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When Partisanship Fills A Void

October 31, 2017

There is an excellent piece in today's New York Times by David Brooks about how, when in the press of nominal social and cultural depth, party loyalty begins to fill our needs for connection and bonds, when traditional forms of association have withered. The author writes,


Today, partisanship for many people is not about which party has the better policies, as it was, say, in the days of Eisenhower and Kennedy. It’s not even about which party has the better philosophy, as it was in the Reagan era. These days, partisanship is often totalistic. People often use partisan identity to fill the void left when their other attachments wither away — religious, ethnic, communal and familial.


Somehow, this political tribalism fulfills an unmet need in a society where "loss" can sometimes sound the watchword of our time. Loss of history. Loss of connection. Loss of meaning. Loss of religion. Loss of values. And on and on.


Scientific American published a post by political scientist Alexander George Theodoridis on the era of hyperpartisanship. The author notes,


Partisanship for many Americans today takes the form of a visceral, even subconscious, attachment to a party group. Our party becomes a part of our self-concept in deep and meaningful ways. This linkage of party and “self” changes the way we judge the parties and incorporate and receive new information.


The author seems at ease with the conclusion that we are, "a nation overwhelmed by dislike and distrust of the other side and, consequently, a political process incapable of compromise and mired in gridlock."


From my experience to date, this is half correct. Two important features stand out as pillars for hope to me:

  1.  Most of us seem willing to acknowledge the problem; it is recognizable to everyone I've spoken with on this trip. No one seems particularly comfortable with these attitudes, and certainly don't abide by them when local issues and politics are in play.

  2. Importantly, I hear willingness to disentangle emotions toward people from profound disagreements on substance. This is our best, pragmatic selves coming out where we often come out - at the moment of crisis. What seems more difficult is translating this openness into acceptance of party negotiation and compromise.

What I sense is missing from the analyses painted in the New York Times, Scientific American and elsewhere are at least two plagues of modern political science which inflate partisanship; I am hearing that they also have a powerful corrosive effect on our interpersonal relations, especially at the national level:

  1. The role of big money in driving enormously negative advertising campaigns. Let's call it what it is: powerful media conditioning. It stands to reason that if media can be used to make us feel negative about the "other," it can be used to repair that same canyon.

  2. The impact of social media is profound. Most people can relate to experiences of feeling bullied and shut down online, particularly within Facebook. The shared sentiment is that people say and behave in ways online that they would never dare in a face-to-face setting.

A third plague that I have been wondering about is the thinning of historical context in our political and democratic imagination. As I travel the country, it is extraordinary to hear the stories and imagery that animate our democratic aspiration. Most of them are drawn from direct and personal experience within our lifetimes; this has been a revelation to me. Few stories go back a century or more to "origin myths" and broadly unifying "national" stories. As a result, everything in terms of a national democratic narrative of significance is personal.


The risk here is that everything is contested and lacking durability - each story can be eclipsed by the experience of next generation, the next seemingly cataclysmic event in American democratic life. Without historical perspective, our conflicts can appear enlarged; their significance can be easily exaggerated. Can the conflicts of our time, without this perspective, become unnecessarily divisive?


At the least, too little about our democratic roots and evolution over the last 250 years, it could seem, is epic and enduring. More on this then down the road, with a bit more time to chew it over.


A huge thanks to everyone continuing to share snippets and resources from the news and elsewhere - please keep them coming in!


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