Point of View

Can Americans beat partisanship?

November 3, 2012 

Partisanship has driven the narrative of U.S. politics since the Federalists and Republicans emerged as opposing forces at our nation’s inception. Despite the conflict inherent in a two-party system, America has prospered, becoming the most powerful nation on earth.

Throughout our history, leaders have found ways to address the challenges of the day during brief moments of political dominance or, more likely, long periods of parity. Americans are comfortable with divided government. However. they expect some level of cooperation in the face of critical challenges.

In recent years, we have experienced a rough patch. Partisanship has made cooperation for the public good almost impossible. Last year’s debt ceiling crisis exposed the extent of the problem with leaders in both parties castigated by colleagues for suggesting compromise. The nation’s economy suffered as a result.

Surveys show this trend dates back at least to the 1980s, when the end of the Cold War removed one of the last firewalls for bipartisanship. Campaign ads during the 1988 race for president featuring Willie Horton and flag burning offered a foreshadowing of what was to come. Campaign tactics first authored by Lee Atwater soon became standard operating procedure by both parties.

Analysts have cited numerous factors for the rise of a Red and Blue America. Explanations include our geographic sorting into conservative and liberal neighborhoods, the reinforcement of biases through media such as the Internet, cable television and talk radio, and campaign finance laws that opened a floodgate of slash-and-burn “political speech.”

A polarized electorate would not be so bad if our nation’s problems did not loom so large. From creating jobs in the short-term, to correcting deep fiscal imbalances in the near-term, to addressing climate change in the long-term, divisiveness stands in the way of meaningful action. The systemic challenges facing our nation rarely have been greater.

Into this yawning political chasm steps Jonathan Haidt with his new book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Haidt explores a fundamental question: how do morals divide us into warring camps?

Drawing from the latest research in cognitive science, psychology, evolutionary biology and sociology, he describes how we develop our individual moral foundations and how they affect our politics.

In sum, he concludes that moral beliefs are highly intuitive, operating at the gut level. He categorizes them into several key foundations. After surveying thousands of people, Haidt concludes that liberals emphasize a care and liberty foundation, while conservatives value a broader range of foundations, including sanctity and authority. In simplistic terms, liberals tend to care for victims of oppression, while conservatives seek to preserve institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community.

Finally, Haidt shows that humans, although abundantly selfish, have flourished as a species due to our sociability. Human civilizations have created a myriad of institutions – marriage, corporations and organized religion to name a few – which direct us toward cooperative endeavors, suppressing bad behavior and rewarding sacrifice for the common good. These institutions can also divide us along moral lines.

These findings have profound implications for today’s political culture. They suggest that long-term political domination is a pipe dream. Many partisans fervently believe that with the right policy arguments, their candidates can pummel the opposition into submission, ushering in an era of dominance. Consequently, they see each election as a watershed with extremely high stakes.

Haidt’s research suggests a much different reality. Voters’ intuitive and intransigent moral outlook prevents either political party from attracting large voter blocks to a particular moral viewpoint. Paradoxically, the more campaigns emphasize highly charged moral issues, the more difficult it is to assemble coalitions of voters over the long term. While emotional hot buttons fire up the base, they narrow it by alienating those who do not see the world in such stark terms.

As a corollary, these findings show that a healthy society depends on diverse moral views. The institutions and traditions that give us meaning and direct our collective action require individuals who will work tirelessly to protect them – just as Republicans tend to do. At the same time, our society will ossify unless individuals have the courage to challenge the oppressive and exclusionary practices of these institutions – just as Democrats tend to do.

In other words, a healthy political ecosystem requires an ongoing struggle among liberals, conservatives and those in between. It is the resolution of these conflicts that propels history forward and defines a civilization.

Our political system has devolved into monocultures. Both parties prefer to shadow-box a caricature of the opposition. Such a dynamic leads to stagnation. History is littered with societies that fell behind others more capable of utilizing diverse moral perspectives to resolve the challenges of the day.

Most solutions focus on the precipitating causes of polarization. No doubt campaign finance reform, term limits and controls on redistricting would encourage cleaner, more competitive elections. However, I doubt any technical reform can solve the problem. There are simply too many powerful interests invested in a system that rewards those who know how to slice and dice the electorate.

Ironically, partisanship may offer the best answer. As unaffiliated voters become the dominant voting bloc, partisans will realize a narrow moral perspective has little chance of achieving broad electoral success and, more importantly, the vision they passionately hold. They will realize that only by engaging people you find morally repugnant and understanding why they feel that way can you achieve meaningful change.

Although hard, such disciplined action will lead to electoral success, and with that success a new type of competition to attract the disengaged begins. It cannot come soon enough.

Mack Paul is an attorney in Raleigh. He stepped down last year as chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party.

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