Partisanship Has Reduced Our Efficacy as Citizens

I’ve been thinking a lot about the new evidence that partisan distrust and even hatred now trumps racial hatred. Consider the now-famous Iyengar/Westwood study, “Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization.” Iyengar and Westwood showed that partisan identification has ceased to be a wholly ideological or instrumental self-description. It’s gone from identification to identity: it’s become an affective relationship that justifies exclusions, bias, and even outright prejudice.

Asked to award a scholarship to fictional high school seniors with equal qualifications, Democrats and Republicans awarded a seniors who had evidence of the opposing party affiliation among their qualifications only 21% of the time. Even when the scholarship candidate from the opposing party was more qualified, Democrats awarded the scholarship to Republican-affiliated high school seniors only 30% of the time, while Republicans awarded the scholarship to more qualified Democrats only 15% of the time! Alongside other evidence from economic games and implicit association tests, this enmity towards now appears like a very serious bias, one that most people almost certainly encounter as a part of their everyday lives.

I just can’t get my mind around the idea that people would feel comfortable privileging members of their party in scholarship competitions. It feels pretty dirty, and it suggests the kind of unwillingness to associate and collaborate that will be a real challenge to democratic public work in the years to come.

It used to be pretty common to remark that racial hatred was cultivated by elites who themselves didn’t feel bigotry deeply in order to prevent the alliance of working people whose interests were closely allied. By preventing workers from developing solidarity, racial mistrust allowed elites to create competition and legitimate violence. And yet everyone seems to have forgotten that lesson now that hatred based on partisan identity is at stake. Elites don’t care about partisan identity nearly as much as ordinary folks now do. Wonks and bureaucrats are partisan but usually get along with their opponents quite well. Technocrats agree on more than we disagree on. But citizens need to be able to work with their neighbors on matters of shared concern even when they don’t agree on federal immigration policy, firearms, or the culture war.

What’s more, partisan identification isn’t even a particularly good guide a person’s ideological positions on those matters. Precisely because most districts are safe districts for one party or another, voters’ experiences of the parties do not necessarily line up with their beliefs about specific policy issues. Ideological consistency of voters has never been particularly strong: it’s growing, but from a very low base.

Even in a world where partisans will deny each other jobs and scholarships, only 56% of Democrats hold mostly liberal views, and only 45% of Republicans hold mostly liberal views. If you expect true ideological consistency from partisans (the sort of thing that political philosophers try to achieve, maybe) then you’ll find partisan identification even less helpful: only 23% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans are consistently or rigorously liberal or conservative. So what justifies the enmity?

I don’t think it can be justified, and I think we need to aim a healthy skepticism at people like Jonathan Haidt who diagnose liberal and conservative brains. What’s left is culture, and our cultures are increasingly trying to justify and legitimate partisan differences in just the same way that they’d justify racial differences or gender differences or class differences. We can’t let that happen.

But what should we do, what should you and I do together, to prevent the growing partisan hatred? Here’s what President Obama–the Citizen-in-Chief–said during the State of the Union:

The future we want — all of us want — opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living, a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids — all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics.

A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country — different regions, different attitudes, different interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, fiercely, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.

But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice. It doesn’t work if we think that our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise, or when even basic facts are contested, or when we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention. And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.

Too many Americans feel that way right now. It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.


So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, whether you supported my agenda or fought as hard as you could against it — our collective futures depends on your willingness to uphold your duties as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. We need every American to stay active in our public life — and not just during election time — so that our public life reflects the goodness and the decency that I see in the American people every single day.

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