The Case of Principle v. Partisanship

I was about to start writing a post for the lively Israel-Palestine series, the beginnings of which are percolating through my head.  But then Kyle had to come in and write a post that is completely in my wheelhouse.  Kyle writes a bit more than I’m prepared to tackle all at once, although much of it implicates things I’ve been writing about a lot over the last few weeks.  (See, e.g., here and here; see also Massie). 

But if there’s one thing Kyle is trying to do in his post, it is that he is attempting to delineate the difference between productive and counter-productive partisanship:

Sometimes partisanship in this most useful form ultimately and completely proves wrong the precepts of one ideology, or perhaps more accurately, the dogma of that ideology, and sometimes it proves it unassailably true.  More often than not, however, when partisanship is working at optimal levels, the final result is some sort of compromise, one that pulls the very best from all participants, using the opposing concepts to ultimately create a rock solid foundation.

I think the key distinction here ultimately lies in the difference between principles and dogma or between ends and means. 

When political compromise works best, it is because the compromise is made in such a way as to allow all parties to only compromise on means rather than on ends or principles.  When political compromise is made solely for the purpose of appearing “bipartisan,” “centrist,” or “moderate” or to otherwise merely serve short term political goals, it often has the effect of satisfying few with an actual interest in or understanding of the issue.

In other words, the worthwhile political compromise is founded in a basic recognition that all parties to the compromise have different ideals and visions of “the good life,” which are not readily susceptible to empiric evaluation.  Worthwhile compromise validates each of these visions, with the effect of making just about everyone happier.  But the only way to achieve such compromise is for the parties to that compromise to stick to their guns, so to speak.  And this, I think, is the “good” partisanship that Kyle is trying to identify in his post.

But then there is the “bad” partisanship, which Kyle identifies as “contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism,” and which I have dubbed “talk radio dogmatism,” and E.D. has dubbed “talking points conservatism[/liberalism].”   As Kyle notes – correctly, in many ways – “the destructively antagonistic nature that inhabits our political culture does so because ultimately it produces victors and the defeated, and with no treaties to signify times of political peace, and no off seasons to mark a time when the field is no longer used for battle, politics is a perpetual practice in doing anything and everything to win.” 

But the way in which these types of victories are produced is by keeping independent voters at home while motivating the “base” to get to the polls through repeated appeals to emotion on a wide variety of issues.  They are not produced by finding ways of “expanding the pie” and bringing new factions into the umbrella of your political coalition.  Instead, they are produced by overcooking the existing pie, shrinking its diameter even as it is made (falsely) to appear larger than ever. 

So why do political coalitions so inevitably rely on this particular method of winning elections rather than trying to expand the pie?  The answer, quite simply, is that the success of a political coalition begins to give dogma the moral weight of principle, and to allow means to be confused with ends.  After all, political parties need some way of identifying who is and is not one of them in order to present a coherent vision of what that party represents.  But when a party is successful, it inevitably achieves some of the core issues upon which its members most widely agreed, while other issues may get “overtaken by events,” and still others may get co-opted by members of the other party.  Having achieved success or seen some core issues rendered irrelevant by the passage of time, parties are thus forced to find new issues upon which to rely as identifying markers – issues upon which there is far less widespread agreement. 

But because these issues are not necessary to the core end(s) to which all or nearly all party supporters ascribe, there is little principled, reasoned argument to make on their behalf that will appeal to those core ends.   The only real option, then, is to appeal to emotion, effectively turning the issue from a mere means to an end into an end.  The issue is thus treated as if it were a foundational principle.  Because principles are inherently non-falsifiable and not susceptible to empirical evaluation, anyone or anything that would differ from the preferred position on the issue must be torn down emotionally and viciously.  And thus you get contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism, talk radio dogmatism, or talking points-ism. 

Eventually, the contrarian/dogmatist attempt to succeed by simply “overcooking the pie” results in an explosion where the coalition’s cohesion more or less completely breaks down and the coalition’s share of the pie disintegrates, succeeding only to the extent it is capable of coopting the other party’s vision.  At some point, the disintegration reaches the point where the coalition may be rebuilt again as the coalition is forced to again rally around a limited set of issues that are undeniably connected to the coalition’s remaining core principles and ends. 

At that point, the coalition is ready to be led by someone who can articulate – well – those core principles and ends without falling into dreary details about policy specifics.  And that, I think, is why it’s no coincidence that the two most successful national politicians of my lifetime were both repeatedly (and somewhat correctly) accused of lacking substance, at least in their rhetoric.  They weren’t trying to win an election by running down a wish list of pet policies en vogue amongst their coalitions; they were trying to win an election by running on their articulated visions of core, unfalsifiable, and inherently appealing principles that did not necessitate any particular policy details.

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3 thoughts on “The Case of Principle v. Partisanship

  1. Well, naturally, Obama and Reagan.* **

    *STANDARD MARK THOMPSON DISCLAIMER #1: None of the above should be interpreted as an endorsement or attack on the substance of the policies of either party referred to herein.

    **POST-SPECIFIC DISCLAIMER: Policy-specific speeches are inherently poorly equipped to motivate voters to support the speaker; when they do motivate voters, it is by turning the policy into an emotional, life-or-death issue of “us” vs. “them.” Principle-oriented rhetoric is successful precisely because it doesn’t go into much detail on policy, allowing voters to support the candidate purely on the candidate’s articulated principles rather than trying to determine whether the candidate’s policy prescriptions fit the voter’s individual principles.

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