29 October 2014

Partyism: the new bigotry?

Cass Sunstein, a liberal scholar, makes the audacious claim in an op-ed for Bloomberg News that prejudice on the basis of political partisanship is now more widespread than prejudice on the basis of race. On the basis of various surveys, he reports that people are more likely than ever to reject job applicants, or suitors for their children, for belonging to the wrong party. Nearly half of Republicans in one survey don't want their children marrying Democrats; the feeling is mutual for a third of Democrats. Fifty years ago, the numbers were in single digits on both sides. The problem is worse in the job market; partisans are more likely to reject applicants whose opposite-party affiliation can be inferred from their resumes, even when those applicants have better credentials for the job at hand. Following up on Sunstein, David Brooks laments what he calls the "hyper-moralization" of American politics. He seems to mean that people have grown more sweepingly judgmental about politics than ever before, with ever-worsening social consequences as partisans withdraw into their own affinity bubbles and avoid interaction with different points of view. Both Sunstein and Brooks blame the political advertising complex for this alarming state of affairs, but Brooks adds the observation that politics has grown more bitter because political debates have become our substitute for the sort of moral debates he claims were once more common in our culture. As philosophers and theologians have yielded the public sphere to parties and "media provocateurs," Brooks argues, political debates have escalated in fervor and rancor beyond all proportion to the issues at stake. Political campaigns become "a Manichean struggle of light and darkness" over "the existential fabric of life itself."

In one of the local papers, Brooks's column shared an editorial section with a Michael Smerconish op-ed on political polarization that puts the other writers' concerns in a different perspective. Looking at still more surveys, Smerconish agrees that polarization is worse than ever, but notes that only a small percentage of the American population is polarized. No more than 20% of the public occupies the poles, he notes, while the vast majority don't identify with the polar positions. For Smerconish, the problem with American politics today is that "those 20 percent still hold sway over the 80 percent." He's well aware of the reason for this: the extremes on either side are more committed to voting in every election, not to mention in party primaries. As a result, the 20 percent get to choose what the 80 percent has to choose from -- and it's no surprise that many in the larger group choose "none of the above" and don't bother voting. Smerconish advises this silent majority not to "keep sleeping" but to wake up and vote in order to end the rule of the extreme partisans.

Are Sunstein and Brooks describing a phenomenon exclusive to Smerconish's 20 percent, or does much of the 80 percent share "partyist" prejudices without any other political engagement? We should be careful not to assume that the 80 percent occupy a middle ground between the extremes; many may be even more radical or reactionary than the party faithful; their complaint may be that the major parties, despite their rhetoric, still make too many compromises for the sake of elections or money. I suspect that many in the 80 percent take a more draconian point of view on political and social problems, but not in a manner consistent with major-party platforms. We might well see prejudice against both Republicans and Democrats as representatives of a corrupt establishment -- but would that be prejudice?

I understand why some pundits worry about self-segregation on partisan lines in social media and elsewhere. Brooks believes that partyism can only damage communities and institutions that are denied "the benefits of divergent viewpoints and competing thought." In the practical world, partisanship and ideology shouldn't determine or constrain anyone's ability to work with others. However, certain beliefs that grow more widespread -- that Republicans don't believe in science, or that Democrats don't believe in morality or hard work -- may make the possibility of even practical cooperation on presumably uncontroversial projects more problematic. But I also find the discovery of partyism as a new form of prejudice problematic, and Sunstein's alarmist hint that partyism is worse than racism even more problematic. Any attempt to equate discrimination based on beliefs with discrimination based on race or ethnicity is problematic because race prejudice is the definitive case of hating people for what they are rather for what they do. Racists may claim that other races all do certain hateful things, but all such claims are easily disproved. With partisanship, ideology or religion the difference is that there is a baseline of what the hated people do that can be verified. You can disprove the prejudice that all Republicans reject science, for instance, but there must be something that all Republicans believe, or else there are no Republicans -- and what they believe can be judged and found wanting. While it would be prejudicial to ostracize Republicans from whole professional spheres where their partisanship is or should be irrelevant, it is not prejudicial to judge the fundamentals of Republican or Democratic identity, as long as those fundamentals are not identified prejudicially but determined objectively by careful study of what partisans say and do on their own terms. In fact, such judgments need to be made, more so by the 80 percent than by the 20 percent. They should be made at the ballot box, and pundits shouldn't fear the possibility of the ballot box condemning certain ideologies to extinction. It's problematic enough to equate partisan hatred with race hatred, but it'd be even worse to equate parties and ideologies with endangered species on the assumption that there must always be a Democratic party, or that there must always be "conservatives" on the Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan model. I've long believed that the failure of either the Democrats or Republicans to go extinct the way the Whigs did more than 150 years ago has exposed a flaw in the American political mechanism. Did the Whigs go extinct because of prejudice? Should their extinction be lamented today like the extinction of the dodo or the passenger pigeon? If not, than neither should the possible extinction of the Republican or Democratic parties be feared as a triumph of prejudice. We should not want individual partisans to be treated unfairly, or deny ourselves the benefit of their actual expertise due to prejudice, but we should not mistake the destruction of one or both major parties down the line for its victimization by prejudice. Individuals should not suffer, but perhaps parties should. To deny that may be a form of prejudice we'd be better off without.

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