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David Hill: Pathology of today’s partisanship

Isn’t it ironic that partisanship is held in such collective disdain, but most of us are more partisan than ever? We could stop it, but we won’t. We don’t really even want to stop. We just pay lip service to the ideal. It’s like our collective condemnation of junk food: We say we don’t want any, at least not until the next time we stand before a checkout stand festooned with candy, gum and salty snacks. 

I am convinced that a growing number of Americans cannot think a political thought that’s not run through the partisan filter. A pollster asks a respondent whether he favors or opposes fracking, for example. He doesn’t answer directly. Instead, he goes through a partisan “reasoning” process. “I am a Democrat, so therefore I guess I oppose fracking. Isn’t that the official Democratic position?” Too many of us have become partisan zombies, incapable of thinking for ourselves.

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Eons ago, when I was first learning about political psychology, partisanship was presented as a beneficent thing. Political science’s early understanding of partisanship emerged in studies of voters during the genteel Eisenhower years. Most voters were seen as simple folk who had neither the intellect nor the time to become issue-oriented participants in politics. So they could rely on partisanship to help themselves make political decisions. 

These scientific conclusions about partisanship had no normative component. There was no condemnation of partisanship, nor how it worked. As a child, my school would divide the class into Democrats and Republicans to teach about civics. It was based on whether you sat in one row or another, not your politics. Imagine the parental outrage if a school did that today. (“You asked my child to be a Republican? Are you insane?”) Perhaps the partisanship of Eisenhower’s 1950s was less disdainful, but as things changed there never was any effort to revisit the dysfunction known as partisanship. Political psychologists refuse to label it pathological. They’ve all become partisan Democrats.

Many pollsters even pretend that partisanship doesn’t exist. They will ask questions like this, from a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll: “Which political party, the Democrats or the Republicans, do you trust to do a better job handling the economy?” Why not simply ask the voter which party they identify with? The question presumes that a Democrat might say that the Republicans will handle the economy better. “Not gonna’ happen,” as Bush 41 might say. Sure, there are a few outliers that might give the other party its due, but too few to matter. And what about the independents? Don’t their opinions matter on a question like this? Maybe, but many independents are closet partisans who regularly lean toward one party but refuse to admit it so as not to be accused of being “partisan,” and the rest might honestly answer “neither” when asked which party will better handle the economy. But that option isn’t always offered, as it wasn’t in the question above. 

You see, pollsters are prisoners of partisanship, too. They assume it’s the norm. But the ABC/Post results show that 12 percent of Americans asked the question above did, in fact, voluntarily respond “neither.” How many might have said neither if that option had been offered?

Some Republicans seem to think that we have a big advantage going into the midterm election because an unpopular president and his train wreck of a healthcare law will hurt Democratic candidates. I am dubious. That assumes that factors like knowledge, reason and rational thought influence votes. Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents will allow their partisanship to overcome reason and rationality. It won’t even be hard. They will do some faux reasoning and conclude that demon Republicans caused the president and his policies to fail. Partisanship will prevail. 

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.

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