year-old me inherited my immigrant parents’ Republican leanings. For the most part, my parents resented Donald Trump, but still maintained a mostly conservative outlook on politics. 

Back then, we used to have late-night barbecues in our tiny cul-de-sac with Democrats, Republicans and politically indifferent friends. My parents also attended PTA meetings and chaperoned field trips with people they vehemently disagreed with on politics. They had healthy friendships with all of them and mailed them Christmas cards during the winter break. 

For me, I was a lone McCain-esque Republican in a rising tide of Clintonian Democrats. Like my parents, my teenage and politically unaware self got along with those who disagreed with me. In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, our merry band of nerdy high schoolers debated on the sloping, grassy hills of the outside lunch area with as much intensity as the members of the British parliament. At the time, we probably couldn’t tell you what Congress did or who the vice president was, but we certainly argued with the confidence and arrogance of those who also call themselves political experts. 

The conversation was not always civil or serious, but it was entertaining and slightly constructive to see a bunch of future STEM majors rail against each other for supporting the capital gains tax. 

When I neared high school graduation, I became more moderate and accepting of some Democratic ideas. Joining the Los Angeles Times High School Insider, I wrote articles advocating for nuclear energy implementation, passing gun control policies and abolishing the death penalty — views that would make for an awkward Thanksgiving dinner with my family.  

I harshly criticized both Donald Trump and Joe Biden, moving away from the Republican party while still remaining immensely skeptical of the Democrats as well. 

When I transferred to UC Berkeley, I befriended unabashed and self-described socialists that lambaste capitalism daily. I was familiar with strong disagreements with good friends, but this time, the opposition was from more knowledgeable people that also obsess over political science. 

Again, the conversation never maintained a serious tone. I affectionately call my socialist friends “the best arguments against socialism” to their faces. However, I find myself in a peculiar situation of actually considering the merits of an economic system my parents fervently rejected, and, therefore, I did when I was a teenager. 

In so many media spaces or even just dinner tables, I find that political discussions are now gross. Our conversations are not a battle of ideas but a butting of heads over politicians and the venial maneuvering of both parties. The national conversation on politics is spearheaded by talking heads who are not fountains of political theory but instigators of vicious, narrow-minded alienation. 

However, as nauseating as that is, I believe there is something more interesting about political science that goes well beyond the everlasting feud between the parties. 

By every measure, political science is not an established, rooted study with a periodic table of identifiable discoveries. Humanity’s approach to political systems is ever-evolving through painstaking trial and error — culminating in very few concepts the entire political science community can collectively agree on, even after thousands of years of studying government. Therefore, political science is a reactionary and malleable field that must be led by those with the wisdom to doubt their preconceptions. 

In reality, the best way to understand politics is to realize how little we know about it.

At the end of the day, I crafted this column because I wanted to express a clear medium between the two sides of an argument without nestling in the comfortable camps of political parties. However, I don’t want to be misconstrued such that validation solely comes from centrism. The merits of an argument are not dependent on their relative position to the political center or its arguer. Sometimes, the situation calls for the restraint of centralism; other times, the dire moment needs a daring strike of radicalism. 

Yet, the big takeaway from all of this is that the evolution of political theory stems from a willingness to hear opposing arguments. We may not advance beyond the current conversation if we frolic around in an echo chamber of reaffirmed slogans or if we put on noise-canceling headphones when there is a riot outside. 

For all of my interest in politics, I still have much to learn and process, and so does every American. We should not be so hasty to smother opposing arguments with the blanket of accused prejudice. On the other hand, we shouldn’t fall asleep on the soft pillow of lasting tradition. 

There is a medium to the enduring clash between the old and new guard of American politics, and hopefully, we discover it. 

Ethan Kim writes the Wednesday column on measuring the medium of the two political sides in a marketplace of ideas. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

SEPTEMBER 12, 2023