The Tragic Failure of Democracy: Partisanship

The Tragic Failure of Democracy: Partisanship

The essential qualm I have about partisanship is that it turns off people’s brains. Democracy fails when its citizens don’t scrutinize critical issues, and that’s exactly what partisanship does: It skews our thinking process. It’s hard to stay informed about every policy, so we subscribe to a party and follow its lead. The thing is, parties have a maotive beyond public good. Politicians are looking to fundraise, to get reelected and to maximize their power. This is where the problem lies, because accuracy and consistency are sacrificed in favor of constructing a fitting argument. Their followers, however, see them as proponents of important ethical decisions.

Partisanship is an unnecessary construct, and the tribalism associated with it corrupts our decision-making. Any particular political agenda can be bent to mobilize both Republicans and Democrats based simply on rhetoric. Geoffrey Cohen, a professor of psychology at Stanford, found that simple endorsement by a party gleaned support from a wide variety of undergraduates claiming affiliation with that party. It’s said that Republicans and Democrats prioritize fundamentally incompatible values, but in truth, each side of a policy can be reconfigured to endorse the interests of politicians in their respective party. Policy differences boil down to how an issue is worded and who endorses it, rather than its content.

When we believe we’re engaged in reasoned policy discussion, we’re really engaged in a convoluted effort to rationalize our tribal affiliations. Psychologists call this “motivated reasoning.” A quick analysis of political history will show that Republicans and Democrats often hold similar ideas, but they frame them differently depending on the reaction they want to provoke from their supporters. For example, the Affordable Care Act was designed by the Heritage Foundation, an American conservative think tank, and in 1993, Republicans actually supported the individual mandate. Nineteen Republican senators co-sponsored the bill, while only two supported it from the Democratic side. Once the ACA was adopted by Obama, however, Republicans withdrew support, while Democrats endorsed it.

In a Washington Post column, Ezra Klein quotes NYU political psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s argument that “Thinking is mostly just rationalization, mostly just a search for supporting evidence.” The contention over the individual mandate is a perfect example of this process at work. We engage party loyalties, and our ethical decisions become more dependent on who is endorsing a position rather than its actual content. Politics are reduced to tribal fights and intellectual gymnastics that feel, to participants, like virtuous policy debates. We need to utilize democracy’s potential by discussing and relaying accurate information.

To suggest party system reform as a solution would be overly idealistic, but if we’re at least conscious of our tribalism and more conscious of the rhetoric that’s being thrown at us, we can make and endorse better political choices.

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