The Roots of Poisonous Partisanship

There has always been political partisanship in this country, but we seem to be at a stage where it has become so poisonous that politicians refuse to work with each other because many believe that the politicians on the other side of the political divide are untrustworthy, unpatriotic, and un willing to make policy choices that actually help the nation.

I’’ve heard a great deal of talk about how to deal with this issue. There is a group called “No Labels” that is trying to bring politicians together to solve problems without concern to their partisan labels. There are also groups pushing a “civility oath” for politicians to sign pledging to deal with issues in a civil manner.
I think these ideas are nice, (actually I think they are “cute” but I don’t want to be dismissive and add to the tone of negativity and hostility), but I don’t think they’ll succeed because they don’t address the real root cause of the problem. The issue isn’t just that politicians are being disagreeable. The issue is that they have fundamentally different views of how the world works, and what the role of government should be within that world. Simply being nice is not going to bridge that divide.

But the other, deeper problem is that both sides have gone from believing that the other side is simply presenting a different policy choice to believing that the other side is choosing policies that are designed to harm the nation.

I don’t think we’ll ever truly solve the issue of partisanship because people will always have very different views on how things—economic, political, social—work. But I think we can deal with the issue of poisonous partisanship and minimize it if we understand where it comes from and what it means.

So what are the causes of our current poisonous partisanship?

There are a number of causes, and I will discuss them briefly. Each probably warrants more analysis, but I have neither the time nor inclination to do that now. But I will note that they are cumulative. One in isolation may not be a real problem, but in combination we reach critical mass and the pile melts down.

The Two Party System. The two party system creates a false dichotomy and the silly idea that every issue and problem falls neatly into the liberal v. conservative, or Democratic v. Republican paradigm. It also creates the silly idea that for every problem there is a Democratic solution and a Republican solution. This is obviously simplistic, but this false dichotomy creates the belief for some people that if there is a right solution and a wrong solution: if there is a Democratic solution and a Republican solution, and if I’m a Republican and I think Republicans are right, then the Republican solution must be right, which must mean that the Democratic solution must be wrong.

So the two party system creates the idea that policy choices are choices between good and bad, and between right and wrong.

Political Shenanigans. Both parties engage in political shenanigans that only deepen the partisan divide. Perhaps the best example is partisan gerrymandering, where state level politicians manipulate political districts to ensure politically safe districts. Often, when Republicans control the process, they are willing to gerrymander a few districts to create safe Democratic districts while at the same time gerrymandering many more conservative leaning districts to produce many more safe Republican districts. And, of course, in those states where the Democrats control the state house they do the same thing.

Kentucky is unique because Democrats control the state House and Republicans control the state Senate. And so we have Democrats in the house gerrymander House districts and Republicans gerrymander Senate districts.

The result of these ideologically divided districts is that the real battles are in the primaries, between moderates and hardliners. And in those districts that are very conservative, or very liberal, you get very conservative or liberal representatives. And the result is that the current Congress, according to some studies, is the most ideologically rigid Congress in modern history. The other result is that these politicians don’t have to worry about talking to, or trying to appeal to, moderates or partisans on the other side, because they don’t have to rely on them for votes. And so the result is that many politicians have almost no experience dealing with partisans from the other party, which means that they don’t know, understand, or take seriously the views and policy positions of the other party. And this only exacerbates the partisan spiral.

The Adversarial Culture. We have a culture that is focused on, and rewards conflict. As mentioned, our political system is based on a head to head fight over ideas, policies, and candidates. We are also a culture that loves sports: we love competition and the head to head battles that sports represent. Even in those sports that are not based on head to head competition—like running or golf—we tend to focus on (or at least the media focuses on) the leader and nearest rival, so that the competition is presented as a head to head battle.

We revere the free market, and competition (which is a form of conflict) is the heart and soul of the free market. We like consumer choice and like the idea that through this choice consumers pick economic winners, and cast economic losers to the side.

Finally, we have an “adversarial” legal system that is based on the idea that we can determine truth an intellectual and evidentiary battle between litigants. The result of all of this is that we have a culture that reveres conflict. And, unfortunately, we transfer this belief in the value of conflict to the public policy debate.

The end result is that policy debates become epic battles. So what should be, for example, a discussion of how to limit gun violence becomes a battle between those who want gun control and those who champion individual rights.

The Trivializing Media. We have a popular culture and a news media that likes drama over substance. The most popular movies tend to be action and conflict oriented. Occasionally deep and thoughtful movies do well at the box office, but that is the exception and not the rule. And often those movies are couched in conflict, as the recent movie Lincoln, which focused on the conflict over passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

The news media finds it much easier to present every problem as if it were a dramatic battle between two opposing warriors, than to delve into the complexities of problems, issues and policies. Drama has become the sum and substance of our culture, and our news media’s approach to just about everything. The ever popular “how does that make you feel” question is about human angst—that is drama—and not about trying to understand an issue. And this interest in, or bias towards, drama fits in ever so nicely with our two party system. So our two party system creates a trivial duality, and the news media runs with it.

This duality is increasingly fed by the more partisan of the news outlets, FoxNews on the right, and MSNBC on the left. Each depends on the simplistic duality, and profits from it.

Conservative Rage. There are some segments of the Republican Party and the conservative movement that have come to view liberals as a force of evil. I discuss this in much more detail in my posts called “The Roots of Conservative Rage.”

This conservative rage means that some conservatives look at every issue, every political battle, as if it were an existential struggle for the very survival of America. Every political or cultural battle is a struggle between good and evil. Every issue becomes a crisis. Every vote is existential.

Liberal Response. I wish I could say that Liberals have taken the high ground in responding to the way some conservatives act. I wish I could, but I can’t.
Far too many Democrats respond to the Republican pettiness by being petty themselves. There was, for example, a web site devoted to “dogs against Romney” because Romney once put his dog in a crate on the roof of the car when the family traveled on vacation. I don’t know what to make of Romney’s action, but what kind of dufus actually spends time to create an anti-Romney web site based on that?

I find the general tone of Republican politics nasty and silly, but I can usually ignore it. When Democrats react in kind, I’m truly embarrassed.

The history of the last thirty years has also produced an unattractive smugness among some liberals. They look at Republican claims and behavior over that period and see little but failure. They see Republican claiming that tax cuts will increase revenue and shrink the deficit, and then see deficits balloon after each tax cut. They hear Republicans claim that any tax increase will kill the economy, and then note that the economy grew substantially after Clinton raised taxes, and stagnated after Bush cut taxes. They hear Republicans talk about the need for a robust national defense and an aggressive foreign policy, and then look at the disaster that ensued when President George W. Bush put those policies into effect in Iraq. They hear Republicans say such insightful things as “We will be welcomed as liberators” in response to the invasion of Iraq, and see that the opposite was true. For many liberals the Bush administration was the zenith of conservatism—the fulfillment of every conservative desire. And it was a complete disaster. And in the last five years it appears, more and more, that the truth is nearly the exact opposite of what Republicans claim. (Pre-election polling is but the clearest example.)

The result is that many Democrats have come to believe that the Republican Party has become a party of buffoons. But unfortunately it is also more than that. Some liberals have come to view conservatives in the same way that some conservatives view liberals. Some liberals look at the disaster of the Bush administration, and the insistence of many Republican politicians that the solution to our current problems are the exact same policies that failed for Bush, and they believe that conservatives are endorsing these policies not because they think they will improve things, but because they actually want to make things worse. They believe that, for example, Senator Mitch McConnell was willing to enact legislation that would harm the economy in an attempt to unseat President Obama. And so some liberals view conservatives as nefarious.

The end result is that both parties have come to believe that the other party has cracked. Republicans believe that Democrats want to introduce social legislation that will turn this nation into Sodom and Gomorrah. Democrats believe that Republicans want to destroy the government and turn the nation into a naive free market paradise where the riches go to the swiftest, and the devil takes the hindmost.

Now, I ask you, how are we supposed to get these guys to work together?

Do you really think a civility pledge will fix this?

Liberals versus Conservatives. As I noted in a separate post titled “The Roots of Conservative Rage” many conservatives see themselves as a firewall against liberal policies tha they view as harmful to the nation.

To paint this with a metaphor, conservatives tend to see themselves as defensive linemen lined up against the liberal offense, trying to stop the latest hail-Mary pass into the end zone (to approve gay marriage or ban assault rifles or whatever outrage conservatives are aligned against). In some ways this makes conservatives focus on liberals in a strange and unhealthy way. Sometimes, if you watch Hannity, or listen to Rush Limbaugh, you would think that conservatives are obsessed with liberals. And you would be right.

But liberals don’t tend to view the world this way. They see problems and then look for solutions. Sometimes those solutions involve chucking tradition, but in many cases they don’t. So liberals don’t see themselves as aligned against conservatives. Liberals don’t spend a whole lot of time focusing on conservatives. (They do spend some time, and MSNBC seems to be strangely obsessed. But if you look at a great deal of the more thoughtful liberal press – magazines like Harpers or the Atlantic – they focus more on issues than conservative politicians.)

Unfortunately this liberal response only further enrages conservatives. Liberal indifference bugs conservatives. I think they would like it better if more liberals were as focused on them as they are on liberals. But liberals are not, and this gets under their skin, and makes it more difficult for the two parties to work together.

The Partisan Echo Chamber. Driving much of this partisanship (and driving the nation into the ground) is an increasingly partisan media. FoxNews and talk radio dominate the right, and liberal imitators (like MSNBC) are a pale reflection. But both operated within the simplistic worldview that there are only two sides, and the other side is crazy. The pervasiveness and repetition, particularly on the right, helps drive the message home (and drive rational people crazy).

So what is the solution? I’ll address some ideas in a post titled “An Antidote to Partisan Poison.” Stay tuned.