Monday, July 30, 2018

Negative Partisanship and the Politics of Hurt

Idealistically, we think of the process of political identity formation proceeding something like this:

  • I am pro-life; Republicans are the pro-life party; therefore, I am a Republican.
We come to certain political positions, we figure out which party best matches those positions, and we vote accordingly.

In reality, this turns out to be wildly optimistic. What is more often observed is that loyalty to one's political team comes first, and that in turn drives one's substantive political commitments. It looks something like this:
  • I am a Republican; Republicans are pro-life; therefore, I am pro-life.
Partisanship rules the day, and the implications for the project of political persuasion are worrisome. If people adopt their political positions first (presumably via a process of reasoning) and then pick their party in turn, then they can be persuaded to change their minds through debate about the underlying issues. But if they pick the party first (based on...?) and only come to the positions later, what new information would cause them to change their minds?

Yet there is some evidence that the picture is grimmer still. The above account suggests that people positively associate with a party and pick positions that line up with that party. But there's another theory making the rounds -- that of negative partisanship -- which says that the focus isn't positive but reactive. People are motivated by dislike or outright hatred for the other party, and choose issue-positions based on whatever is dispreferred by the external group. So we get something like this:
  • I hate Democrats; Democrats are pro-choice; therefore, I am pro-life.
In many cases, this looks observationally-equivalent to the above (are you pro-life because Republicans are or because Democrats aren't?). But not always. Consider the rapid ... let's go with "evolution" ... of Republican voters on the subject of Russia and Putin. It doesn't seem to me like there was widespread public embrace of Russia by Republican Party elites. But as Democrats continually hammered on Russia being a threat and meddling in our election, Republicans started to associate "concern with Russia" with a Democratic position. And so, like lemmings, they flocked to the opposite. Indeed, the Trump phenomenon itself can be viewed in this light. Republican Party elites did not, to say the least, initially back him. But it was evident that liberals hated Trump. And if you're motivated by "whatever liberals hate", then Trump's appeal is obvious.

Any iteration of acting "to own the libs" is basically an iteration of this. "Cleek's Law" famously posited that "today’s conservatism is the opposite of what liberals want today: updated daily." Go back further, and you have Nietzsche's idea of ressentiment. It's reactionary politics; it isn't based on being for anything.

None of this is me saying anything new. But I did want to make two observations that I think are worth stressing.

The first is that I doubt negative partisanship is limited to parties. People can be negatively motivated by a desire to hurt groups as well. I suspect a lot of the backlash against, say, Black Lives Matter, is a form of racial negative partisanship (in another era we could get away with simply labeling that "racism", but today we need to obscure under layers). White racial resentment is such that when they see large-scale Black political action, that's reason alone to react against it. And one of my main worries of rising antisemitism is a concern that we'll start to see a form of negative partisanship there too -- circumstances where Jews being worried or concerned is taken as proof you're doing something right. 

That's not been the status quo on the left -- including the African-American community, whose staunch anti-antisemitism commitments have been evident for as long as they've been underappreciated by too many in the Jewish community. In race after race, where Jews have expressed concern that a given candidate (Cynthia McKinney, Nikki Tinker, Charles Barron) is hostile to us and ours, the African-American community has responded like allies (and Jews, for our part, have wanted no part with our anti-Black extremists like Seth Grossman). But there's worries that might be changing -- that when Jews say "we're worried about such and such candidate", too many seem to think of it as a sign that the candidate is on the right track. It means one is striking a blow against AIPAC (that this is raised even in cases where AIPAC doesn't seem remotely related to the controversy is independently worrisome), or is proof that new, more deserving minorities are rising to political ascendancy. What was it that Linda Sarsour said? Jews might have to "have to come to terms with being uncomfortable." Jewish discomfort isn't a problem to be addressed, it's a positive good to be lauded.

And that brings me to my second point. Negative partisanship is not by any means solely a right-wing phenomenon. We're all susceptible to it, and indeed, there's a certain logic to it: if you told me that a given piece of legislation was supported by Donald Trump and I knew nothing else about it, I'd still take that one fact as at least prima facie evidence that the legislation was bad. But I can't help but think that negative partisanship is, at root, necessarily reactionary. It's a politics driven by a desire to hurt, and that never moves us in the right direction.

Yes, there are days when I'm like "you know what? Kansas can burn to the ground for all I care -- their voters made their bed and they should have to lie in it." But in my better moments, I don't like that version of myself. It's not just because there are plenty of Kansasans who didn't vote for insane reactionary Republicans and ultra-regressive tax cut extravaganzas. It's also because I don't want to endorse any sort of politics that is predicated on seeing people hurt. Yes, it's funny in its way that the leopards are eating their faces. But that doesn't mean I don't oppose leopards-eating-people's-faces on principle.

1 comment:

Raphael said...

" In reality, this turns out to be wildly optimistic. What is more often observed is that loyalty to one's political team comes first, and that in turn drives one's substantive political commitments. It looks something like this:

I am a Republican; Republicans are pro-life; therefore, I am pro-life.

Partisanship rules the day, and the implications for the project of political persuasion are worrisome."

Among other things, this tends to make things difficult for people, like myself, who really *do* try to base their political affilations on their views on the issues rather than the other way around. And such people might be more common than you think- for instance, I keep seeing claims that many self-described centrists and moderates in fact have views on issues that are all over the place.