Thursday, January 31, 2008

Neo-Partisanship and Post-Partisanship

The steady-state of American politics since the 1990s has been hyper-partisanship. Conventional wisdom at the time had been that the US electorate was comprised of three main factions, activists on the left and activists on the right whose votes were unalterably Democratic and Republican and would in the end cancel each other out, and uncommitted voters in the middle who swing back and forth and decide elections. the Republican strategy was to redraw the lines, so that the swing voters were eliminated, forced into a clearly and radically divided electorate. By splitting the country in half, the idea was that an aggressive, well-funded church-based effort would get an increasing number of the conservative half out to vote, while classic suppression tactics, especially towards minorities, would diminish percentage of the Democrats half that came out to vote, thereby securing a permanent Republican majority.

The liberal and conservative worldviews differ in their basic presuppositions and the central question asked. The liberal stance towards governance is informed by the core beliefs that (a) humans are basically equal with differences being trivial, (b) power and resources are unevenly and unfairly distributed because of political, sociological, and historical reasons, and (c) a significant role of government is to help provide a world conducive to human flourishing for as many as possible. From these presuppositions the central question to be answered in approaching how to govern is "Given that the situation in the world is unjust, how can we help to correct it?"

The conservative stance towards governance, on the other hand, derives from different axioms, namely (a) humans are not necessarily equal, there are significant differences in terms of ability, effort, and commitment to traditional values, and these differences make a person more or less valuable, (b) power and resources are unequally distributed, but this inequity is fair and a result of the innate and chosen differences in ability, effort, and commitment to traditional values, indeed, the forces of the free market will always force these inequities to be where they belong, and (c) the role of the government is only to enforce contracts
and secure order, all else interferes with the natural mechanisms of the market that bring about the unequal, but fair distribution of power and resources. From these points, the conservative question to be answered by those who govern is, "Given that the situation in the world will natural tend towards justice if left alone, how can we make sure we do not hinder it?"

These differences feed into the resulting hyper-partisanship which can be characterized by two properties: (1) framing issues so that the presuppositions of the other side are implicitly deemed false making competing positions seem absurd, and (2) vilifying opponents so that policy differences are seen as character flaws, treasonous, or insane. By dehumanizing the other side, by failing to even consider the meaningfulness of their point of view and creating strawman arguments out of their every proposal, we come to what we know as politics as unusual.

There have been two movements arising to counter this:


There is a group of politicians, some from each party, whose approach has been largely dubbed in the media "bi-partisan" or occasionally "non-partisan." This group including Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg appear at first glance to cross the partisan divide and therefore stand in stark opposition to the harmful hyper-partisanship of the current political context.

This is, however, false. Because we have a winner take all, rather than a parliamentary, system, we are forced to have two strong parties and this gives us a reflexive binary understanding of politics where we wrongly think of polarization into two points of view as natural and necessary. A third view point would have to be non-partisan since partisan has to be either right or left and this is neither. In a parliamentary system where you have a large number of parties, each with different, but strident positions, this knee-jerk duality does not occur.

What we see from this group is not bi-partisan or non-partisan at all, but an approach that is every bit as hyper-partisan; I therefore propose we call it neo-partisanship. Their presuppositions are (a) the majority is almost always right and the majority of people are neither liberal nor conservative, but agree with virtually all of the policy positions they advocate, (b) liberals and conservatives are always wrong by virtue of being liberals and conservatives, the best policy positions are always those that lie at the mean between the liberal and conservative extremes, (c) rancorous, passionate debate is a bad thing that only inflames and empowers the liberals and conservatives and therefore should be quelled by the consensus of the majority. Their central question in governing is "How do we marginalize those who would raise the traditional policy debates, so that the mean between the extremes proceeds unhindered?"

In pursuit of their goals, they are every bit as hyper-partisan in that they also frame the debates so that liberal and conservative viewpoints are immediately treated as nonsensical and they vilify and attempt to marginalize those whom they see as extremists on both sides. This is not a step away from partisan rancor, but a new partisan movement trying to quash the other two.


The term "post-partisan" has been thrown around recently without much thought as to what it actually means. Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee are often pointed to as examples of this post-partisan trend. The records and the campaigns of these people are clearly partisan, so what makes their approach appear post-partisan? (I will not assert that either is, in fact, post-partisan, but set it up as a open question worth considering.)

Post-partisanship is not a rejection of partisanship per se, but rather the explicit rejection of hyper-partisanship. A new frame is placed on issues that is based on presuppositions accounting for the intuitions of both liberals and conservatives: (a) humans are basically equal with differences being trivial, (b) power and resources are unevenly and unfairly distributed because of political, sociological, and historical reasons, although within this context people generally work hard and deserve the fruits of their labor, and (c) the role of government is to find the balance between the need to help those who are vulnerable and granting maximal freedom to those who are less so. On this approach, the question of governance is "How much and how best do we help?" From the liberal worldview we have the central notion that government is there to help create the preconditions for widespread human flourishing, from the conservative side we have the question about the limit of the government in executing that role.

Unlike neo-partisanship, this is not connected with a single set of narrowly tailored policy positions. One can advocate a strongly liberal post-partisan position or a strongly conservative post-partisan position; but in doing so, one is implicitly acknowledging the validity of the concerns of the other side and setting out in good faith an answer to their central question. This humanizes the opponent and takes their views seriously while still allowing for the passionate debate needed in a functioning democracy. A post-partisan politic is still very much a partisan affair, but one that allows for a broad range of viewpoints and one that does not suffer from the ills of hyper-partisanship.

The answers to our woes is not to emulate Solomon and advocate cutting the political baby in half. The answer here is every bit as bad as the answer there. We do not need to get rid of partisan bickering, we just need to reform it so that it is effective and performs the role we demand of it, to force all sides to sharpen their views, to have their excesses and flaws exposed and corrected, and to give rise to new, innovative ways to make the country and the world the best place for all. It will be vibrant, it will be messy, it will be uncomfortable. We do not pull punches in a post-partisan world, we just stop all the hitting below the belt. We need not fear a fair fight, indeed, we need to begin to create it.