America Is Quickly Becoming the Nation of No Labels

Americans may finally want results more than they want teams.

For a country that supposedly celebrates individuality, America has historically been defined by its majority-making super-groups. Partisan politicians and religious sects all jockeying for cultural and structural influence have long been bellwethers for progress, power, and the priorities of the nation.

Politics and religion end up looking a lot like team sports: beating the competing team is more important than actual performance or the net outcomes of any given race — for voters and leaders alike. Except there is a growing dissociation among the American public from self-identifying with any of the traditional labels such groups offer — and the baggage such membership obliges them to carry.

Research from the Pew Research Center shows that Americans are losing interest in affiliating with any particular religious group. That is not to say they have lost interest in faith altogether. While atheism is certainly on the rise, even more individuals are either agnostic or prefer “nothing in particular” as a religious label.

While atheism is certainly on the rise, even more individuals are either agnostic or prefer 'nothing in particular' as a religious label.
Edgar Wilson
At the same time, a continuing trend of Americans either leaving or opting not to join the country’s leading political parties has swelled the number of self-described independents to record highs.

This is no coincidence, considering the proliferation of religious orientations into American politics, and the way the two main parties have manipulated religious rhetoric to create platforms on social issues. Tribalism has allowed a few groups to coordinate the masses, abandoning the individual.

Political and religious attitudes are personal, nuanced, and complex — everything that highly visible public organizations are not. Labels, like misery, love company, but Americans are finally starting to shy away from the broad associations the public has learned to attribute to groups — accurately or otherwise — and are charting their own way through the world.

In the digital age, the one unifying feature that explains sports fans, partisan loyalties, and religious affiliation is being slowly eroded by technology: geography.

Die-hards will insist that personal values, historical knowledge, and hard facts are the basis for their affiliations — being in close proximity to their fellow believers is just good fortune and sensible taste. But if geography didn’t matter in predicting support, would the home-field advantage exist? Would gerrymandering be effective — which it unquestionably is, to the detriment of democracy?

Religious indoctrination is more difficult when diversity is just a few clicks away, whatever the makeup of a neighborhood or household. Indeed, churches since the 1970s have faced the challenge of both attracting and retaining membership as they are forced to compete with a crowded field of marketing messages to retain their relevance.

As Christopher Moberg, professor of marketing from Ohio University, documented in a study, word-of-mouth remains the best recruitment tool — except now, referrals can be made digitally, not just in person.

The Internet, with its endless blogs, social networks, and other means of bringing people together, is breaking down the barriers of access and exposure to different ideas that geography upheld for so long. Young people, in particular, tend to be the most comfortable with technology and the Internet — they also happen to be driving the trend away from political and religious group-think.

So could it be that more Americans are abandoning the team sports approach to politics in favor of a more blended, results-oriented approach?

It is still too early for this promising trend to be the rule, rather than the exception. Parties may be ideologically fractured, but they are still the best fundraising mechanism available to ambitious politicians.

But perhaps this very fact is part of the reason Americans are happy to ditch the Republican and Democratic membership: they are realizing that the leading parties have no monopoly on ideology. Republicans are not the only conservative option, nor are they consistently the best example of conservative values. Democrats, for their part, can hardly claim to be America’s quintessential liberal template or have their fingers firmly on the pulse of the public.

Such value systems belong not to institutions, but to people who have been misled into joining political parties under the impression that said parties were ideologically consistent and uniform among their membership.

In reality, they serve as hecklers in the stands of American politics, and as fundraising pools for their anointed figureheads.

Just as church attendance has been on the decline since the 1970s, so has trust in the federal government to “do the right thing” more often than not. And while the public grows increasingly weary of the partisan system and its failings, the partisans themselves grow more entrenched in playing their game.

George Washington University’s Lara Brown writes that general disenchantment with government has — rather than diminishing the divisions in leadership — led to politicians “[…] viewing politics more as a team sport and government more as a trophy than as a system through which to resolve policy debates.

In athletics, results-based support is known as ‘bandwagoning,’ and such fair-weather fans are generally derided by ‘true’ fans, as though wanting to associate with a successful team defeats the point of watching sports.

Teams don’t ‘deserve’ loyalty from their fans any more than political parties are entitled to votes simply by virtue of name-recognition or distant historical deeds. In politics, as in sports, relevance correlates with performance, and a failure to perform can and should make the player irrelevant, regardless of team affiliation.

As Americans leverage the Internet and communications technology to find who they really share values, ideals, and priorities with, they will continue to shed old institutions for whom history has become a burden, rather than a credential.

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