Join, or Die: On Political Parties and Institutional Identity

When we join an organization – be it a fraternal organization, a workplace, a nonprofit organization, or a political party – do we necessarily have to value the existence of the organization over our own? Do we necessarily cede some control and/or self-identity for the good of the organization, and to meet our responsibility to that organization?

But, if we all conform to the institution, would institutions never change? What if those institutions, in asserting their structure, ethos and ideology, have an impact on the larger society?

[There are many worst-worse-bad case scenarios that could be interjected here: Nazi Germany, Christianity during those fun 30 years under the Holy Roman Empire, police forces in many major U.S. cities, and your friendly neighborhood sorority.]

But institutions are not just structures and activities; institutions are the people who join them, who make them work. Even if an institution is explicitly mission-driven, which might therefore set the expectation of how one ‘exists’ in that institution, it is still people who exist in that institution. And too often, we focus on people in institutions as inputs, products, or leverage, their identities defined by poverty, education, health, mortality rate, and the like. How can institutions survive if they only consider their people in the didactic prose of actuarial-speak?

We SHOULD elevate discussions of the people in our institutions to the levels of poetry. We who join these institutions and who facilitate the different roles therein can, and must, in our individuality of identity and experience – indeed, our differences* – help redefine our institutions and make them more responsive to our changing needs. If the institution fails us, then we have an obligation to act, otherwise, our individual contributions die with the institution.

*I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Audre Lorde, in whose essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” I root my personal mission, a personal challenge to never take for granted that the communities and the institutions I join are ‘mine’ to join. I am no servant or savior, I am a partner.

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I guess one could say that there’s always the option of not joining institutions. But I like the idea of living in community. And I like the idea of someone expecting me somewhere. So as to not die alone. Undiscovered. Eaten by cats.

For some fun reading, there’s this undergrad thesis on collective identity and/in political activism.

For some infotainment, there’s Craig Ferguson’s Join Or Die television program on the History Channel. Almost as fun as Drunk History


[Featured image: Join, or Die: This political cartoon by Benjamin Franklin urged the colonies to join together during the French and Indian War]