Partisanship: Is it Beyond Repair?

By Jono Davis
Editor, International Relations Student 

Once upon a time, partisanship was a word used only in the United States to describe sports teams: if it was baseball it was the Braves-Mets rivalry, or if it was basketball it was Celtics-Lakers. Politics however, was an entirely different story: President Gerald Ford, in his confirmation hearing by the US House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, stated “Compromise is the oil that makes governments go.” Even Ronald Reagan, in a 1964 speech credited with kick starting his career, held “the issues confronting us cross party lines;” a lifelong Democrat, Reagan entered politics with a sense of ambivalence to party lines, and although leaving the White House as a revered Conservative, he never once lost respect for those on the other side of the aisle [1]. In 2017, by contrast, we find a president whose entire campaign strategy rested firmly on deriding the legitimacy of his opposition, attacking high profile opponents with epithets like “fake tears,” and “crooked.”

Partisanship has become endemic to politics. In fact, according to a Pew Research Centre poll, it is more pervasive than ever before, as more than half of Democrats (55 percent) and 49 percent of Republicans saying the other party makes them “afraid.” Among those highly engaged in politics—those who say they vote regularly and either volunteer for or donate to campaigns—fully 70 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party. As this is being written, the United States is already beginning to burn: UC Berkley was been set alight after controversial figure Milo Yiannopoulus was set to give a talk, while Swastikas have begun to populate the New York subway.

This level of division is not without precedent; in 1892 the German sociologist Max Nordau published Degeneration, which essentially described a similar situation to which we are in now: he wrote that “society is mentally and morally fatigued by the incessant pace of change, standing in the midst of a severe mental epidemic, a sort of Black Death of degeneration and hysteria.”

Morbid, to be sure, and one can’t help reading this in relation to our own time, despite it being written more than a century ago. Unprecedented change creates two camps, both of whom can be labelled as “degenerationists,” as Max Nordau’s theory goes, with one side claiming things are moving too fast and ruining norms whilst the other claiming society’s change isn’t fast enough nor in the right direction. The former camp is clearly the Conservative Right, where changes to marriage status, free trade deals costing American jobs, and austerity measures (or the expansion of government in general) have caused them to dig their heels in, using the Constitution as a historical anchor which can halt these detrimental changes. The latter is the Liberal Left, believing that globalisation has brought about, despite limited benefits [2], irreparable damage to the environment, enormous inequality, and the spread of a quasi Fascist reaction.

Herein lies the true problem: politicians in the United States, those with the power to govern and change, roughly since the Contract with America movement in 1994, have fed off this partisanship, and have used this divide in the populace to make elections meaningless and challenges trivial. To point out an obvious example of this, America is one of the few Democratic countries left where political parties do not have to produce a manifesto; they instead have a “party platform,” that has no bearing on actual policy, and uses broad terms such as “[we as Democrats] will continue to fight for those families who suffered the loss of their homes.” It makes perfect sense then, that despite Congress ratings falling to as low as one percent (behind that of malaria), and incumbency ratings are as high as they have ever been. Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader, has been in Congress long enough to be a part of the anti-China movement during the Bush Senior administration, and she is one of the young ones!

So, what is to be done? Clearly, the solution must be tailored to the problem: unresponsive elected officials able to operate without democratic pressure and oversight. To this end, Americans should press for term limits on senators and congressmen, allowing for new ideas, solutions, and relationships to be forged across the aisle. In practice, however, this idea must also be followed up with the nationalisation of elections. Radical? Absolutely, but this model is tried and (sort of) proven to eliminate large “donations” being made to political parties – who are currently, private entities. This will also affect air time as well, preventing the sickening amount of (and often more aggressive than fact based) smear ads during an election cycle. It will not only save money, allowing these private investors to create more jobs and pay more taxes which will in turn improve infrastructure, but it will begin to clean up this top-down generated partisanship running rampant across the United States.

The only alternative, is degeneration.


Featured image by: White House photographer (1987)

[1] In a debate with Walter Mondale during the 1984 political campaign, Reagan made a point of saying ‘I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience’.

[2] Interestingly, social capital is a measurement that many Conservatives see as being ruined by globalisation – Robert Putnam’s book (2000) Bowling Alone is a great source for this.

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