Partisanship, Ideology, and Loyalty

[Editors’ Note: This post originally appeared at Crooked Timber. As it is part of the ongoing discussion among our participants this month, we’ve reprinted it here.]

Brink Lindsey criticized Nancy Rosenblum’s work on partisanship as follows:

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… . All fair enough. Yet knocking independents down a peg doesn’t change the fact that partisanship in America today is a dreadful mess… . under present circumstances at least, partisan zeal ought to be attacked rather than defended.

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… . partisans are vulnerable to believing fatuous nonsense… . 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… .

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.

While I don’t think that these criticisms are necessarily wrong as such, I do think that they are aimed at the wrong target. When Brink argues that partisans are often inclined to believe stupid things, or to have strongly correlated views on political matters that have no apparent connection, he’s likely correct. But this criticism hardly applies only to partisans. Take two examples.

First, Libertarians. These aren’t partisans in the usual sense of the word; while there is a Libertarian Party, I’ve never in my life met a libertarian who votes for it (or indeed who has expressed any sentiment other than embarrassment at its existence). Yet even in the absence of party identity, libertarians appear quite as vulnerable to dumb-yet-convenient truth claims and strong correlations of political views as are traditional partisans. Indeed, this is apparent on precisely the two issues that Brink refers to — gun control and global warming (my strong impression is that libertarians, at least those engaged in public debate, tend to be strongly against the first, and highly skeptical about the existence and/or remediability of the second).

Second, purveyors of what might be termed the “bipartisan consensus” in Washington DC. This is a set of viewpoints that defines itself against partisanship. But again, casual empiricism (from someone who reads their output, lives in DC, etc.) would suggest that they are at the very best no better than similarly well-educated partisans in their understanding of the truth, and arguably somewhat worse (because their ideas have been systematically less likely to come under challenge, they are more likely to be bad ones). And again, there are correlations between apparently disconnected beliefs — there is no reason why someone, for example, who believes that Social Security reform is teh awesome should be more likely to have believed four years ago that the Iraq war was a Very Good Thing. But in my admittedly personal and unsystematic experience, those two points of view were very highly correlated indeed.

The point is that what Brink is concerned with here is a much more general and pervasive phenomenon than partisanship. What he’s worried about is ideology. And while political parties are one prominent bearer of ideology, so too are political movements, densely interwoven social networks and many other social phenomena. Not only that, but ideologies are hard to do without. Joseph Schumpeter has a quote somewhere that I keep meaning to try to find again, to the effect that our ideologies blind us to much of reality, but without our ideologies we would not see at all. I think that is mostly right — which is not of course to say that ideologies should not be subjected to empirical test, tempered by discussion etc, but they are in the end impossible to eradicate, and have heuristic benefits as well as disadvantages.

The second problem that Brink points to is real again, but is similarly more general than partisanship. It isn’t only partisans who have incentives to shade the truth to protect comrades, or to avoid punishment by their peers. It’s anyone who works within an organization or coalition. The New Republic — a magazine which has on occasion criticized leftwing bloggers for their over-eagerness to toe the party line — is a good example. I suspect that many people who write for the New Republic believe that their editor-in-chief, Martin Peretz, is both nasty and crazy. Yet (perhaps with a couple of exceptions) they aren’t going to say this in public places, because they don’t want to be fired or blacklisted. Loyalty and compromises are again, not a specific problem of parties.

So, my challenge to Brink is as follows. Can you provide us with any warrant to believe that partisans are especially vulnerable to problems of ideology and misplaced loyalty, as opposed to other actors in politics and public debate? My first-approximation belief is that we don’t — and that while the problems that Brink identifies are real problems, they are generic ones. This may be the result, as Brink notes, of historical changes, but if we are talking about latter-day partisanship, I really don’t think that Brink’s charge stands. Or, to put it another way, if we didn’t have organized political parties as bearers of partisanship, I imagine that we would suffer under all the same burdens without enjoying some of the benefits (in terms of organizing public debate etc) that Rosenblum identifies.

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: Still Half-Empty by Brink Lindsey

    In his response essay, Brink Lindsey reminds us of the shortcomings of American partisanship. Although parties provide information to voters, they do so in an skewed and superficial way. They exact ideological commitments that are hard to justify on their merits, and they constantly present a temptation to groupthink. American parties have changed, however, and for the better: Formerly, they were almost exclusively based on personal loyalty and patronage. Our parties have become ideological, but only imperfectly so, and they still do not present a deliberative space that conduces to rational, impartial citizenship.

  • 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