The Future of American Partisanship: Are We All Doomed?

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that Republicans increasingly view Democrats as close-minded, unpatriotic, and immoral. Democrats, on the other hand, increasingly view Republicans as close-minded, immoral, and unintelligent. Not a great recipe for a great nation’s future. Or is it?

Spirited Reasoners know that the United States has encountered similar bouts of partisanship throughout its history. But here’s a shocker: only fifty years ago, scholars were decrying the evils of excessive bipartisanship. Check out the book by Sam Rosenfeld, The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

What, you ask, could possibly be wrong with bipartisanship? Well, to quote Prof. Rosenfeld, observers during the mid-20th Century felt that “bipartisan lawmaking blurred lines of political accountability, making it difficult for voters to know which office-holders to hold responsible in elections.”  In essence, they felt America was being ruled by a collection of incumbents who cared more about their incumbency than they did about creative new policies that were being suggested by partisan advocates.

I can recall, during my college days in the early 1970s, a political science professor opining that there was only a hair’s difference between the policy positions of Kennedy and Nixon during the election of 1960. In fact, Nixon’s mentor, President Eisenhower, had been courted by both the Republican and Democratic parties prior to the elections of 1948 and 1952. And more than one third-party candidate since then has scored points by claiming “there’s not nickel’s worth of difference between those two parties.” (I’m thinking of George Wallace, Ross Perot, and Ralph Nader.)

That’s certainly not our country’s problem as we approach the election of 2020. Instead, we face what seems to be the utter inability of lawmakers to fashion sensible compromises for the benefit of the nation as a whole.

But the true danger of excessive partisanship lies not in the rudeness, rancor, or even the legislative stalemates caused by party loyalty. In theory, those types of problems could all be sorted out by voters, who at any time (again, we’re talking in theory) might decide they’ve had enough partisanship and therefore choose candidates promising to “reach across the aisles.”

Instead, what worries Spirited Reasoners are the hidden dangers, a few of which were made public during recent impeachment investigations.

What happens when a foreign country uses its military infrastructure to hack vital information from one party in order to benefit the other?

What would happen if one party could devise a way to throw an election in their favor by hacking into voting machines?

What would happen if one party became so successful in the making of extreme laws and the nomination and confirmation of partisan judges that citizens from the opposing party faced being jailed for treason, just because they disagreed publicly with the party in power?

The last of these is the one we have seen so often in third world countries, where dissent takes place only at the cost of violence, imprisonment, and death. We used to think our love of democratic rule was too deeply rooted for this nation to regress to that level of barbarism. Now we’re not so sure.

We need a national conversation on the dangers of excessive partisanship as well as excessive bipartisanship. Are devices possible that would help us achieve a healthy balance?

One solution involves a better system of voting—one replacing our current obsession with gerrymandered districts and “first past the post” and “winner take all” results. Examples of better systems include the ones used in Ireland (ranking your choices of candidates first, second, third, etc.) and those in Scandinavia, where there are multiple winners in each district.

At the very least, we need to open the door to experimentation, perhaps state by state. Maybe we’ll see a national change in beliefs slowly take shape, like the one happening with the growing number of states permitting sales of marijuana.  

Can’t hurt to try.