The relationship between our two party system and Durkheim’s systems of meaning

Political parties form systems of meaning which then in turn maintain the party collective.  Individuals who belong to the parties share and internalize these sets of beliefs, and use them as a system with which to organize themselves. The Democratic party has become a system of meaning for those who share the beliefs that the government should be run with values of modern liberalism. The Republican party has become a system of meaning for those who share the beliefs that the government should be run with the values of American conservatism. Durkheim’s theory of the collective explains some of the aspects of political parties and political party culture. For political affiliation alignments, the individual feels the urge to connect with others that more or less share an idea of the same system by which to organize themselves. In some cases, the individual is born into a certain political affiliation. The individual’s political affiliation helps provide them with self identification, be it liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, etc., and gives them a form of representation for their beliefs. Trump supporters have bought into Trump’s extreme system of meaning that declares that Muslims, Mexicans, members of the LGBTQ community, etc. are not truly American and somehow pose a threat to the American collective.

American voters are notorious for making their political decisions based not on policy or research, but on emotions and gut feelings. This lack of individual thought and personal accountability makes voters susceptible to being swayed by collective thought, to following pre-conceived systems of meaning, and to losing their agency to the collective. Politicians and political parties have taken advantage of this phenomenon and create a system of meaning associated with their parties in order to give their voters a moral code to live and vote by. According to Durkheim, individuals require society to give them a personality and a cohesive way of seeing the world. Political parties have created a system of meaning in order to gain compliance from individuals, because just as collective societies need individual participation in order to survive, political parties need individual votes and resources and support. In return, individuals often lose a sense of independance. Today you can often observe voters who have been conditioned to categorize politicians, policies, and even the people around them based solely on their political affiliation. This can be seen clearly when voters believe party propaganda and vote the party line without educating themselves about the issues, even if it is against their own interests. Today’s elections and public opinion polls provide us with many examples of this phenomenon.

One of the major issues dividing the Democratic and Republican parties is national policy for health insurance. In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. The legislation aims to provide Americans with lower health insurance rates, increased coverage, and an improved care for all citizens. However, the Republican has notoriously attacked the legislation for decreasing the quality of health care, reducing competition, and for its perceived dramatic increases in insurance rates. In contrast, the Democratic party has rallied around Obamacare, especially since Republican President Donald Trump has promised to repeal the act.

Trump rally
Obama rally







While Democratic and Republican parties have been at war over the Affordable Care Act, supporters of both parties have been shown believing that the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare are actually two separate pieces of legislation. A recent Jimmy Kimmel segment poked fun at this display of ignorance by asking pedestrians whether they preferred Obamacare or ACA. The reasons people gave for choosing one over ranged from one generally had more affordable coverage to people not supporting “anything Obama.”

Now one may ask, “How is it possible for the average American citizen, regardless of political affiliation, to be unaware of the fact that ACA and Obamacare are the same?”

This can be explained by the influence of collective thought on the individual. According to Durkheim, individuals receive their moral conscience from society. We consider our moral conscience to be of a greater importance than our sense of self. It is hard for the individual to distinguish their personal voice from the collective one telling us what we can and cannot do. The respective collectives of the Democratic and Republican parties have ingrained in its voters certain moral ideas of how they should feel about their own party in relation to their rival. Essentially, they have created a system of meaning, a way of viewing and perceiving the world so that their voters will act in accordance with the party’s morals. In regard to health insurance controversies, the term “Obamacare” has been used by both collectives as a way to reference President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The Republican party is very vocal about its criticism of President Obama, and this has influenced the conscience of its individual members. Likewise, Democratic voters support Obamacare because of its affiliation to President Obama. Voters from both collectives have allowed the political parties, acting as collectives, to influence how they feel about important issues. By simply attaching the word “Obama” to the bill, both parties are able to alter the way their constituencies view the piece of policy. This term has drastically different connotations within the two systems of meaning created by the opposing political parties. Democrat voters have been led by their party’s moral code to favor and support Obama and all that he does, while Republicans have been led to believe that anything associated with Obama is harmful to them. In this way Democrats feel morally obligated to say that they support Obamacare, while Republicans feel morally obligated to say that they oppose it. Such is the power of this obligation that they don’t even need to understand what it is that they support or oppose. The ignorance displayed by voters who did not know the difference between Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act shows how voters’ sense of self has taken the backseat. There is no individual thought about health insurance policy and other major issues.

2016 electoral college votes

One thought on “The relationship between our two party system and Durkheim’s systems of meaning

  1. I agree with your assessment of political parties generating systems of meaning around buzz words and terms to essentially manipulate party members, or the collective. How would you categorize people who are informed on the issues of affordable healthcare and reject the propagandistic values projected by their party (i.e. a Republican who supports ACA or a Democrat who does not)? Can they still exist in the collective if their morals are not constructed by the values of the collective?


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s