Negative Partisanship

Us versus Them–tribalism– seems to be a constant in human nature. It’s a primary motivator of war, a significant element of policymaking, a constant of religious strife–and the primary tool of campaigns to get out the vote.

Political polarization and what political scientists call “negative partisanship” get more people to the polls than reasoned appeals based upon policy promises.

I still recall a conversation with another politician back when the GOP was still a political party and not a theocratic cult; I had criticized one of our candidates , and he responded  “He may be a nutcase, but he’s our nutcase.” It was a perfect expression of what has since become the defining trait of the Republican Party. (Democrats—being far less cohesive–are somewhat more forgiving of intra-party criticism.)

Time Magazine article written after the first public hearing held by the January 6th committee considered that insistence on group solidarity as it is currently being applied to Liz Cheney.

In GOP circles, two things are true at once. First, large majorities of Republican voters disapprove of the January 6 rioters. At the same time, large majorities still approve of Donald Trump, and Liz Cheney—the Republican most prominently intent on investigating and exposing what happened—is less popular with Republicans than renowned conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene.

In fact, Cheney might now be the least popular Republican in the entire Republican Party, in spite of her consistently conservative voting record and her support for Donald Trump’s re-election in 2020. The reason is simple. She has violated the prime directive of negative partisanship. Even if she’s right to be upset by the riots, she’s attacking her own team. It’s the responsibility of GOP politicians to always, always train their fire on the left.

And that rule–that your guns must always be trained on the other guy–is why, as my kids might say, we Americans can’t have nice things.

Negative partisanship is a simple concept with profound implications. At its most basic, it means that “the parties hang together mainly out of sheer hatred of the other team, rather than a shared sense of purpose.” When negative partisanship dominates, a political coalition is united far more by animosity than policy. The policy priorities are malleable and flexible, so long as the politician rhetorically punches the right people.

Negative partisanship is why Republicans in the Senate voted against the PACT Act after voting for it–in identical form–just a few weeks earlier. (They did grudgingly reverse that vote in the wake of a huge blowback.) The vote had absolutely nothing to do with the Act itself, and everything to do with a spiteful “We’ll show you!” response to the deal hammered out between Schumer and Manchin.

Negative partisanship helps explain Republican acceptance of conspiracy theorists like Marjorie Taylor Greene. The same polling that shows Cheney underwater with Republican voters shows Green with a slight positive rating, despite her constant stream of utterly bizarre and baseless claims. As the article explains, she fights the left, and the left despises her, and for millions of Republicans that’s all it takes to earn their approval.

Negative partisanship also played a significant role in America’s vaccine hesitancy. Republicans were literally willing to risk death in order to “own the libs.”

Of course, Democrats disapprove of Republicans just as much as Republicans detest Democrats. But people like me, who would love to see the current hostilities replaced by genuine efforts to work across the aisle, are stymied by the reality that today’s parties are not morally equivalent. Germany really was an “evil empire” in the thirties, and the current GOP really has morphed into something other than a traditional, flawed political party.

And that something is malignant.

We Americans who live in what the George W. Bush administration dismissively called “the reality-based community”  find ourselves between the proverbial rock and hard place. We don’t want to paint the entire GOP with a broad and unforgiving brush, but we also don’t want to be so naive that we ignore the very real threat posed by a party now dominated by White Christian Nationalists and wacko conspiracy theorists.

Can that scorned “negative partisanship” come to our rescue?

If Democrats were to turn out in Kansas-like numbers this November–spurred by the GOP’s unremitting attacks on constitutional  liberties and democratic norms–a historically-improbable midterm defeat might begin the process of returning the GOP to its roots as a political party. As the Time article put it, the threats to America’s constitutional order currently come from the Right–and it’s the Right that must put its house in order.

If that happens, Americans of good will can focus their efforts on combatting tribalism and negative partisanship. If it doesn’t, all bets are off….


  1. I think describing today’s Republican party as a “theocratic cult” diminishes the dangers at hand. The Republican party today is akin to Victor Orban’s neo-Nazi party, Fidesz., which given enough time, they will become.

  2. “today’s parties are not morally equivalent”

    I just want to brand this on those who say “it doesn’t matter, the Dems & Repubs are all the same” (usually followed by either “so why bother voting”, or “that’s why I vote 3rd party”).

    Sure, there may be deficiencies in both parties (both policy and moral), but on a difference of magnitude similar to Al Capone and Joseph Stalin…you may not like either, but unless you’re lying, you have to admit they are. not. the. same.

  3. Watching the machinations of the two captive parties in this country is akin to rooting for your favorite man or woman on the Bachelor or Bachelorette reality dramas. LOL

    Political scientists are nothing more than “pundits” if they think there is a fundamental difference between US, UK, or AU political parties.

    Politicians are rubber stamps and propagandists. It’s getting worse by the day.

    If you turn off your TVs and let your minds wander for a year reading independent journalism and books, then come back to your TV news, you will see for yourself.

    Reactionaries describe all the order takers in line with an oligarchy. Some would call it bureaucracy but power flows from the top-down. Setting up a camera crew at any level below the top captures the reactions to those decisions. Every single one.

    If we were a true democracy, that wouldn’t be the case.

    Caitlin Johnstone wrote a pretty good article about this just yesterday:

  4. As long as R voters keep watching Fox Spews and listening to radical rightwing radio personality lies, the Dems will not have a chance to change anything. Their constant media onslaught keeps making R voters more determined than ever to keep Rs in office to make sure their lives won’t be ruined by Dems. Those tiny-brained people are so indoctrinated with BS that they keep getting angrier by the day.

  5. I had to laugh at Rick Scott’s speech to CPAC last week. Can you say “projection?”

    Again, for those who, like Todd, would prefer to stand and yell, “A pox on both your houses!,” than admit that one side is different from the other, we must address the existential threat posed by today’s Republican party. When that threat is dealt with, we can begin to focus on fixing both the Democratic party and the system itself. The alternative is almost unimaginable. Picture the Civil War on steroids.

  6. When hard-right crusader Liz Chaney had somehow become the far left of the Republican party, that was a very scary day. Of course, all the days after that one haven’t been a picnic either.

  7. Monday morning callout on this blog of R v/s D….per Gallup: “Overall in 2021, an average of 29% of Americans identified as Democrats, 27% as Republicans and 42% as independents.” It is the “Indys” (apologies to my IN friends) that will make or break our democracy this November and following.

  8. It seems to me that a great deal of the “negative partisanship” is plain and simple, it’s what Fox Entertainment has found brings them the largest, most loyal audience, and it’s easy copy to write and present. It’s an entertainer’s dream.

    I don’t have statistics but from what I hear from the Fox Entertainment addicted they broadcast almost nothing about Republicans in favor of opinions about Democrats. They make up a culture war issue that resonates with authoritarians and talk endlessly about how Democrats are failing authoritarians culturally (with no consideration that culture is not something that is government sanctioned or regulated) and everyone celebrates their superiority. They support over and over again the myth that the States Formerly United can shut down its borders, shut off friends and enemies both, and exist as a happy kingdom no matter what happens to the rest of humanity or the earth.

    They tell adult fairy tales of a safe place for white, Christian, heterosexual, gun-toting lightly educated men.

    As I think about it the Fox world is much like the world of the Western Movies that were a staple of our childhood entertainment. Of course, they used to cost upwards of a quarter then to see but Fox Entertainment is free for the watching of endless advertisements for various products that such men might need.

  9. Rant on, rant on about Fox News. So if the 29% DEMS and 42% INDYS ignore it…why waste your ranting. As someone once said, “Stupid is forever, ignorance can be fixed.”

  10. Two potentially misleading items that I see –
    The so-called “sane Republican officials”, the “moderate Republicans”, like Collins and Murkowski, have been enablers. They have gone along and will continue, if given the change, to stack the courts with far-right ideologues. I can’t differentiate until the dysfunctional GOP is crushed enough for “sane” Republicans to reclaim their party for real, not with the McConnell rules.

    Second, 42% Independents – when both parties are demonized, who wants to accept those labels, ergo, many independents, some of whom always vote DEM,and others always vote REP. Of course, back in the day, my DEM parents voted for a REP for governor, as I would have had I still lived in Michigan. Then again, Bill Millikan would have been purged from the GOP long ago.

    So, what is an IND? You won’t find out by “splitting the difference” and calling them “Centrist”, assuming that they loved Reagan’s anti-union, pro-business, fix the tax structure to transfer wealth from the bottom up policies, or Clinton’s Reagan lite.

    You might listen to them and then speak their language.
    I don’t want to “de-fund the police”. I want to free them from minor tasks that take them away from protecting us from crime. No longer ask police to waste their time and put their lives in danger dealing with domestic disputes and the mentally ill. Hire other professionals for that. No more wasting their time with burned out tail lights. Let them deal with serious crime (and not shoot as many people – but that we can leave unsaid).

    Or as one Times editorial put it (sorry don’t remember the author) – when SF police want access to private door bell cameras, don’t say how they will be unfairly spying on Black and Latino neighborhoods, ask “Do you want the police to be able to see your every coming and going whenever they want?” “Do we want big government spying our our every movement?” If First Amendment rights may be used for racist purposes, don’t concentrate on the racism. There are even R’s who would agree with a First Amendment argument.

    Want to reach the IND? Don’t change policies, explain your self better.
    Years ago I wrote a “Guide to Scientific Presentations” for my self created Union of Myopic and Presbyopic Scientists, or UMPS –
    RULE #1: Know your audience! Speak to be understood.

  11. Vote Blue! No Matter who! Even for Kyrsten Sinema types! Because they make our lives better! A Democrat is a Democrat is a Democrat!

    President Joseph Manchin III has a nice ring to it!

    Oh snap!

  12. That 42% independents stat taken by itself is misleading at best. One has to look hard at WHERE those independents reside…. rural, cities or the burbs. And do they have another motive for such a self-identification besides telling the truth as in a way to stay out of the fray? Don’t want conflict or debate?
    It is always more complicated than what it appears at first.

  13. Theresa – a little “hidden bias” here. So, if an IND is rural…they must really be MAGA and watch Fox? And vice-versa? Getting “tribal” here? Not like you…

    “A way to stay out of the fray? Don’t want conflict or debate?” You betcha! Too busy with life and/or fun for politics when all pols are crooked/bought and do little. So, maybe, “why vote?”

  14. Lester, Fox Entertainment is the source of Republican dysfunction simply because they’ve learned that extremist ranting blaming liberals and Democrats for the culture wars invented by their writers is successful entertainment. When’s the last time you heard of any business shutting down a successful product line? It’s just the entertainment market version of fossil fuels and smoking years ago.

  15. bumper sticker:
    the right wing church is a
    shining path to facism…

    penochet would be pround of trumps efforts..

  16. The Republican voters cannot accept that they can lose elections. In large part, their friends, family, acquaintances and media selections are monopolized by conservative “thought”. In essence, their entire world is a conservative-only ecosystem. Thus, they cannot see nor conceive of liberal and progressive people being a substantive part of the country. I suspect they truly believe they are a very large majority within a “Christian Nation.”

    This is a fundamental problem. (In more ways than one.) This is one of the key reasons why it is “obvious” to them that the 2020 election was stolen. How could it be otherwise, given their utter numerical domination?

    Should the democrats do well in the midterms, it won’t change the GOP at all. It’ll just be more evidence for their deluded base that elections are being stolen from them. In fact, rather than leading to a reformation of the GOP, I think it’s far more likely that it would push them even farther to the right (i.e. towards crazy town).

  17. The GOP won’t change until they lose badly enough to shake them to their senses.

  18. Back when tribalism was needed for literal survival, it made complete sense. It appears, now, that on the right it is about
    pleasing McConnell, or, sadly Trump, for the sake of one’s career, which is important, but it’s about chasing more dollars, not the next
    breath of life. Not that Dem. politicians want to be put to the side, either.
    But, the GOPIGGIES seem to come from a decades long drive for power for nothing but its ability to produce more money. Along the
    way, they have been producing increasing numbers of ultimately empty rationalizations for their “political” positions.
    And, now, having completely dropped any sensible platform (Rick Scott having let their cat out of the proverbial bag), all they are willing
    to show is negativity.

  19. “Us versus Them–tribalism– seems to be a constant in human nature. It’s a primary motivator of war, a significant element of policymaking, a constant of religious strife–and the primary tool of campaigns to get out the vote.”

    I love the defining clarity of Professor Kennedy’s paragraph. Human nature is indeed internally conflicted between independence (freedom, diversity) and need for certainty (safety, security). These are the fundamental driving forces that have always driven political conflict.

    Previous to the Enlightenment, religion insisted they had “certainty today” and promised freedom after you die.

    The Enlightenment and the Founders introduced balance by referring to the inspiration of the people as the final authority in government, getting back to what Jesus really teaches (according to 1 John 2:26-27): “I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.” (Also, Matt. 23:8-11)

    But the Christians are still trying to regress and impose their Earthly kings, popes, “Word of God”, and other authorities on each other. Democracy is a rare and special jewel that demands eternal vigilance and sacrifices by otherwise lazy people.

  20. A day late for this comment but; Lester, your “hidden bias” is showing. Driving through what used to be true “rural” (relating to people who live in the country, rustic; or relating to farming, agriculture) you will find miles and miles of vacant farmland where crops were grown until 3-5 years ago. But what you will find in what was once rural farmland are now large, cookie-cutter, expensive housing developments where white, former urban and suburban residents have moved to get away from minorities and the crumbling neighborhoods where infrastructure is ignored. The “rural” population has increased in large numbers and they more than likely are those MAGA, Fox-watching Republicans who are making up the “new rural” voters. Those empty farmlands separate the developments so they do not appear to be part of the suburbs they moved away from.

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