When Partisanship Overwhelms

When I was researching various aspects of American polarization for my most recent book, I came across Lilliana Mason’s all-too-accurate summary of the role political identity currently plays. Mason, a political scientist, argues that “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preferences as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.”

Partisanship has increased to the point that parents today disapprove more strongly of their children marrying across party lines than across racial or religious ones.

Political scientists tell us that Democrats and Republicans like each other a lot less than they used to because people today have “sorted themselves” into parties of the like-minded–their partisan affiliations reflect their attitudes on race, religion and ethnicity, as well as economic and social policy.

More troubling is the fact that close identification with a political party actually changes ideological commitments–today, when a political party takes a position, partisans who originally felt otherwise fall in line.  They don’t change parties; they don’t even demur. They change their original positions.(Think about the  acquiescence of Republican lawmakers and voters to policies of President Trump, like tariffs and family separation, that are wildly at odds with longtime Republican positions.)

Obviously, intellectually honest people don’t allow partisanship to trump (no pun intended) their beliefs. Their numbers aren’t large, but I give big props to the “never Trump” Republicans and former Republicans like Charlie Sykes. Sykes was a talk radio conservative who teamed up with Bill Kristol in 2018 to establish a conservative site called “The Bulwark.” The Bulwark argues–along with people like Joe Scarborough of “Morning Joe” and GOP strategist Rick Wilson–  that Trump has blatantly violated foundational conservative principles, from foreign policy to federal deficits, that were once deemed basic to Republican identity.

In a recent article written for the Bulwark, Robert Tracinski argues that today’s excessive, arguably fanatical partisanship has overtaken rationality. He begins by pointing to Rush Limbaugh’s obvious hypocrisy in ignoring characteristics in Trump that he excoriated in Democrats.

“That Limbaugh is being a complete hypocrite is a trivial observation,” Tracinski asserts. “If a Democratic president had been caught doing this, of course Limbaugh would be screaming for his impeachment with equal volume and ferocity. What is more interesting is the rationale he offers: a simple appeal to hatred of the opposition — as a justification, as an inducement, as an end in itself.”

But the fact that Trump isn’t a Democrat, Tracinski stresses, doesn’t make him a good president. And Limbaugh, he adds, is typical of all too many Republicans who are more interested in partisanship than conservative principles.

“Conservatives have sold their souls for the sheer pleasure of partisan hatred,” Tracinski laments. And it’s not going to be easy to break this spell.”

Tracinski also lambasts Sen. Lindsey Graham in his piece, noting that as much of a Trump sycophant as he has become, he was “left out of the loop” when Trump decided to withdrawn U.S. troops from Syria.

“But why should Trump have consulted Graham?,” Tracinski asks. “He’d already sold his soul. He’d already indicated that he will back Trump no matter what; so, why should Trump bother to inform him about future compromises that will be required? This is where everyone will end up eventually.”

Hatred of “the other” takes many forms. When your partisan affiliation becomes the most important aspect of your identity, loyalty to your political tribe overwhelms everything else–common sense, the values you espouse, the obvious evidence of betrayal.

Reasonable Americans watch the embarrassing spectacle that is Donald Trump and find it difficult–if not impossible–to understand how anyone could continue to support this pathetic, ignorant, self-absorbed child-man. Tracinski may have solved the conundrum: the “base” isn’t supporting Trump so much as they are defending their identities–and indulging their hatred of their tribal opponents.

Unfortunately, tribal warfare is inconsistent with democratic self-government.


  1. As a former Independent voter for decades; I feel I have been forced into Democratic partisanship by the Republican unAmerican, money-based ideological, party foundation. After three years of isolation in my Trump supporting neighborhood; I have accepted the fact that in their eyes I am their enemy. I don’t consider them my enemy; simply misguided, uninformed, religion-based people whose racism and bigotry was held in check until Trump approved releasing it against family, friends and neighbors. It is uncomfortable for me to see that the father/grandfather 3 doors west of me and his son and family 3 doors east of me, no longer visit and share family time. Just using them as an example; if Trump is not reelected, can they ever return to their close, loving family relationship…and will I cease to be their enemy? I believe these are “lines in the sand” which can never again be crossed and will never be erased. Once trust is broken, for whatever reason, it can never be fully reestablished. Trump’s destruction of this country is now buried in the hearts of Americans and just as the Civil War tore this nation asunder; we watch as racism and bigotry is once again the dividing line of family, neighbor and friend and foe alike. Calling it “partisanship” based on political differences is misguiding; it is the soul of Americans which has been divided.

    “Partisanship has increased to the point that parents today disapprove more strongly of their children marrying across party lines than across racial or religious ones.”

  2. This article reminded me of two egregious partisans who, together, created the environment for the likes of Rush Limbaugh and the current stable of Republicans who toady to Trump to prevent him tweeting about them (GAH!): Lee Atwood and Karl Rove. Atwood is dead, but Rove is still around.

    These two creatures from the deepest parts of the swamp were hired by none other than Poppi Bush to lay waste to intelligent political discourse. And, lo and behold, they discovered that the voting public responded enthusiastically to their hate-mongering and slander politics. That’s what got George I elected and the rest is history of our sad decline into the mud.

    This phenomenon is just as impactful as not voting. Our national political sloth is profound; we have the lowest voter turnout of ANY democracy and yet thump our chests about how we are the beacon of democracy. Hmmm. The people on this blog are, whether or not their stuff is agreeable to all …. or none, engaged! THAT matters. I’ll bet that over 90% of these bloggers will vote in EVERY election, local or national. Now, the trick is to get everyone else off their Sit-Com TV- asses and into some level of interest in who and what leads their country, its policies and why they still have electricity.

  3. If Trump supporters really are just defending their identities, it is because they have been told by hate radio and hate TV that their identities are under attack. Once primed into a defense mode, they have been fed the enemy… liberals and all things “different” from their life choices. Using war-like language the right has weaponized every public forum and given their followers permission to do anything to defeat the enemy.
    Scary times.

  4. We are here because we failed to require more from our representatives. Right now, I see editorials everywhere saying we need term limits. Well, we have the method for limiting someone’s term at our disposal. It is called the vote. We seem unable to generate the interest to get rid of those who don’t govern in the way we would rather, so we want to pass an amendment to do it for us automatically.

    Governing is work. It is part of our job as citizens. What we have today is what we get when we don’t feel like doing that work.

  5. Trump supporters might be on the DEFENSE from a democracy standpoint, but still are on the OFFENSE from a fascist standpoint as there is nothing EFFECTIVELY challenging them on that level. Consequently, nothing will affect them until there is an effective countervailing force that they will have to SERIOUSLY consider.

    Until then America will continue on its uninterrupted freefall.

  6. Nazism in Germany was a THIRD FORCE that was not effectively countered and eventually destroyed the Weimar Republic. The Republican Party, like in Germany, has morphed into a THIRD FORCE with no effective resistance, so far.

    See “Germans and Jews: The Right, the left and the Search for a “Third Force” in Pre-Nazi Germany by George L. Mosse (Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1970).

    I’ve recommended this book before.

  7. Too many Democratic voters think they can show up at the polls and pull the lever for all D’s, and it will lead to positive change. They’ve been duped, and they are catching on.

    The Oligarchy uses the political class to establish obstacles for the people. Oligarchy rules are about maintaining control — power. Over the last four decades, there is almost no difference in how the ruling class rules, regardless of who’s in power. Even Putin is smart enough to figure that out, and so have other countries. We aren’t a democracy, and even if we had 75% voter turnout, nothing would change in Washington or at our statehouses.

    The Oligarchy has no reason to change the current systems because the systems are making them extremely wealthy at the expense of the working classes. As these Oligarchs struggle for power with the Deep State, the working classes are disenfranchised.

    Despite all that Trump has done in the WH, the Democratic Party has limited the impeachment inquiry to a phone call to Ukraine, and the investigation is taking place behind closed doors. And my gut tells me the reason they’ve all embraced these CIA whistleblowers while condemning all previous whistleblowers, is because these agents had approval from the Deep State.

    During election time, the sociopaths come back into their districts as entertainers on TV, radio, and the newspapers. The districts have been carved up by who exactly? Not the voters…not independent sources or computers, but by the political class on behalf of the Oligarchy. It’s just another obstacle against democracy.

    If we had a truth-seeking media in this country versus entertainment media, we might have a chance to turn this around since the average American watches (News, Sports & Weather) for 30 minutes (maybe) and considers themselves informed. And if they watch cable news, they are watching the channels which reinforce their own partisanship 24/7 fresh with plenty of ads selling consumerism to keep capitalism afloat. If a news anchor offends you, change the channel until you find one that reinforces your opinion, then nod your head.

    “It’s the other party’s fault!”

    Nobody has to endure having their thoughts and ideas challenged. Nobody has to defend their positions. The partisanship even plays out on social media, where people interact with one another. If someone offends you or challenges your racism, block em or delete em. 😉

    We’re talking about needing a massive cultural shift in the USA to change our current trajectory.

  8. Jo Anne/Theresa – Think you might be suggesting that we have lost a common identity about what it means to be an American, which used to be far more primary than party and/or ideolology

    Vernon/Peggy – Voting is, of course, critical….but, concerned citizens also need to use their energy/passion to actively work for candidates who stand fo r governing aka “getting things/progress done” as opposed to taking hard stances on policies that would be difficult/impossible to implement given today’s situation. A huge root cause of distrust of government/politicians is due to the lack of progress on critical issues that people care about.

    Marv – Trump fanatics are, at best, about 25% of eligible voters and they are mostly old. “Swamping” them out by the rest, on paper, should be easy…if those 75% could believe that anything would really change…they have heard the “change” message before with Obama and are thinking “We won’t be fooled again…”

  9. “Unfortunately, tribal warfare is inconsistent with democratic self-government.”

    “Conservatives have sold their souls for the sheer pleasure of partisan hatred,” Tracinski laments.

    Is our tribe faultless? We need to work hard at bridging the divide and engaging in constructive self-criticism as well.

  10. Todd; so what is your suggested alternative to what you see is this problem with Democratic voters? “Too many Democratic voters think they can show up at the polls and pull the lever for all D’s, and it will lead to positive change.”

    If we don’t vote for Democrats, our options are Republicans, Green Party or Libertarian. There is always the option to sit at home on our “Sit-Com TV- asses” (thanks for that one, Vernon) and hope for a miracle.

  11. JoAnn – 5M people voted for 3rd party candidates in 2016, many in “swing” states. Trump won by 77,000 votes in swing states. Protest is a voice and a (SAD) result. The system is here – make it work for all!

  12. Lester,

    Both Todd and you are much younger than most of us on this blog. You both keep us in touch with the future and all its difficulties. Once you get to a certain age it’s almost impossible to backtrack your political position.

  13. Marv – HA HA HA – do the math….I was born in 1946….

    Not looking for you to “backtrack”….how about “the road not taken?”

  14. Our Constitution, instead of being intended to create a Kumbaya society in which we all get along, was written as a set of rules by which all our tribes can fight it out without actually fighting it out.

    Which is why Trumpians are trying to kill the Constitution; they really want to fight it out, and those Constitutional rules for a fair fight get in the way of a blood and bone fight.

    Which is why the rest of us cannot be nice to the Trumpians; we cannot give them an inch of acquiescence or they will take a thousand miles of our blood.

  15. Allow me some chicken or egg wondering.

    I don’t think that these current politics reflect who we were as much who we became as servants of a political party a la post WWII Germany. We, or perhaps more accurately some of us, have been tailored to serve the Party, instead of the traditional visa versa.

    I have mentioned Edward Bernays before who nearly a century ago took his Uncle Sigmond Freud’s ideas and built the advertising industry. He discovered that rather than sort us out into customers and disinterested folks commercial demand could be created from us. His first success was creating female smokers from those who wouldn’t have even thought of smoking. He did that by labeling cigarettes as “torches of freedom” that instead of symbolizing dysfunctional addiction portrayed modern, independent freedom loving lady liberties. He was close to 100% successful for upcoming generations.

    The Republican Party like the Nazi party before created demand for themselves from people who are naturally authoritarian. Rush Limbaugh is today’s Edward Bernays and many businesses followed him at the encouragement of The Party.

    Fortunately for democracy the cancer from this advertising became apparent much quicker than the cancer from smoking and now those who aren’t authoritarian are reacting before everything was lost.

    Now that the authoritarians have been enhanced and organized as a political force and identified what can those who are not authoritarian do to recover the liberal democracy that is our threatened birthright?

  16. “We either overcome our innate tribalism and learn to live amicably together, or this experiment we call America is over.”

  17. Lester,

    It’s all relative, I was born in 1937. You’re right I’m not going to “backtrack” and will have to go down the “road not taken.”

    Take a look at the prototype development at http://www.Peisnet.world. We have to create a countervailing “Third Force” based on the concept of POLITICAL EPIDEMIOLOGY. That’s our only chance at this late stage in the game.

  18. I agree and disagree with Todd today. I agree that we need a cultural shift in order to enjoy a politics congruent with the promise of democracy, and I disagree with his expressed view that it matters not who we vote for since such elevation of one party to power over another yields the same result in governing (e.g., Warren – my favorite – vs. Tulsi, Trump et al.).

    I think also (as Vern tells us) that voter non-participation is bad but that it may (among other reasons) be bad because such non-voters are unmotivated by both parties’ offerings, and that we Democrats would bring more voters into the fold if we talked about the labor record of Republicans, wage and wealth inequality, a wealth tax, and other Wall Street reforms Warren proposes in order to bolster middle and working class positions and thus avoid Todd’s “they’re all bad” indictment.

    To play Nostradamus > We had a New Deal era (until Reagan) following the Great Depression/ WW II of relative political agreement and broad prosperity spread out among rich and poor. Perhaps the brush with Trump’s neo-fascist failure to destroy our democracy will provide us with a similar incentive to once again argue policy and only policy with our Republican friends and neighbors. Perhaps.

  19. Pete – if you believe that a majority of the American voting public is basically authoritarian in their views then we can all go home…Canada?

  20. Todd wrote, “Too many Democratic voters think they can show up at the polls and pull the lever for all D’s, and it will lead to positive change. They’ve been duped, and they are catching on.”

    This is true, the idea that electing a Pelosi, Schumer or Biden will lead to a positive Progressive change is an error. These three among others in the Democratic Party are Corporate Democrats and their bottom line loyalty is to Wall Street.

    Chris Hedges has an article as follows:

    Immanuel Kant coined the term “radical evil.” It was the privileging of one’s own interest over that of others, effectively reducing those around you to objects to be manipulated and used for your own ends. But Hannah Arendt, who also used the term “radical evil,” saw that it was worse than merely treating others as objects. Radical evil, she wrote, rendered vast numbers of people superfluous. They possessed no value at all. They were, once they could not be utilized by the powerful, discarded as human refuse.

    We live in an age of radical evil. Their seizure of power has vomited up demagogues and con artists including Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, each the distortion of a failed democracy.
    The evil of Steroid Capitalism cannot be paraded about for all to see. Steroid Capitalism must be masked and camouflaged which is where the Partisanship comes into play. Wedge issues are found that can be hammered upon as the defining difference between people. At the top of the pyramid are the oligarchs who could care less about social, religious or cultural issues, except these differences can and are exploited. The oligarchs have one goal maintaining power and at the same time enriching themselves – the vast numbers of people are superfluous.

  21. Pete,

    We need to create what the Germans failed to do. The Left tried unsuccessfully to create a competitive “Third Force” to the Nazi “Third Force.” We need to learn from their failures. Using hindsight, they should have used DIRECT ACTION, and attacked the FALlACIES of the Nazi Movement instead of trying to sell their point of view.

  22. Monotonous,

    “This is true, the idea that electing a Pelosi, Schumer or Biden will lead to a positive Progressive change is an error. These three among others in the Democratic Party are Corporate Democrats and their bottom line loyalty is to Wall Street.”

    As you have mentioned before, the Democratic Party “sold-out” when Bill Clinton [ex-draft dodger] turned to his “Triangulation” policy [after conferring with Rober Strauss, who was secretly in the Republican camp]. Maybe through some kind of miracle, the Democratic Party can find some “balls.”

  23. Sorry folks, but both sides are corrupted, one way or the other. Neither party can lead with integrity. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t vote for a Democrat, it just means that I wouldn’t have any hope for any significant change in our constant march toward FUTURCIDE.

  24. Lester, I never said, and don’t believe, that a majority of voting Americans have authoritarian personalities nor do I believe that Trump was democratically elected.

    Our hope, in fact, stems from the fact that the recruitment of authoritarians by The Party using advertising/fake news/propaganda/brainwashing on entertainment media fell short of a majority.

    Therein lies my optimism for recovery before all is lost.

    Marv you and I differ via a vis ”conspiracy”. I believe that the threat to continued modern life comes from the simple fact of advertising/fake news/propaganda/brainwashing technology as a tool of business and politics.

    We can be effectively sold now on what benefits those who employ those tools over what benefits those who accept pervasive entertainment in exchange for our attention.

    We are programmed to believe that more is never enough for commercial goods or political extremism though both are unaffordable.

  25. Marv @ 12:29 pm > As you have mentioned before, the Democratic Party “sold-out” when Bill Clinton [ex-draft dodger] turned to his “Triangulation” policy [after conferring with Robert Strauss, who was secretly in the Republican camp]. Maybe through some kind of miracle, the Democratic Party can find some “balls.”

    Bill Clinton makes my point – The evil of Steroid Capitalism cannot be paraded about for all to see. Steroid Capitalism must be masked and camouflaged which is where the Partisanship comes into play. Clinton delivered with his deregulation all that Steroid Capitalism wanted. All the while Bill Clinton with his smiling affable personality tossed out enough table scraps to the triangulated groups to keep them happy.

    It must have been a rude shock for Clinton to find all his deliverables to the Oligarchs and Wall Street that Whitewater led to Monica’s dress. The “Family Values” wing of the Reactionary Right Wing GOP struck with a vengeance.

    I have hope that either Warren or Sanders will smash President Agent Orange and Pastor Pence, the way FDR crushed Herbert Hoover.

  26. The evidence from centuries of experimentation in finding the utopian economic system has concluded that there is none. What works are mixed economies as demonstrated by the fact that despite the howls of extremists, mixed is all that exists in the world today.

    Hopefully, that fact will restrain the chasing of a swinging economic pendulum that defined the previous century.

    Capitalism and socialism are like husband and wife whatever their genders. They complement not compete.

  27. Monotonous,

    “I have hope that either Warren or Sanders will smash President Agent Orange and Pastor Pence, the way FDR crushed Herbert Hoover.”

    Right on. That’s exactly what it is going to take. Our ECONOMIC FUTURE has been shaken too much with the likes of Donald Trump. By 2020, an FDR type of campaign, as you have pointed out, by an Elizabeth Warren or a Bernie Sanders would be hard to beat. Elizabeth Warren’s policies might be too strong for The Washington Post right now, but I bet their attacks will be much muted by election time next year.

    I’m afraid Bernie’s chances are pretty much closed because of his recent health problems.

  28. Peggy – I like to remind people that term limits were never about protecting us from ourselves – they started in California with one man, Willie Brown – lots of people, especially Republicans, wanted him out of the State Assembly – lots of people, but not the people in his district – they loved him – term limits is my telling you that you can’t re-elect the representative of your choice – there is also hypocrisy – I just came across the editorial of the Illinois Republican Congresswoman who promised to serve two terms and no more – It was titled “I was Wrong” wherein she explained her run for a third term

    Sorry, Sheila, but this is one time when I take issue with your choice of words (the gist is on target) – words like “polarized” and “partisan” – those terms fit in with the “everybody does it” meme – that isn’t where we are at – the Republican Party ran to the right and the Democrats followed; they didn’t rush in an equal an opposite way to the left – Yes, I no longer spend one holiday with a family friend (a 50 year tradition in my family) – the reason is that the host now feels emboldened to spend the evening indulging in bigoted rants – I didn’t change; he did (or he felt he could now reveal his real self –

    I am watching the Democratic debates where the Democrats are having at each other – it is the Republicans that haven’t left the party (or haven’t felt that the party left them) who are marching in lockstep – we have a Democratic Party (still “not an organized political party” as Will Rogers said), and we have a cult of Trump which is the remains of the Republican Party

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