In Defense of Partisanship


One of my biggest pet peeves over the years has been incessant hand-wringing over “partisanship” in politics, so reading Tunku Varadarajan’s latest column on The Daily Beast was a breath of fresh air.  He argues that partisanship isn’t necessarily such a bad thing:

What’s so wrong with political and legislative partisanship, anyway? It’s the best thing for transparency in government, with each side quarrying for information, and keeping a close eye on the other’s activities. Furthermore, partisanship is both the cause and the result of a peculiarly American sense of self-help, of a kind of democratic idealism that leads Americans to believe that nothing is inevitable or hopeless in government. This is in marked contrast to the fatalism you see in places like Russia and China, where partisanship is frowned upon. In such unhappy places, the Great Leader syndrome flourishes in exact proportion to the distance between political leaders and the public. (No wonder, then, that many Americans worry about the apotheosis of Obama.)

Partisanship is all about finding policy flaws in politicians, rather like finding character flaws. That’s why it seems so ad hominem, something that brings politicians down to our level: They are mere mortals, like us, as flawed and perfectible as we are. In other lands, they develop ineffable mystique, but not here. In terms of ideas, partisanship has the benefit of forcing the sides to differentiate themselves and come up with ideas that separate them from the other side. It’s a living, dynamic force that keeps inventing new political ideas. Exposure to partisan criticism helps a politician to refine a policy and to beware of policies which have no support. A good blast of partisan ridicule acts like a pumice stone. It knocks away the dead skin and leaves the body-politic cleaner.

Exactly—while we often say that “elections have consequences,” and both sides routinely declare their guy’s victory as a mandate for this or that agenda, the fact is that America is founded in part on the concept of checks and balances, one of which is the minority party.  America is a republic, not stretches of dictatorship interrupted by elections every few years—the will of the people is always supposed to be reflected to some degree in Congress, and if the American people decide they don’t like the direction Congress is taking, their representatives should be able to, well, represent that opinion.

(Ironically, Republicans have an equally flawed understanding of partisanship in the other direction: often they seem to interpret it as a mandate to rubber-stamp leftist Supreme Court justices such as Sonia Sotomayor.)

Further, as Varadarajan points out, current Democratic calls for bipartisanship are hardly sincere.  The people are ticked off, nationalizing healthcare hasn’t been the cakewalk they expected, and they’re desparate to pass the buck. (Indeed, it wasn’t so long ago that the shoe was on the other foot.) Besides, false accusations of racism are hardly “bipartisan,” now are they?  Varadarajan accurately diagnoses the heart of the Democrats’ problem as their progressive ideology:

The Democrats and progressives hate partisanship for the same reason they hate the market: Both are built on the idea of a permanent state of competition that produces the public good only indirectly and through what’s called “the invisible hand.” Progressives hate the messiness of this, preferring the direct application of reason by the intelligent elite.

The Democrats, oddly enough, seem to have a love-hate relationship with the whole “democracy” thing.  They love playing to the public’s emotions and claiming the common man’s favor, but one definitely senses in them a chronic irritation and impatience with a system that puts procedural roadblocks in the path of their fantasies and gives the losers a voice.  Unfortunately for them, that’s exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

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Hailing from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Calvin Freiburger is a political science major at Hillsdale College.  He also blogs at the Hillsdale Forum and his personal website, Calvin Freiburger Online.