All Commentary
Friday, November 30, 2007

Bad Partisanship Drives Out Good

Beware the call for unity.

People routinely bemoan excessive political partisanship in America. You can hardly look at an op-ed page or cable news-talk show without encountering this complaint. A lot can be chalked up to the Myth of the Golden Age, the belief that we live in terrible times compared to some earlier idyllic period. I’ve read enough history to doubt that politics was really less partisan than it is today. Chris Matthews of MSNBC may believe that veritable demigods walked the halls of power in the 1950s and ’60s, but I have some memory of that time and I am skeptical. (On a commercial promoting his program, Hardball, Matthews actually says that the problem with politics today is that the candidates really want to win. Did they not care about that a few decades ago?)

Depending how you look at it, we have both too much and not nearly enough partisanship. The dictionary defines partisan as A fervent, sometimes militant supporter or proponent of a party, cause, faction, person, or idea. That indicates both a superficial and a profound sense of the word. Superficial partisanship is loyalty to a party. Profound partisanship is loyalty to a set of ideas, a philosophy. I would say we have far too much superficial partisanship and far too little profound partisanship. The major parties have long stopped taking ideas seriously, campaign declarations notwithstanding. Their objective is not to win elections in order to carry out a principled program. It’s to gain the sinecures of power, reward one’s friends, and spend other people’s money. Government grows through it all.

A sure sign of superficial partisanship is the double-standard. In the last 15 years we’ve seen repeated examples of partisans defending actions taken by members of their own party that they would never tolerate from members of the other party. Should an influential person in an administration meet secretly with lobbyists on major legislation and refuse to tell the public who attended? Apparently, it depends on which party the culprit belongs to. The standard used by the partisan is: anything my party does, including running up the public debt, is good; anything that party does is bad.

Since the political parties don’t really stand for anything, such partisanship is indeed superficial. It’s not a contest of and for ideas. It’s a contest for power.

A Party of Liberty

What we don’t have — and badly need — is a contest over ideas. A clash between a Party of Liberty and a Party of Power is what we’re missing. That kind of polarization would be most welcome. When it comes to profound partisanship, we are woefully in short supply.

Serious matters need thrashing out: medical care, energy, Social Security, immigration, protectionism, taxes, foreign policy, and more. But a debate on these things unanchored in the freedom-versus-power framework is mere quibbling over how best to tinker with the status quo. We’ve seen the results. The game is not worth the candle.

It’s hardly inspiring to see a group formed to oppose not only superficial partisanship but also profound partisanship. Unity08, whose front man is actor and Wall Street brokerage spokesman Sam Waterston, has nothing to offer but unity as its goal. Its website states:

Today’s politics seems content to avoid crucial issues as Washington is polarized and paralyzed — often by the very extreme positions that candidates take as they seek support from their party’s base in the presidential primaries. In the past, the parties sum [sic] up this empty process with empty party platforms adopted at their conventions. Unity08 will turn that process on its head. All Unity08 Members will have several opportunities to vote and rank the issues crucial to the future safety and well-being of the American people. In this ongoing process during 2007 and before the convention in 2008, the members will also identify the key questions the candidates should answer on those crucial issues. The combination of the ranked issues and the questions to ask about them make up the Unity08 platform.

If there is no hint of where this organization stands on anything, it’s because it stands for nothing, unless you count unity and moderation as something. It’s No. 1 goal: Elect a president and vice president who will reunite America. Reunite it around what? Around the need for unity, I presume. Members are being polled on what issues matter to them (see the list here), but they aren’t asked what should be done about them.

“A Unity President, together with a Unity Vice President of the opposite party, could summon the Congressional leadership of both parties to the White House, shut the doors and get serious about finding answers they can all agree upon,” Waterston says.

The Unity08 process, which seeks the lowest common denominator, assures that the free market won’t be the answer they’ll come up with for anything. In fact, Unity08 is likely to end up with more of what it claims to abhor. Even if it managed to shelve superficial partisanship, there would be no guarantee that profound partisanship will take its place.

A group can’t achieve political unity until its members have resolved disagreements. But that requires vigorous debate that repairs to basic principles. The great question of our age — of any age — is whether essential decision-making should be vested in society or in the state. By society, of course, I mean the network of interactions founded on consent (not necessarily involving money). By the state, I mean that realm where relationships are ultimately founded on compulsion. That’s the partisan debate we should be having — and not just at election time. In my view, there can’t be too much profound partisanship. Superficial partisanship distracts us from what we really should be arguing about. The proper question is not Who should lead? but rather, What makes us think any political leader can make things better than people interacting freely can?

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.