We seem to see partisanship growing more and more around us and in turn, mutual understanding seems to be regressing. After all, why would one trust and try to act in good faith with a perceived crook, foreign agent, cheat, or an illegitimate actor? Would not they have insidious plans to destroy us from the inside or give us the short end of the stick? No, this mentality of the “othering” of political, cultural, and social actors slows intermediary dialogue and damages the health of processes of change. Ironically, the processes of democratic countries have increasingly been the tool in which a maliciously intended actor will use and to further their own cause (which is to the detriment of those aforementioned processes). Within these processes they bring this method of “othering” and instill it into their own followers with their dogma. The point of the method is for the disconnection of one’s base or supporters from being able to critically engage and reason with a detractor from the “incorrect” line of thought. With all that in mind, it seems that partisanship should be avoided as it is a tool for more vitriolic actors to further their goals in a disingenuous way.
What is a partisan
First things first, what exactly is a partisan? One tenant of being a partisan is to be biased towards a specific cause, and with that they are usually entrenched in it. This in itself is not inherently a major problem considering everyone is biased and bought into their own line of thought to an extent. The thing that is specifically problematic with partisans is that there is a more hostile attitude to a view or idea outside of that specific partisan’s ideological purview. Conviction in tandem with this close mindedness is where the problem lies. A partisan will more likely argue to preserve their worldview’s or ideal’s value rather than to arguing which worldview or ideal seems to be the most sound. The difference being that the partisan will argue their point as a value in itself rather than a method of fulfilling another value, in most cases validity and soundness. This line of thought may come from the idea that the partisan’s conviction stops them from considering possibly better or more efficacious ideas. This attitude seems to be on the rise as well as political opponents think of their advisories less and less. Take a study done by the Pew Research Center that followed the growth of uncharitable characterizations that people would give to their political advisories. It Cataloged the amount of use of lazy, immoral, unintelligent, close-minded, and dishonesty as attributes that were used by people to apply to their political opponents. Their results showed that both Republicans and Democrats increased their use of ALL of these words against each other from 2016 to 2022 (“Partisan Hostility Grows”). This can be corroborated by the fact that America’s polarization has grown larger and more vitriolic than many other democracies around the world. Since the seventies we have grown more partisan than the UK, Canada, Australia, Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden (Kimball). With these two pieces of information not only know that partisanship is a growing issue (especially in the U.S.), but we also know that it’s growth is paired with the effect that it produces an increased sense of animosity between those in political or social difference. To be clear, demagogues and populists are not the unilateral cause of every condition that leads to a polarized society. They sometimes take advantage of the preexisting social cleavages and exacerbate them to their own benefit. The aforementioned fact that the U.S. has a higher amount of partisanship had it’s starting measurements taken in the late seventies, so there is another factor alone than lone malicious actors wishing to twist the population’s perception. The main reason for these conditions seem to be the fact that shared identities look to be on the decline. A good synopsis of this is “The makeup of the two parties has changed a great deal in the past sixty years, increasing the social distance between them. Partisans have less and less in common. Fewer cross-cutting cleavages remain to link the parties together and allow the understanding, communication, and compromise necessary to fuel the American electorate, and, by extension, the American government” (Mason, 44). As these partisans are more closeminded to their opposition, they have less patience and good faith to offer to the “wrong” ideas and values when arguing. It is also to be said that there doesn’t even have to be the explicit thought of themselves being objectively right to be a more partisan person. One may think themselves open-minded just to disengage in the conversation when their value comes under scrutiny. You don’t have to be consciously pretentious or belligerent to be a partisan, but those who are exhibit those qualities much more often than those who aren’t. There are partisans which are open to scrutiny but they seem to still hold that hampering conviction in some regard. Vitriolic partisanship is much more problematic than a simple aversion to an uncomfortable conclusion. As such, it will have the spotlight though the more subtle form is still undesirable.
Partisanship as a problem
The aforementioned issue with partisans being able to effectively grapple with their own stance on a subject leads to problems in dialogue and argumentation. In societies that are governed by democratic systems, this behavior can be detrimental to the system’s prolonged health and effectiveness. For example lets say you live in a large city and there is a new push to construct a nuclear power plant 20 miles away to reduce power costs and get greener energy. Lets also say that there are farmers near where the plant is to be built. Optimally you could perhaps make a deal with the farmers to give them subsidies, pay them cash, or give them some other consolation to make a mutually beneficial settlement for both parties. If there is high partisanship between the two sides, then both lose out on benefits they would have had otherwise. Perhaps the city builds the reactor anyway against the wishes of the farmers, taking portions of their land to use for construction. This would be more beneficial to the reactor supporters in the short run, but it poses two questions that makes it less beneficial than it otherwise would have been. The first question being “What is good about a system that is only viable through the rule of the strong?”. The second being “what opportunity costs is there in doing so as you alienate your opposition (in this case the farmers) into a position that they would be less likely (if not completely not) to extend good faith in a situation where they have the upper hand?”. Both of these pose an opportunity cost that diminishes the partisan reactor supporter’s beneficial method to a detrimental one. Not to mention, a person who is more inclined to think detractors of their worldview are wrong and need to listen rather than being open to good faith conversation is a person who is more inclined to commit acts of violence against them. The lack of nuance, dialogue, and understanding that partisanship brings is a poison to a system built on compromises between competing interest groups. Democracies need certain respected norms to be able to endure including the institutional beneficence of the system, and mutual toleration between the interest groups engaging in it. Mutual toleration is needed as the state has to please a myriad of interest groups all vying for their particular will to be represented. To not tolerate the other is to permit (or even endorse) their disenfranchisement from representation. It also opens the door to violence and the rule of the strong as compromises and mutual benefits are seen as a barrier to a goal rather than a solution to it. Institutional beneficence is the good faith use of institutions in how they are used to respect rules and respect the rule of law. With partisanship this is not spared either as partisans, not seeing other actors worth toleration, will use institutions for their own end and disrespect the rule of law if they feel so inclined. Both of these are a major problem in their own right but together and with other issues, they become untenable in a democracy.
Partisanship as a weapon
With these unfortunate outcomes in mind, its important to think about the results than may follow from them. With the breakdown of institutions, the consolidation of power becomes easier, protections for opposition parties and/or actors become weakened, etc. This effect while generally seeming undesirable, may be sought after by demagogues and populists looking for power. If you wish to take over a democracy for your own or your ideology’s end without regard for the system and it’s institutions, why not harness this destructive power for yourself? To frame other politicians as crooks and illegitimate is to make your base less susceptible to criticism from them and more likely to oppose them. Not only that but they will find it more acceptable for undemocratic measures used to block them from influence. An example of this consequence can be seen in PBS’ documentary “The Hugo Chavez Show” which is about a Hugo and his rise to power in Venezuela. Throughout the documentary Chavez is shown undermining the integrity of Venezuela’s democratic institutions, and at the end it is revealed he barred his political opponents from running against him. There are also of him using the aforementioned tactic of calling others rancid pigs, squalid oligarchs, enemies, and traitors (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 75). He also discredited his own cabinet members and shifted the blame onto them on national television whenever there was a failure under his administration. He framed the people and himself as victims to the cabinet members incompetence. Not only did it give all credibility for victories to him while protecting himself from any criticism of failure, but it also continued to cultivate the idea of he and the people as an oppressed group together. This “us” vs. “them” mentality works well with partisans, and so demagogues framing themselves as a part of the “us” fighting the “thems” legitimizes themselves and delegitimizes the “enemy” in the people’s eyes. This “us” vs. “them” mentality can also be seen in Colombia when Colombian politicians used disinformation and more polarizing language to achieve the same end. There are a myriad of different examples of partisanship and political polarization being used to further an end for someone else, and these are just a few. It is important that we stay vigilant to these actors, and remain understanding of each other. The last thing we need is for us to be set on each other when we have to work together to make our democracy work.
“Disinformation in Democracies: Why Colombia’s Experience Is a Dire Warning for the United States.” Www.democratic-Erosion.com, www.democratic-erosion.com/2020/05/28/disinformation-in-democracies-why-colombias-experience-is-a-dire-warning-for-the-united-states/. Accessed 4 Nov. 2023.
Kimball, Jill. “U.S. Is Polarizing Faster than Other Democracies, Study Finds.” Brown University, Brown University, 21 Jan. 2020, www.brown.edu/news/2020-01-21/polarization.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. London, Penguin, 2018.
Mason, Lilliana. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Pew Research Center. “As Partisan Hostility Grows, Signs of Frustration with the Two-Party System.” Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy, 9 Aug. 2022, www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/08/09/as-partisan-hostility-grows-signs-of-frustration-with-the-two-party-system/.