Most politicians deserve a little name-calling, but there are two labels—really two variations on the same label—that have become popular lately and really get my goat. They are RINO and DINO: Republican In Name Only and Democrat In Name Only. Even Libertarians call other Libertarians LINOs, Greens have their GINOs, and probably even Independents who get called IINOs even though I have no idea how to pronounce it.
I make an exception for the use of the phrase (but not the acronym) when clarifying the leanings of an entire party or group. It’s commonly and correctly noted that Nazis were socialists in name only, and frequently there are claims that China is communist in name only. Those tend to be valid or at least not unreasonable claims.
RINO and DINO on the other hand, appear to be the label used when the member of one party diverges in even a very small way from the respective party’s platform. That variance may be the accuser’s favorite issue making it understandable that she might be disappointed in the party’s representative, but very rarely are these terms used for people who actually fall outside their party’s mainstream.
Notable alleged RINOs:
- Newt Gingrich
- Paul Ryan
- John Boehner
- Rand Paul
- Mitt Romney
Notable alleged DINOs:
- Barack Obama
- Nancy Pelosi
- Gavin Newsom
- Patrick Leahy
- Bill Clinton
Here in the United States we have two major political parties, each with a platform comprising a wide variety of issues, of which some have common roots in values but many do not. And values are tricky things; people with the same values but different life experiences may have very different ideas about how to promote those values. It should be no surprise that there are people who want a reduction in social programs and stricter gun control lawsa Republican by one issue and a Democrat by another. It should be no surprise that there are people who oppose gay marriage and also oppose laws restricting abortion.
In fact, it should come as a surprise to find someone who agrees with the entirety of a party’s platform. And since positions on issues within parties change over time, one could not expect such a person always to have been in lockstep with a party or to continue so for very long. Indeed, even in our increasingly polarized Congress there is only a single senator and two members of the House who have voted every vote in the 112th Congress with their parties. Of those (Dan Coats R-Indiana, John Boehner R-Ohio, and Christopher Lee R-New York) Dan Coats was not a senator in the 11th Congress and neither John Boehner nor Christopher Lee had a 100% party-line voting record. It seems the only way to have a perfect party-line voting record is to be in the beginning of one’s first term in Congress.
Lack of adherence to the official party line is not usually what gets a politician or a private individual a «Whatever In Name Only» label. Most often what earns the label is a failure to be more extreme than the mainstream of a party. Many on the left see Obama as failed Democrat for not being liberal enough, despite being somewhat more liberal than the Democratic Party’s median.
While there are examples of politicians voting largely against their party lines, they are few. Most vote with their party 80% or more of the time. Without accounting for the relative importance of the votes, it seems that the RINO or DINO label is, with very few exceptions, unwarranted.
When it comes to private individuals, party affiliation usually takes an even greater backseat to individual values, beliefs, and perspective, as well it should. Here the label becomes even less useful. Each of us must balance the importance of issues and vote for candidates who disagree with us on many issues. Some voters put one issue above all other considerations, other voters agree with their party or candidate on all but a small number of issues. Others don’t vote by issues at all but judge a candidate’s character and vote by integrity even when the candidate’s position is entirely dissimilar from the voter. This last type may be more common than generally believed. A 2008 article in Mens Health (May the Most Authentic Man Win) asserts that looking back through presidential elections the winner was always the one who was—or at least appeared—more authentic.
So it should not be a sin to disagree with your party. Your party, in fact, should be grateful for your support despite your differences. Some people don’t see that and start tossing around the Whatever In Name Only labels, trying to shame others into compliance or at least make them appear to have less integrity regardless of the logic or validity of their beliefs. In short, Whatever In Name Only cannot serve as more than an ad hominem argument.
Personally, I’ve been handed both of the most common labels: RINO and DINO. I’m most often described as an extreme version of whatever party the speaker is not. My father has called me an ultra-liberal and my friends in the Bay Area think I’ve fallen off the right side of the right wing.
The two-party system gives us inadequate choice with which to voice our beliefs. In most cases, we can say loud and clear what we don’t want, but not so clearly what we want instead. Did a vote for Obama in 2008 indicate an endorsement of the worldview of the Democrats, or a rejection of Bush using McCain as a proxy? Was it because the country demanded healthcare legislation? Or because the country demanded we disentangle ourselves from the war in Iraq? Or because the country wanted to keep the government out of abortion? Or because Americans are opposed to tax cuts?
Strictly, probably none of the above. Certainly not all of the above. But with each election, the winning party takes their success as an endorsement of the entire party’s platform. Each time the incumbent party loses, politicians take the cue to further their own agendas with little regard to the actual messages voters sent. It was with good reason that George Washington in his farewell address 215 years ago warned against becoming entangled in party factionalism:
the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.
In other words, placing importance on political parties leads to a government which is too focused on issues of little import or urgency whilst preventing the vital work to be done, divides a nation against itself, and invites corruption from inside and out. Does this sound familiar?
It takes an engaged and informed electorate to make democracy (even a democratic republic) work. Disturbingly, it is doubtful that either party is interested in democracy. They are, of course, interested in votes, but if our politicians cared about democracy they wouldn’t spend so much time bolstering a party system that disaffects voters and is prone to propagandizing.
I doubt that any politician would admit to purposefully disaffecting voters, but the parties have more power than the people do, and they like it that way. Sure, the people get to give the wink to one party or another, but the choice between candidates that don’t match anyone’s values is one that encourages giving up or subsuming the party line into one’s own beliefs. That provides a lot of power to politicians, and power is not something which politicians willingly let go.
I submit that those who use one of the WINO terms are undermining the very fabric of American democracy. I plead that if you catch yourself about to use the termespecially if you are about to level it at someone in the same roomthat you take a step back and address the actual issue with which you and the other person disagree. I suggest that writing letterseven emailsto elected representatives that concern individual issuesespecially when the preferred position on the issue is contrary to that politician’s partymay be the only way to ease the stranglehold the parties have on American politics.
That may be the only hope democracy has of surviving our times.