Partisanship can be savior

Published 9:49 am Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Partisanship, for lack of a better word, is good. You won’t find a more unexamined assumption in America today than a sneering contempt for partisanship.

Yet partisanship persists, an evolutionary fact of life in our democracy because it is an ineffable expression of the American experiment. Partisanship isn’t just what we do instead of shooting each other but how we express our moral values.

It used to not be so. Being a partisan a generation or two ago meant trucking with many people you disagreed with. The Democratic Party was a coalition of people who couldn’t stand each other for ideological reasons.

Email newsletter signup

This is sometimes true today, but for personal reasons. Whatever our interpersonal gripes, and they are legion, we all largely agree on questions of right and wrong and what is important to us.

Our partisanship is now not a marriage of convenience but an expression of our moral values. On the big issues of the day — marriage equality, economics, feminism — we agree. That’s why we’re all Democrats now. And the same goes for Republicans, more or less.

This realignment of our two major parties along ideological lines has turned our politics from an endless series of moral compromises into a larger debate about right and wrong. Is that so wrong?

We were once divided along ideological lines before, and it led to the Civil War. Out of that national horror, the philosophy of pragmatism was born, and for more than a century we made concessions for the greater good.

(I am, of course, oversimplifying things. This is a column, not a college seminar, and I must have left my Ph.D. in my other pants.)

Then the Civil Rights Era banged into the Vietnam War and was wrapped in women’s lib and don’t forget the Cold War. Suddenly, making compromises meant sacrificing what you thought was most important in the world: right and wrong, life and death, peace and war.

So we went to war with each other, but this time peacefully, using ballots instead of bullets. Our civic war may have reached a stalemate, but the armies still believe it’s worth fighting.

The calls for surrender are growing. My friends Mark McKinnon and Matthew Dowd were former Democrats who turned Republican to elect George W. Bush president and now are professional advocates for an armistice. McKinnon, bless his heart, proselytizes for a post-partisan world with No Labels, and Dowd argues sincerely for peace in his columns and on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

Cass Sunstein, a former Obama White House official who now teaches at Harvard Law School, calls partisanship “partyism” and has written that it “now exceeds racial prejudice.”

New York Times columnist David Brooks, wrote, “To judge human beings on political labels is to deny and ignore what is most important about them. It is to profoundly devalue them. That is the core sin of prejudice, whether it is racism or partyism.”

What should come as no surprise to careful readers of Brooks woeful oeuvre is that he gets things exactly backwards, and Sunstein’s coinage of partisanship-as-discrimination is even worse. A party label is not superficial.

It describes the moral contents of a person who chooses it. Contrary to what Brooks writes, a political label can indicate what is most important to a person, and to suggest otherwise is to blithely ignore that.

This is why we fight this bloodless civic war. “Partisan” and “campaign” are originally military terms, and every college freshman should have learned the Carl von Clausewitz quote that “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

The inverse is also true because both war and politics are expressions of the same truth. Some things are worth fighting about.

In fact, the fight is the point of America. This system of government has checks and balances. Majority rules, but not absolutely. We are not supposed to agree. We are supposed to keep fighting, one election at a time.

Partisanship, in all of its forms, has marked the peaceful stretch democracy since the Civil War. You mark my words, partisanship will save that malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.


Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.