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.