Partisanship: Still Half-Empty

In her essay, and at greater length in her book, Nancy Rosenblum makes a convincing case that American political independents don’t deserve their good press. In particular, she cites findings from the political science literature that independents tend to be less interested in politics, less informed about the issues, and less likely to participate in the process than are their partisan fellow citizens. And by virtue of their “none of the above” political identity, they are “weightless” and “atomized,” free-riding off the agenda-setting and coalition-building efforts of partisans that give political life its substance.

All fair enough. Yet knocking independents down a peg doesn’t change the fact that partisanship in America today is a dreadful mess. Notwithstanding Professor Rosenblum’s thoughtful and intellectually elegant efforts at rehabilitation, I remain convinced that, under present circumstances at least, partisan zeal ought to be attacked rather than defended.

For present purposes, I’ll confine my bill of indictment to two charges. First, partisanship undermines clear thinking. Second, it undermines moral integrity. In both cases, the root cause is the same: the conflation of friend and foe with right and wrong.

Consider this pair of poll results cited by Andrew Gelman in his wonderful book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State. According to a survey conducted in March 2006, nearly 30 percent of Republicans believed not only that Iraq had possessed weapons of mass destruction, but that the U.S. military had actually found them. Meanwhile, in a May 2007 poll, 35 percent of Democrats expressed the view that President Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance.

It’s not just that partisans are vulnerable to believing fatuous nonsense. It’s that their beliefs, whether sensible or otherwise, about a whole range of empirical questions are determined by their political identity. There’s no epistemologically sound reason why one’s opinion about, say, the effects of gun control should predict one’s opinion about whether humans have contributed to climate change or how well Mexican immigrants are assimilating — these things have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Yet the fact is that views on these and a host of other matters are indeed highly correlated with each other. And the reason is that people start with political identities and then move to opinions about how the world works, not vice versa.

So yes, most partisans are “better informed” than most independents, because they have a political identity that motivates them to have opinions and then tells them which ones to have as well as the reasons for having them. Consequently, partisans may have more information in their heads, but their partisanship ensures that this information is riddled with biases and errors and then shields those biases and errors from scrutiny. This is not a state of affairs worth defending.

Virtue as well as truth is a casualty of partisan zeal. Even when partisans know what the score is, they’re constantly tempted to shade the truth, or at least keep silent, in order to be a good team player. Recall, for example, the fury unleashed this past fall on the handful of conservative commentators who were willing to admit the obvious: Sarah Palin was obviously, embarrassingly unprepared for the office she was seeking. In coalitional psychology, the only thing worse than an infidel is a heretic, and that fact ensures that most partisans keep their heterodox opinions to themselves. Good for the team, perhaps, but bad for the soul — and the republic.

Having established my antipartisan bona fides, let me backtrack a little. I agree with Professor Rosenblum that partisanship of some kind plays a necessary and vital role in political life. Politics is a competition for power, and in a pluralistic mass democracy that competition will inevitably be a team sport. Parties, sustained by partisanship, do lend coherence to both electioneering and governance by offering rival comprehensive visions of what needs doing; they do stimulate wider interest and involvement in the public’s business. Professor Rosenblum is correct that partisanship has its characteristic virtues.

But it has characteristic vices, too, and at present the balance between them is not a favorable one. Not that I’m pining for some lost golden age — far from it. On the contrary, I think that contemporary partisanship is generally preferable to what came before. Unfortunately, it’s still terrible.

Professor Rosenblum doesn’t talk much about the changing nature of political identity, but I believe it’s an important point. In America until relatively recently, and in less developed democracies today, the predominant form of partisanship has been a concrete, personal loyalty to specific leaders and comrades. This is the partisanship of patronage and clientelism — of the Jacksonian spoils system, Tammany Hall, and the Chicago machine. In the twilight of this phase of American democracy, 64-year-old Illinois state legislator John G. Fary won a seat to Congress and made this statement of his plans: “I will go to Washington to help represent Mayor Daley. For twenty-one years, I represented the mayor in the legislature, and he was always right.”

In the newer style of partisanship, which has emerged with a richer and better educated electorate, loyalty has grown more abstract. Now shared allegiance to broad principles of public policy is the defining element of party ID. Parties have grown more ideological, and so have partisans. Polarization is the name we’ve given to this development.

I regard the shift toward a more ideological politics as progress. Broadly speaking, we have been moving away from politics as an amoral struggle between rival gangs and in the direction of politics as a contest of competing values. Because people have differing values, and assign different weights to the values they share, there can never be an end to politics. Accordingly, even in an ideal world where all citizens are completely rational and equally public-spirited, a politics and thus a partisanship of values would still be necessary. Here, then, in the realm of values, is the purest and most durable source of political identity.

That kind of ideal partisanship, though, remains far over the horizon. Today’s ideological mindset is shot through with irrational commitments to dubious empirical propositions as well as parochial commitments to specific interest groups. Ideological politics is thus a mongrel, an unlovely mix of the personal and the principled, the parochial and the public-spirited, the pragmatic and the dogmatic.

Consequently, I believe there is an inverse relationship today between one’s commitment to both the truth and the public interest and one’s commitment to partisanship, whether Republican or Democrat. To put it more bluntly, these days I don’t see how you can be both a good citizen and a zealous partisan. This isn’t to say you can’t lean one way or the other. Without a doubt, it’s possible to reach a fairly stable conclusion that one party ID or the other is a relatively better fit. But it should be an uncomfortable fit. If you can’t see that sometimes, even frequently, your party is dead wrong, and that sometimes the country would be better off if your party lost, then in my book you’ve got a problem. The fact that it’s an extremely common problem only makes it worse.

Professor Rosenblum argues that “what we need is not independence or bipartisanship or post-partisanship but better partisanship.” Well, I agree with the last part of the sentence: we certainly do need better partisanship. I’ll even concede that that’s the most we can realistically aspire to. There is no possibility of a pure, “view from nowhere” independence — we are all partisans of one stripe or another.

Yet I must strongly disagree with the first part of the Professor Rosenblum’s sentence. The only way we can get better partisanship is for partisans to become, in critical dimensions at least, more independent-minded. In particular, the resolution of factual questions and the evaluation of interest groups’ claims should be conducted, as far as possible, independent of one’s political identity. Until that happy day arrives, we need more antipartisans — not weightless, atomized independents, but informed, engaged intellectuals and opinion leaders who are willing to proclaim that both houses are pox-ridden.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Moral Distinctiveness of ‘Party ID’ by Nancy Rosenblum

    Lead essayist Nancy Rosenblum argues that political parties need a “moment of appreciation.” Schemes to minimize, frustrate, or avoid party politics, and replace it with bipartisanship or nonpartisanship all seem founded, to her, on misconceptions that date to the Progressive Era. Among these misconceptions are the ideas that nonpartisan decisionmakers are impartial, well-informed, and above the corrupting influence of politics. Parties, meanwhile, serve many useful functions in politics. They reduce transaction costs to new political entrants (at whatever level). They encourage the formation of political communities, and they act to inform and supply coherent narratives about current events. Further, the need to maintain winning coalitions means that political parties actually foster, rather than impede, political compromises.

Response Essays

  • Partisanship and Extremism by Henry Farrell

    In his response, Henry Farrell brings up the distinction between partisanship and extremism. He notes that although political parties clearly have useful coordinating and compromise-facilitating features, some issues may well not be appropriate matters for compromise. The problem, then – if there is one – would not be that so-called extremists are too partisan. It would be that they are unwilling to compromise. And perhaps on certain issues, they should be. Bloggers and the Democratic netroots movement are cited as illustrative examples, as is the refusal of many in the Democratic Party to compromise on the question of torture.

  • Democracy, Partisanship, and Deliberation by James Fishkin

    James Fishkin offers several models of what democracy is supposed to do. He weighs each in turn and proposes that deliberative democracy – defined as a process that “contain[s] some claim to representativeness with good conditions for deliberation” – is the one most worth having. Partisanship squares badly with it. What we need, he argues, is not more independents among the general voting population, but more independence among partisan voters.

The Conversation