Updated: May 30
Blog Post 19. (5/29/2021) - The “why now?” and the “what it means” of American Partisanship.
Today’s blog will be a bit different, I wanted to discuss an important issue that has been on my mind for some time: Partisanship.
Before I get into the thick of today’s topic, let me first explain what prompted me to write this article. Right now, I am applying for the Internationales-Parlaments Stipendium, or IPS for short. It is a scholarship that the German Bundestag offers for the benefit of 120 young foreign professionals each year, complete with an internship and a semester at a Berlin university. Since the theme of the application is investing in the democratic future of our countries, I thought I would dedicate today’s blog post to the first political issue that came to mind- American partisanship; why it is a problem and how it plays out on a personal level where we can all see it.
Let it me be clear- all representative governments inevitably suffer from partisanship and parties, representative republics like the United States are especially burdened by factionalism. Extreme American partisanship has been bothering me so much for two reasons, firstly its effect on American grand strategy and secondly for its impact on how we relate to one another. The short term, uncompromising nature of partisan thought prevents our government from forming a lasting grand strategy, a general game plan for domestic and foreign policy that we will stick to no matter which party controls the White House/Congress. We have not had such a coherent grand strategy since the fall of the Soviet Union, which did away with the Cold War consensus.
Recent events like the 2008 recession and the rise of China are only exposing a strategic void that has been there for 30 years. Economic success has covered this up pretty well, but our rising national debt and declining soft power are bringing our inconsistencies to the fore. As a consequence, our allies find it harder to trust us and our enemies find it easier to exploit our political caprices. As someone who wants to see the United States continue to play a very important and positive role on the world stage for decades to come, I am more concerned about our own ability to get along than our rival’s capabilities. I am confident in our ability to handle whatever the international order throws our way so long as we stay together.
The United States’ two-party and winner-takes-all system enable partisanship on a
political level, which goes a long way to explaining the current game of political merry-go-round, where the Democrats and Republicans swap out the White House and Congress every 4 to 8 years and undo most of their predecessors’ legislation in the process. While this system makes our country more vulnerable to partisanship, it does not explain why the divide is so great now of all times.
I first noticed the political partisan divide when I was 7 years old during Bush’s second term. After I started reading the local newspaper I realized how the opposition would filibuster every other bill the majority party would propose. It was so obvious that even a child could see that something was wrong, especially when the government shutdowns began. But now that I am out of college, I want to reflect on all the conversations I had as a political science and global studies undergraduate because this is where I saw partisanship creeping into my social circles.
I learned never to mention the word “Republican” in the Democrat-leaning circles I ran in and vice versa. Speaking about the opposing party in even a neutral (God forbid it be positive) light was sure to sour any conversation and I could not help but wonder if American political discourse has always been this way. I saw the same divide between different branches of my family, especially after the hubbub on January 6th. When I talked it over with a more centrist friend a few months after I graduated (you know who you are), he talked about its causes and its effect on grand strategy. That certainly helped clear my thoughts on the issue and what causes it, prompting me to draft this article when I started my IPS application.
Most of the current divide can be chalked up to an epistemic divorce- that is a fancy way to say there is a perceived complete disconnect between Republicans and Democrats on not only on what policies work best, but the very ideals that inform policies- what value systems we should uphold and what kind of country we should live in. Many Americans believe that the two parties have morally incompatible visions that leave no room for compromise on most major issues. From what I have seen, much of this moral struggle is a manufactured conflict that comes from both sides living and thinking inside partisan political bubbles. The changing state of media and public discussion has separated much of America’s politically active cohort into radically divergent and isolated intellectual communities that talk on their respective internet forums, read their respective partisan sources and rarely see the opposite side. If they do, they likely only meet under argumentative circumstances where both parties come expecting a political brawl. Consider how Twitter’s most active users tend to be avidly political and normally Democrats (according to Pewresearch) or how newer platforms like Parler were clearly created to cater to a right-wing crowd.
If politics were milder in the past, I would argue it is because politically active Americans used to pay more attention to local issues, trusted certain shared authorities and interacted more in shared public forums. Local newspapers and tv stations have been quickly disappearing since 2008 as people tend more and more towards newer alternatives like social media or online sources, a decline helped by economic downturns. It should come as no surprise that Americans are more likely to trust local reporting on all issues, politics included. Since the days of Alexander de Tocqueville in the Republic’s early years, the media has played such an important role in government affairs that it has often been referred to as the 4th estate of government. I believe, although I have yet to get any conclusive data to support it, that the weakening of local media outlets corresponds to a decline in interest in local affairs- county level elections and related issues receive far less political attention than national issues often associated with mid-term and presidential elections. While I cannot directly prove that, it is clear at least that Congressional and presidential elections pull out far more votes and receive similar attention. Prioritizing those issues and building our political communities around them is bound to be as divisive as it is anti-republican.
The American variety of representative government is built on the Aristotelian idea that the common man can only be so involved in political grand strategy, he may be affected by certain aspects of national security policy or diplomacy, but it will be difficult for him to be informed on all the minutiae of federal policy. That is because it would take so much time to study all the policies and their possible effects he would have no time to work his factory job or to keep his homestead going. Therefore, complicated matters like federal fiscal policy should be entrusted to professional magistrates who can afford to spend all their time studying the law in the interests of the people. But those professional magistrates (or professional politicians as we might say today) need to be as accountable to the interests of the people as they are informed about the issues at hand. Representative government depends on local citizens caring first and foremost about the local issues they have the biggest stake in and making sure their representatives in state and federal governments are beholden to their interests, or what Rosseau called the general will.
Partisanship is at such a high point because so many are taking a top-down approach to politics that cleaves to party lines and listens to whatever media supports their own narrative. People are tending towards clannish ideologies in these disorienting times because they provide a sense of community, so it is all the more important we take a more grassroots view on politics and policymaking. We need to focus more on the local socioeconomic circumstances that unite us and less on the abstract national policies that might divide us. That means investing first in our own communities, reading our own local newspapers and interacting with people of all political walks of life in local forums- forums, which are in short supply compared to more internationally oriented platforms like Twitter and Facebook. If we meet each other eye to eye on the local issues we have in common we will start to see each less as Democrats or Republicans and more as neighbors. If we continue as we are, we may eventually reach the point where people are so convinced debate and politics are ineffective they will believe violence is the only way forward.