We’ve talked a bit about the “conservative” and “liberal” labels, but you might be wondering why they matter. Indeed, why wouldn’t a politician just eschew labels and say “I’ll do what’s best for the country in all situations”? Wouldn’t that be great?
The problem is that politicians have to get elected, and to do so they have to engage in a form of marketing. They have to “position” themselves to voters. When voter sees a politician’s name in a commercial or in the voting booth, that voter needs to think, “Oh yeah, this is the conservative (or liberal)…” followed by “…and this person will (or will not) support the things I think are important.”
Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from mounting a political campaign by saying, “I have no political inclination either way! I’m just smart, and well-intentioned, and I’ll make good decisions!" This sounds great in theory, but the problem is that no one would vote for you.
This is because most voters want simplicity. Life is complicated, so the average American voter wants to categorize things as easily as possible. We like it when things fit into nice little boxes, and when things bleed over the lines, we get annoyed. If we can’t fit something into a box, we tend to not want that thing to exist.
Furthermore, we don’t want a politician to handle just the issues we know about right now. They’re going to be in office for two, four, or six years, so we want to know that they will be able to handle issues in the future in ways that we think are appropriate. These are issues that we don’t know about, and might not even be able to speculate on. We’re trying to put people in office to project our views into the future. The only way to know how to do this is to consider their overall philosophy on governing, and do this, we want to know their label.
Additionally, many American voters categorize themselves. They apply a “conservative” or “liberal” label to themselves, and they want to vote for someone that matches that label. They want to send themselves to Washington, essentially, and they want to do this by voting for someone who thinks the same way they do.
Even better, they want to vote for an entire block of people who match that label. Many voters would simply like to vote for a political party, not an individual candidate, and just sent a whole mess of people to Washington that they believe agree with them more-or-less and will support the issues in the same ways.
There are “straight ticket voters” who simply check all the Republican or Democrat boxes on the ballet without knowing anything about the actual candidates. These voters are voting for a party, or more abstractly, a philosophy they think that party represents.
(Indeed, in many countries, this is how it’s done – you vote for a party, not a person, then the party elects the people who will actually serve.)
It should be obvious by now that political parties are the easiest way for a politician to position themselves. By becoming a Republican or a Democrat, they instantly align themselves with a philosophy, and thus with a huge block of voters. Being the Republican or Democratic candidate can almost guarantee election in some parts of the country. Democrats don’t do well in Texas, and Republicans don’t do well in Chicago because of the demographics of those regions.
This is also why non-aligned candidates (“Independents”) have such a tough time getting elected. Running as an independent automatically gives you an identity crisis with the voters. They don’t know how to categorize you. To understand what philosophy you espouse, they would have to listen to all the different things you say or write, analyze them, and make a decision. Most people don’t want to do this.
I’m not saying that politicians don’t have personal beliefs and philosophies that they use to make decisions. I have no doubt that there are many very principled people in Washington. (For example, I’ve heard from several people I trust that both our senators – Tim Johnson and John Thune – are genuinely good, honest men who act in ways that align with their personal beliefs of what is the right thing to do. Good for us.)
What I am saying is that politicians have to embrace a public persona in order to get elected. They have to market themselves to voters in such a way that the voter identifies with them, thinks they will represent that voter’s interest, and will therefore check their name in the voting booth.
The easiest way to do this is to apply a label to yourself publicly, and then promote yourself in that way.