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.)
A 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….