Wednesday, September 27, 2006

# Posted 10:20 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

HOW PARTISAN IS TOO PARTISAN? (REDUX): We all need to rise above partisanship and act in what is truly the national interest. Or at least that's what I was taught. And it's bollocks.

Partisanship is the lifeblood of democratic politics. There is no accountability without partisanship. Although anything bi-partisan tends to get good press in today's political culture, The Federalist Papers were right to say that setting ambition against ambition is what makes democracy work.

Of course partisanship can go too far. But at last night's panel on partisanship sponsored by Pajamas Media, there was a strong consensus that partisanship is neither a flaw to be overcome nor a necessary evil, but rather a positive good.

Going further, it's important to recognize that sometimes bipartisanship can be a very bad thing. Bipartisanship often rests on lowest-common-denominator, low-content politics.

But bipartisanship can also be a very good thing. As the Instamoderator pointed out, the signing of the Accountability and Transparency Act yesterday morning at the White House was the result of a bipartisan effort. Somehow, Tom Coburn and Barack Obama and Instapundit and TalkingPointsMemo all got themselves together in the name of a good cause. Not by looking for the lowest common denominator, but by discovering principles that cut across partisan and ideological lines.

So what has partisanship done for us lately? In fact, how do you even separate the good partisanship from the bad? That was a question the panel struggled with mightily. According to panelist Tom Bevan of RCP,
There is a difference between "smart partisanship" and a much less attractive alternative that relies on invective rather than argument and employs the widespread use of insults and obscenities.
Insults and obscenities aren't too hard to filter out, but what counts as invective? I'm guessing Tom's next sentence would strike a lot of liberal readers as an example of it:
This is a problem the left continues to struggle with given that the new media revolution (to use a pretentious phrase) has taken place almost entirely in the last five years under the tenure of George W. Bush and given voice to a core of the most active liberal partisans.
So bad, un-smart partisanship is a problem mainly of the left? There was a fairly strong consensus on that point among the panelists. Of course, the panel was weighted fairly heavy toward conservatives (or to be more precise, anti-liberals.)

If you weighted the panel toward the left end of the blogosphere, I think you would hear the same thing. Partisanship is good and there is a difference between good partisanship and bad. And it's conservatives who tend to be bad.

One way to resolve this dilemma is to return to the old chestnut that if everyone thinks their own partisanship is good and everyone else's is bad, then the real problem is partisanship itself. But I'm still not buying it. When you ask anti-partisans what their ideal policies are, the answer often sounds fairly partisan.

After the discussion was over, I went over to Tom and made the following suggestion. Smart partisanship is partisanship that keeps the interest of the other side. Smart partisanship is something you disagree with, but feel that you have to read because you want to know what the best argument is for the other side.

That's the ideal I keep in my head when I blog. When I write, I keep an imaginary not-me on my shoulder that has the opposite opinion about everything. My goal isn't to get him to agree with me, but to prevent him for saying "This is a waste of time."

Of course, this method hasn't prevented lots of dumb partisanship from showing up on this blog. But I do believe that this ideal has helped make OxBlog a site that attempts to engage its critics rather than one that vents its authors' spleen.

Now, smart partisanship isn't the same as effective partisanship. You rarely mobilize the faithful and win elections with smart partisanship. But after the dust has settled and it's time to govern, I think smart partisanship helps make good policy. I hope.
(17) opinions -- Add your opinion

I think the issue is less about chasing some elusive 'national interest' and more about having debate not boil down to simple talking points. On important issues, people (both in government and in the population) need to make determinations on the basis not of what one political party or another has decreed, but on the basis of their own judgement.
Good points about engaging one's critics, but re: ... smart partisanship isn't the same as effective partisanship. You rarely mobilize the faithful and win elections with smart partisanship.

Winning elections is smart, one might think, and most of the top lefty blogs consider themselves to be activists trying to win elections (Kos, who has a record of about 2-22, claims he is all about winning).

I accept your distinction but maybe "smart" is not the word you are looking for. (Hmm, do I have a better suggestion? How about "lofty" or "idealistic" or "intellectual"?)

Tom Maguire
The key is honesty in the debate. Ethics matters. Partisanship which leads to lies, distortions, and slander is partisanship which has crossed the line.

The MSM partisanship problem is all about dishonesty in two major ways. First, it is fraudulent to claim to be non-partisan when you are partisan. Second, it is possible to practice partisan journalism responsibly, i.e. without resorting to the blatant dishonesty and distortions which is so evident today.

In short, be honest about your motivations and honest in your treatment of the facts.
You're too partisan when you've lost touch with reality. You're too partisan when you resort to wishful thinking. You're too partisan when you through demonizing your opponents lose touch with common courtesy and common sense and unwittingly dig your own grave.

When you meet these criteria, you end up a lame duck president - or just a regular internet loony. Or perhaps leader of the Democratic Party.
Nit: "The Federalist Papers were right to say that setting ambition against ambition is what makes democracy work."

The Framers most emphatically did not have partisanship (in the sense you're using it) in mind.

I've got an idea: partisanship is bad when, under conditions of one-party control, it eviscerates the system of checks-and-balances.

Or how about this? You know partisanship has gone to far when you "spotlight" offenses on the other side that your own side is guilty of as well (see above).
I think partisanship, the way you and Tom Bevan are using the word, is about strongly identifying with a party and it's positions in your decision-making.

Bi-partisan politics can have three forms, the first being that an issue is not important enough to have strong party identification, and each party lets members go their own way. The second form is that,while each party has a strong position on a given issue, they both see a need to compromise and get some thing done for their supporters, even if it means conceding some ground at the same time. The last form is that the problem has only one right answer, and that answer is obvious. The recent discovery of corruption in government by both parties leading to the 'good government' legislation and the comity in the days just after 9/11 is an example of this last type of bi-partisanship.

Bi-partisanship is neither good nor bad a priori, but the parties are based on partian identification, and come together to create workable majorities based on partisan principles. As politics, partisan politics emphasizes a candidates commitment to the party positions, giving heavier weight to party affiliation in voter's decision making process. These decisions tend to 'energize the base', the only problem is of course, that they not only energize your base, they will invariably energize the other person's base too. This is really only a viable strategy if your base is larger.

So in these elections, making them more partisan or less partisan would effect different candidates differently. Jim Talent and Robert Menendez would both gain from a more partisan fight, while Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb would gain from making it a less partisan one.

I suspect that the drive to partisanship that we see recently has more to do with political miscalculation than anything else, where both sides feel that they have an advantage if the election is about whose (base) is bigger. The trouble is that one of the two parties must be wrong.
I would hope Tom Bevan's remarks wouldn't be considered "invective" by a liberal, even if they're considered wrong.


If his comments, which suggested a circumstantial effect more harmful to liberals than to conservatives, rather than suggesting any characteristic difference between them, and which were in any case clearly and simply stated, are to be considered invective, we're doomed to stop talking to one another about anything that (a) matters, (b) involves differences between us, and (c) difference of perspective and judgment.

I think you confused "invective" with "criticism," and thought the criticism mistaken.
        Partisanship is 'too much' when it gets in the way of more important goals.

        For example, when two parties disagree on the proper approach to a national issue, such as preventing terrorist attacks, it's 'responsible' partisanship for the majority party to ram through it's basic idea, assuming it can. They won the elections, they have the votes, they should do whatever they believe in.

        It's 'excessive' partisanship to refuse to consider amendments and ideas from the minority party, because you're more interested in making your side look good, and the minority look bad, then in actually preventing terrorist attacks.

        As for insults and invective, since the goal is supposedly the public good, they are automatically excessive.

        It's insane partisanship to put as your goal promoting your own party, and hurting the other party, without regard to policy.  I think much Democratic partisanship now is excessive-to-insane, but that's a judgment call of mine.  There was some of this excessive-to-insane partisanship by Republicans during the Clinton Administration.

        The key remains keeping priorities straight, admitting them openly, and not letting partisanship interfere with more important things.
I consider the matter is less about chase some indefinable nationwide awareness and more about having debate not boil down to easy talking points. On significant issues, people both in government and in the populace need to make determinations on the basis not of what one opinionated party or a supplementary has decree, but on the starting point of their own decision.

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