I’ve been a Green Party candidate for the US House of Representatives and a Democratic National Committee organizer. In spite of my partisan past, or maybe because of it, these days I increasingly find myself thinking political parties have outlived their usefulness and hoping we can find a path to a post-partisan politics that focuses more on ideas and less on group identity.
Political parties offer a number of services to candidates that make them appealing. They function a bit like insurance companies, only instead of paying out in the event of a disaster they distribute resources when candidates receive their nomination. Contrary to the public’s perception of party organizations, these benefits don’t just come in the form of money. In fact most candidates receive little to no direct financial assistance from their party. The aid usually comes instead in the form of data, volunteers, trained organizers, and the chance to leverage long established networks.
However, first and foremost a party is a tribe that candidates can count on. This benefit has become even more salient as society has polarized and hostility toward partisans identifying with the opposition has hardened into a norm. A candidate can now expect an even higher level of support than they used to just for receiving their party’s nomination. As Roy Moore’s US Senate bid demonstrated, in a state that heavily favors your party from the start it takes an awful lot of scandal to yank defeat from the jaws of victory.
Donald Trump also recognized the power of tribal loyalty when he stated that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone without jeopardizing the support of his voters. That he paid no political price for this public insult regarding his supporters’ apparently low moral standards only served to prove his point. Trump intuitively understood that those rallying behind him had coalesced into an army of committed warriors that had already put their personal reputations on the line by supporting him. For these voters there was no turning back.
This phenomena is hardly exclusive to Republicans. Research shows that members of both political parties are likely to be wearing blinders, or at least pretend to have blinders on, when it comes to expressing approval for their particular team and denigrating the other side. The difference between the two groups isn’t that one is biased and the other isn’t. The difference lies in what they are likely to be biased about.
In a 2013 paper entitled Partisan Bias in Factual Beliefs about Politics, researchers found that when Democrats were asked whether inflation and unemployment had risen under Reagan and Republicans were asked whether deficits had risen under Clinton, both sides gave the wrong answer by overwhelming margins. The answer is no in both cases.
However, when partisans were asked questions that provided an opportunity to portray the opposing party in a negative light but were given a financial incentive if they gave the correct answer, “The payments reduced observed partisan gaps by about 55%.” In other words, the vast majority of respondents know the right answer. When the incentive is expanded to also include a reward for a respondent if they admit they don’t know the right answer, the partisan gap was “80% smaller than those that we observed in the absence of incentives.”
The researchers concluded the problem here isn’t that Democrats and Republicans are ignorant of the truth. What they’re doing when they give pollsters the wrong answer is taking the opportunity to cheer for their team either by exaggerating their party’s success or minimizing/denying the accomplishments of the opposition. In other words, partisans are little more than cheerleaders who are willing to wave distracting pompoms and do intellectual flips no matter what the scoreboard says. Anyone who has had to listen to a Trump voter explain away his lies and misogyny as “authenticity” or endure a diehard Hillary supporter insist in spite of all evidence to the contrary that she really ran a good campaign knows what I’m talking about.
As Steven Pinker puts it in his most recent book, Enlightenment Now, “Reason tells us that political deliberation would be most fruitful if it treated governance more like scientific experimentation and less like an extreme-sports competition.” Pinker goes on to ask if we can “imagine a day in which the most famous columnists and talking heads have no predictable political orientation but try to work out defensible conclusions on an issue-by-issue basis?” I can imagine it, but is such a dream realistic?
No country has so far avoided the “extreme sports competition” of party politics without resorting to authoritarian rule to do it. Perhaps in some cases elections are more like gentile games of cricket and less like professional wrestling. In those instances the discourse is definitely more civil, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into more reason. The same biases probably just tend to get expressed more politely.
Perhaps it isn’t important. The psychologist Paul Bloom doesn’t seem to think it is. In Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion, Bloom contends that “Political views share [another] interesting property with views about sports teams — they don’t really matter.” What Bloom is arguing is that “they don’t really matter” at the individual level. “This is certainly true as well for my views about the flat tax, global warming, and evolution,” Bloom explains. “They don’t have to be grounded in truth, because the truth value doesn’t have any effect on my daily life.”
Bloom is right. At least he is up to a point. What one person, or maybe even a few dozen or a few hundred people think about these issues doesn’t really matter. But at some point enough people thinking the same thing, or just acting as though they think it because certain ideas are what fans of their political team are supposed to cheer for, does begin to have an impact. If the outcome of all this cheerleading means putting one person in the White House or a significant number of people into the House and Senate that vote accordingly, even Bloom would have to agree that’s significant. Whether we do or don’t think global warming is a Chinese hoax doesn’t really matter in our daily life. But what the person occupying the Oval Office thinks on the subject can change the course of history.
That said, Paul Bloom’s argument does force us to confront the relevancy of political parties head on. If political views held by the average voter don’t matter any more than sports teams do in a person’s daily life, and voters tend to treat political parties like a favorite sports team, what’s the point of political parties? If we don’t want our politics to be like an “extreme sports competition,” wouldn’t getting rid of the teams be the first step? Our political views wouldn’t matter any more or less than they do now, but at least we wouldn’t feel compelled to lie to pollsters or vote against our own interests just to win. Encouraging a more rational approach to politics seems more likely to have a positive cumulative impact than mindless acclaim for our side and disparagement of the other.
Our right to freely associate with the individuals and institutions of our choice takes precedence over any benefits that may come society’s way in an idealized post-partisan world. I would be the first to call a constitutional foul on the state if it banned political parties.
However, as individuals we can make a more conscious effort to give all candidates appearing on our local ballot more scrutiny instead of simply going with the one with a D or R after their name, or a G or an L for that matter. The media can also do a far better job of including all the candidates in their coverage so voters know what the people running to represent them are thinking. While the focus on the top two candidates is understandable, the notion that there’s a duopoly on ideas is patently absurd. A minimum of one live prime time debate between all the candidates, or at least all those not polling above 10% or so, should be a condition of any license given out for use of our public airwaves.
Politics shouldn’t be just another game. Ideas really do matter and America desperately needs to begin thinking seriously about them again. For that to happen we’ll each need to stop being fans eager to show off our clever protest signs and funny memes mocking the other side. We’ll need to become citizens.