Self-circumscription: Surviving and maintaining the circle of exclusion

Article first published as Self Circumscription: Surviving and Maintaining the Circle of Exclusion on Blogcritics.

I came across a recent body of research that indicates that the political ideology gap between old and young is growing. Americans over 65 report a level of conservatism greater than those under 40 – and likely one greater than they espoused to earlier in their lives. One issue, however, seems to unite conservative senior citizens and their younger, more liberal counterparts: Social Security. This seeming inconsistency is not at all surprising to me, and it’s just one example of what I’ve referred to as self-circumscription – the act of widening the diameter of the circle of inclusion or acceptance just enough to include one’s self. For conservatives, big government is the devil, and America’s entitlement programs are putting it on the fast track to the “socialist” status of Europe’s “welfare nations.” The minute they become eligible, however, the biggest entitlement scheme of them all somehow becomes something other than a program of bleeding heart liberals.

On an episode of NPR’s All Things Considered, a gentleman from St. Louis discussed his own change of heart. According to the show, Ray Myer had always “leaned” Republican. “I used to think these unemployed [people] could find jobs if they wanted to. I don’t know if that’s true anymore.” Myer says he’s more sympathetic to people in need now after having lost his job. Another interviewee from this same series – who also traditionally votes Republican – discussed how after his lengthy bout of unemployment he is now in favor of extending unemployment benefits.

It’s too simple to think that conservatives believe in every citizen for him or herself and that liberals support the idea that government exists, in part, to give those who need assistance a helping hand. Both may believe in safety nets; it’s just that one group tends to get behind the idea only when they find that they, themselves, are in need.

These are clear depictions of this phenomenon as they relate to class and socio-economic disparity, but countless other examples exist. Let’s start with the Log Cabin Republicans. Affiliates of this organization promote themselves as “proud members of the GOP who believe inclusion wins.” All it takes, however, is a look at their online platform to see that the only difference between the issues they champion and the ones promoted by their party as a whole are ones that deal very specifically with LGBT rights, namely discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace and marriage equality. Unlike the National Organization for Women and the League of Women Voters (who understand that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and champion matters of equality that transcend gender lines) the Log Cabin Republicans seek to enlarge their conservative party’s circle of inclusion just enough to include them. It’s no wonder that their membership is overwhelmingly white, male, cisgender, and middle class.

From a social psychology perspective, the motivation for the “bring me in, but keep them out” mentality is clear. If I believe that my power as a disenfranchised member of society is relative (and only secure as long as long as there are others whose seats are farther from the table than mine) then I have a very important stake in making sure that the circle of freedom encompasses me but doesn’t extend too far beyond me.

Sometimes it seems inherently contradictory that individuals who have been historically oppressed along one dimension of their being seek liberty for themselves but (at best) have no interest in the liberty of others or (at worst) actively support the oppression of others. At least for now, misogyny, racism and transphobia among gay men; anti-immigration sentiments among first-generation American citizens; and homophobia among people of color are common albeit disturbing phenomena.

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