Dec 16 2013

In defense of the right kind of partisanship


Reform Party of California Commentary

The Dec. 14-15, 2013 issue of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) at page C3 published an interesting essay (online here) that called for embrace of polarized partisan traditions, a/k/a/ fights, in Washington politics. The essay raises some interesting issues. The essay defended the partisan discord as a healthy part of a messy democratic process. That argument misses the greater point. It is grounded in self-serving two-party thinking and perceptions of reality. The relevant inquiry asks what interests all of that partisan discord serve. In contrast to what the WSJ essay posits, the Reform Party of California (RPCA) rejects the proposition that the partisan fights in Washington are being conducted primarily to serve the public interest.

There are good reasons to believe that the partisan two-party fighting serves some combination of partisan ideology, political self-interest and special interests. Those interests prominently include the democratic and republican parties themselves and their major financial supporters. That assessment is by no means an extremist or outlier belief. It represents an opinion that most Americans by and large agree with either through, e.g., their loss of trust in the federal government and/or both parties or via their rejection of party affiliation as reflected by their independent voter status. There is nothing wrong with constructive partisanship is service to the public interest, e.g., partisan politics does not have to equate with gridlock.


If you search online definitions of “partisan”, you get something about like this: Noun: Someone who strongly supports a party, group, cause or person (collectively a “cause”). Adjective: Devoted to or biased in support of a cause. Given that, the difference between a non-partisan person or group operating in support of or opposition to a cause and a partisan amounts to the degree or intensity of their support or opposition. The partisan vs. non-partisan distinction arguably is a rather large grey zone, not a thin bright line. Specifically, how can one objectively distinguish a partisan for or against a particular cause from a non-partisan supporting or opposing the same cause? Making that call can be very difficult.

There is a growing awareness among some politically active groups that the innate human characteristics, e.g., confirmation bias, can profoundly affect perceptions of reality. It is largely a matter of how our brains work, biologically speaking. Political and religious ideologues sometimes simply reject facts (not opinions) that undermine their ideology but that can nonetheless be objectively proven to be factually true. Part of the problem is the inherent difficulty of distinguishing fact from opinion and part comes from the corrosive power of ideology to distort reality.[1]

Therein lies a warning about partisanship. Specifically, if you are too partisan and ideological about your cause, you increase the risk succumbing to your own innate human biases that distort your view of reality. That can cause you to dismiss better policy options and/or support misguided or second best policy options. Reducing or eliminating the role of ideology, which is mostly subjective, should reduce the human tendency to see the world as it should be instead of seeing it as it is. Partisanship can be helpful but its tendency to distort reality and thinking always has to be understood and fought against.

Not all kinds of partisanship and partisans are alike

Key operatives and supporters of modern political parties are largely hard core partisans. Given the partisanship that dominates now, it is fair to ask whose interests the partisanship serves first and foremost. Distrust in government and both parties is grounded in factors that include a fairly common perception that special interests and their money exert too much influence. And, there is evidence that politicians serve party and/or their own interests before they serve the public interest.

If partisanship is a significant factor in reality and/or the public’s perceptions of political parties, then one can argue that that kind of partisanship does not serve the public interest more than it harms it, e.g., partisanship offends people and some respond by refusing vote in any election. Given the context of essentially all discussion of two-party politics and political options limited to the “reality” described by the mainstream press, both parties, special interest groups and powerful but anonymous 501(c)(4) groups backed by hundreds of millions of dollars, why should anyone see anything differently?

The short answer is simple: Not all partisanship is created equal. Not by a long shot. Those specie of beast do not all cross-breed. The WSJ essay[2] citing Edmund Burke as authority had this to say in praise of what the RPCA considers to be the standard two-party version of reality (the RPCA’s version of fantasy): A partisan faction “. . . is a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavor the national interest upon some interest (cause) in which they are all agreed.” That ignores the possibility that there could be a body of men united for promoting their own interests, which is what most Americans believe is often or usually going on in Washington.

The WSJ also had this to say in what the RPCA considers to be an endorsement of an unacceptable two-party status quo: “After all, the alternative to today’s partisan debate isn’t high-minded deliberation among toga-clad Romans; it is modern technocracy— the rule of experts who think they know enough to manage society from the center.” As far as the RPCA goes, that characterization is vapid malarkey. The comment is a blast against liberal ideology and technology. From a point of pragmatic view that does not give a rip about anything other than what best serves the public interest, the debate is not limited to modern technocracy vs. conservative ideals. That reflects an aspect of the standard, constipated thinking that comes from the ideologically based two-party world view. The debate does not need to be limited one of either one point of view or that of the only other opposing viewpoint.

What if the argument is raised that partisanship in service of the public interest is fine but partisanship in service of the status quo isn’t? What if someone says that as they currently operate, neither partisan two-party view best serves the public interest? That is exactly the position the RPCA takes.

And, the WSJ’s essay cannot criticize the concept of the public interest as irrelevant or meaningless, because it said this in defense of the status quo: “Partisans who help each other remain focused on a shared vision of the common good (i.e., the public interest), rather than on momentary political advantage, might just advance the national interest and their party interests at the same time. . . . . [That] offers a goal as much as a hope. Since partisanship isn’t going anywhere, liberals and conservatives alike would be wise to make the most of it.”[3] OK, but how does one tell what advances both or just one of the two interests? Do we just takes the partisan’s word for it that they are on our side and any good stuff going to their cause is merely incidental?

The essay’s rhetoric is nice, but how can one really tell when the partisan focuses on narrow political or economic advantage instead of a “shared vision of the common good”? Not surprisingly, the essay simply ignores the inconvenient relevance of personal or partisan political and/or personal economic advantage vs. the public interest. It has to do that. All of that underpins our pay-to -play system of politics.

All of that also ignores people who are neither liberals nor conservatives, i.e., what about the independents, pragmatists and centrists? Do we just blow them off? The two-party system certainly does.

Notice that the WSJ simply ignores other kinds of partisanship such as the reality-based non-ideological, common-sense pragmatism the RPCA advocates. Why are other possibilities ignored? Because they threaten the two-party grip of American’s view of politics as a titanic fight between the left and right as the only alternatives there are. In that pipsqueak little world, everything has to be grounded in liberal or conservative ideology. The RPCA disagrees with all of it.

Why should anyone care?

People and the real world are more intellectually versatile and complicated than the vision we are routinely presented with. Unspun reality and real people, not two-party politics, do nuance. Two-party politics does blunderbuss and meat axe. If the two-party vision of reality and issues remain the only accepted form of mainstream discourse, it is easy to argue that nothing important will fundamentally change. In that world, the two parties will, for example, continue to gerrymander voting districts to favor the status quo and to suppress other points of view via rigged anti-democratic primary elections. America will just have to live with continued the failure of the two-party system. In addition, arguments from sources like the RPCA who argue that our politcal thinking is too constrained and therefore flawed will not gain traction.

It seems like this is worth caring about, especially if a partisanship that is focused on service to the public interest[3] can become influential. Not all kinds of partisanship are equal. Partisanship based on the two-party system and its parochial self-serving needs gives you politics and policy that is second rate, at best. That is what dominates politics today. Partisanship based on non-ideological common sense and focused on service to a meaningful form of the public interest is the best kind of partisanship.


1. The Reform Party of California (RPCA) has pointed to the skepticism of some political conservatives who reject global warming as being real, affected by human activity and/or that is something that is a serious, urgent issue. For that issue, the debate among experts about these fundamentals is over, although some conservatives refuse to accept that fact as true. For the vast majority of climate scientists, i.e., the real experts, as opposed to amateur political ideologues, global warming is real, enhanced or mostly caused by human activity, serious and urgent. The scientific debate is now centered on how bad, how soon and/or is it already too late. A few others have also come to essentially the same conclusions about the corrosive effects of ideology on perceptions of reality or facts.

2. The essay’s author is Yuval Levin. Dr. Levin is, for the most part, a hard core conservative ideologue, e.g., the editor of National Affairs, an advocate for conservative ideology. Even when he is not obviously conservative, his conservatism distorts his perceptions of whatever reality he sees and thus what he advocates. His world is black and white and that accords with the human trait of wanting to see the world as it should be and is through the reality-distorting lens of ideology. In RPCA opinion, the real world is more complex and grey than easy, comfortable black and white. That is an unsurprising difference of perception of reality between a conservative (or liberal) ideologue who operates within the two-party paradigm compared to common sense opinion coming from outside the two-party box.

3. As it is currently used in two-party politics, the RPCA considers the concept of the “public interest” to be essentially meaningless. Everyone, i.e., 100%, of people will argue that whatever they do best serves the public interest, regardless of what effect there is, good, bad or neutral. What partisans do is subjectively define the public interest as what they think it is or should be. There is nothing objective in it. The real issue is whether and how the concept can be made sufficiently objective to instill some degree of real meaning. If so, it ought to be easier to cut through some of the dense smoke, mirrors and spin that dominates most of the self-serving drivel that dominates two-party discourse.