Up to a point, American politics reflects abiding philosophical divisions. But people who follow politics closely — whether voters, activists or pundits — are often partisans first and ideologues second. Instead of assessing every policy on the merits, we tend to reverse-engineer the arguments required to justify whatever our own side happens to be doing. Our ideological convictions may be real enough, but our deepest conviction is often that the other guys can’t be trusted.
How potent is the psychology of partisanship? Potent enough to influence not only policy views, but our perception of broader realities as well. A majority of Democrats spent the late 1980s convinced that inflation had risen under Ronald Reagan, when it had really dropped precipitously. In 1996, a majority of Republicans claimed that the deficit had increased under Bill Clinton, when it had steadily shrunk instead. Late in the Bush presidency, Republicans were twice as likely as similarly situated Democrats to tell pollsters that the economy was performing well. In every case, the external facts mattered less than how the person being polled felt about the party in power. …
In 2006, Gallup asked the public whether the government posed an “immediate threat” to Americans. Only 21 percent of Republicans agreed, versus 57 percent of Democrats. In 2010, they asked again. This time, 21 percent of Democrats said yes, compared with 66 percent of Republicans.
In other words, millions of liberals can live with indefinite detention for accused terrorists and intimate body scans for everyone else, so long as a Democrat is overseeing them. And millions of conservatives find wartime security measures vastly more frightening when they’re pushed by Janet “Big Sis” Napolitano (as the Drudge Report calls her) rather than a Republican like Tom Ridge.
Is there anything good to be said about the partisan mindset? On an individual level, no. It corrupts the intellect and poisons the wells of human sympathy. Honor belongs to the people who resist partisanship’s pull, instead of rowing with it.
But for the country as a whole, partisanship does have one modest virtue. It guarantees that even when there’s an elite consensus behind whatever the ruling party wants to do (whether it’s invading Iraq or passing Obamacare), there will always be a reasonably passionate opposition as well. Given how much authority is concentrated in Washington, especially in the executive branch, even a hypocritical and inconsistent opposition is better than no opposition at all.
Last thing first: Expecting consistency and uprightness from human beings is an exercise in futility, if not silly naïveté. Douthat also ignored the reality that the first purpose of political parties once they’re created is not to espouse a particular political philosophy, it’s to win elections.
I’m not a Republican for several reasons, beginning with my line of work. Journalists have biases because human beings have biases. A journalist needs, however, to express his or her opinions in appropriate places, which include clearly marked opinion columns and the polling place, not signing publicly accessible political petitions. If those journalists who signed petitions in support of the recall of Gov. Scott Walker find their careers hampered because they are now publicly viewed as biased, it’s their own damn fault.
Republicans are also complicit with Democrats (and, frankly, the news media) in the conspiracy to keep incumbents in office, and to continually grow the size and scope of government. Democrats deserve one or two points for honesty (if such a thing is possible in politics) in that since Franklin Roosevelt’s day they have never been for smaller government. Republicans say they are, and then grow government, just in different areas from Democrats.
When you claim to be a member of a political party, that puts you in the situation, it seems to me, of having to defend the dumber or ineffective things the party does or its elected officials or candidates do. I am unwilling to defend the novel biological theories of U.S. Rep. Todd Akin (R–Missouri) or the stupid statement of state Rep. Roger Rivard (R–Rice Lake). Other conservative bloggers may not feel that way, but if I feel like criticizing Gov. Scott Walker, I do. On the other hand, Democrats defend Barack Obama for performance in office that would get a Republican pilloried. (I’d like to read Democrats’ defense of this.)
Which brings to mind my next reason from the shrinking idealist within me: If we are a nation of laws, not men, then we should be a nation of ideas, not politicians and not political parties. The thing I find truly disgusting about today’s Democratic Party is its god-like worship of Barack Obama. (Perhaps it’s because more atheists are Democrats than Republicans.) You’d expect brainless idolatry from Michelle Obama; you should not expect it of people who rip Republicans for being too religious.
The Wisconsin State Journal’s Chris Rickert passed on one good point in an otherwise vapid column:
Arguably at the forefront of efforts to understand what fuels political stance-taking in Wisconsin is UW-Madison associate political science professor Kathy Cramer Walsh, who spent more than a year gathering the opinions of regular folk in face-to-face interviews around the state.
In a guest column in this newspaper in June she noted that “politics is often … about us versus them” and candidates “often make claims about the ‘type’ of people they are battling on behalf of.”
Better to see “members of the opposing side” as “individuals,” she writes, and to hear them out “so we see the humanity in them.” …
In politics, somebody’s always got to lose.
It will be a lot better for democracy — not to mention one’s mental health — if the winners at least realize the losers share the same species.
Rickert appears to believe that politics is nothing more than a game. (Which makes him even more cynical than I am.) The Founding Fathers must be spinning in their graves at the idea that, you know, King George III and the Royalists were people too. For that matter, Confederate sympathizers, members of the Ku Klux Klan, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, the Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden were and are individuals, and we need to see the humanity in them too.
The bigger issue, though, is that the GOP doesn’t represent all my views, because it’s nearly impossible for either party to completely represent anyone’s views. For one thing, the two parties have managed to eliminate the outliers, at least in Wisconsin, in their misguided quest for ideological purity and party discipline. Wisconsin used to have anti-abortion Democrats; good luck finding them now. (Or, for that matter, anyone comparable to the late U.S. Sen. William Proxmire (D–Wisconsin) in caring about taxpayer dollars.) Wisconsin also used to have Republicans in the Legislature who went from the late Progressive Party to the GOP.
This online poll claims that I side with …
- Gary Johnson on 85 percent of “economic, domestic policy, healthcare, and immigration issues.”
- Mitt Romney on 78 percent of “foreign policy, economic, and domestic policy issues.”
- Barack Obama on 63 percent of “foreign policy, science, and immigration issues.”
- 50 percent of Wisconsin voters on “foreign policy, domestic policy, immigration, science, and healthcare issues.”
- 52 percent of American voters on “foreign policy, domestic policy, immigration, science, and healthcare issues.”
This site also concluded my views are 84 percent Republican, 79 percent Libertarian, 52 percent Democrat and 17 percent Green. I could say that the last two numbers are an order of magnitude too high, but that would obscure the point that almost no one sides 100 percent with any party.
My vote is based on a calculus that balances the candidates whose views most agree with mine with how electable that candidate is. Even if I have conservatarian views and agree with Johnson 9 percent more than I agree with Romney, the chances of Johnson’s getting elected Nov. 6 are, rounded off, zero. Therefore, every vote for someone not named Romney serves as a vote for Obama. And readers know how I feel about the body of work of Barack Obama.
Whenever I’m asked what party I belong to, I give the correct answer — either “none” or “independent.”