One of the most serious challenges confronting American politics is “hyper-partisanship,” and I have committed considerable time and effort to analyzing and explaining the nature of the threat it poses. Although frequently invoked, the media rarely define or explain hyper-partisanship in any detail, leading to situations where citizens hear and may even use the term, but not fully understand its meaning, and why it contributes to our inability to govern effectively and efficiently.
First, we should recognize “partisanship” as a normal and even inevitable byproduct of electoral competition. Like football rivalries, “Democrat” and “Republican” provide a stable foundation for interest articulation. Similar to football rivalries -- often relished by fans as a “good, clean hate” – competitive dislike between Democrats and Republicans is reflective of the competitive, high-stakes nature of electoral competition, and as such is (relatively) benign.
Hyper-partisanship describes periods when natural dislike crosses a line, creating circumstances where political parties adopt increasingly uncompromising positions, and display a persistent inability to identify a common basis for governance. In Federalist #10, James Madison attributed the chief threat to a democratic government “the mischiefs of faction.” His fear was that a powerful but narrow faction would adopt a strategy of obstreperous partisanship, paralyzing the government in order to achieve their goals. In such instances, hyper-partisanship produces gridlock, as the various veto-points in our constitutional system are deployed in a test of wills; as a result, government lurches from crisis to crisis, shutdown to shutdown, threatening the constitutional regime with dissolution through non-governance.
How have we gotten to this impasse? Two important factors have contributed disproportionately to the current state of affairs: the purification of our two political parties, and rise of “emotional polarization” among the electorate.
First, for much of American history, the two dominant American parties were “catch-all” in nature. For political scientists who specialize in the study of electoral politics, “catch-all” parties form around non-ideological grounds, often on a regional basis. For example, in the late nineteenth century, both political parties spanned the ideological spectrum. Republicans in the aftermath of the Civil War were divided between “Stalwarts,” who reflected the pro-banking and pro-industry views of, and “Half-Breeds,” who were moderates supporting the reforms that launched the Progressive Era attacks on the monopolistic practices of concentrated capitalism of the era. Likewise, in the opening decade of the twentieth century, the Democratic Party was divided between the “Bourbon” Democrats of the South, who defended the oppressive “Jim Crow” segregation of the Deep South states of the former Confederacy, and Progressive northern politicians, who advocated significant reforms to professionalize politics in the service of improving the effectiveness and efficiency of governance. The point is that both parties had factions all along the ideological spectrum, and were compelled to adopt minimalist, pragmatic governing strategies.
That began to change in mid-twentieth century. After a prolonged period of partisan dominance, the Democratic Party began to institute liberal reforms that fractured the “New Deal coalition,” antagonizing southern Democrats with northern Democrats’ support of civil rights, and adopting sweeping environmental reforms in response to massive industrial-scale pollution. Both political parties began steadily purging themselves ideologically. Beginning in 1964, Republicans rejected the idea of “Rockefeller Republicanism,” and gravitated toward a combination of religious and economic conservatism. Democrats found themselves increasingly identifying as a center-left political party, but also confronted the rapid decline of labor unions, as laws breaking up the power of private-sector unions eroded their membership.
Ideologically purified political parties confront much fewer incentives to “govern from the center.” In other words, a party with liberal, moderate, and conservative elements will try for moderate, widely acceptable policies in order to hold the support of their parties’ members; for a catch-all party, the greatest threat to its control over the governing process is the formation of “bipartisan coalitions,” where either the liberal, moderate, or conservative factions of their own party defect to the other party and pass legislation at odds with the preferences of the governing party’s leadership. During the Progressive Era, for example, it was liberal and moderate factions of the Republican and Democratic parties coalescing into super-majorities to pass fundamental changes in government like the Nineteenth Amendment, which extended the franchise to women.
Ideologically purified parties, in contrast, confront far fewer threats of defection, and far more inducements to adopt increasingly ideologically extreme policy positions. Today, the Democratic and Republican parties literally speak different languages when it comes to public policy, with Democrats intent on expanding and protecting welfare programs, and Republicans determined to substantially unwind welfarism and either water down or eliminate environmental regulations.
Second, the identification of both political parties with diametrically opposed ideological viewpoints feeds a deeper problem. The New York Times’ columnist David Leonhardt noted in the aftermath of the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump that ideological polarization is bad, but that “emotional polarization” is worse because it feeds a tendency among partisans to impute “menacing motives” on their opponents. When someone in the grip of hyper-partisan convictions thinks the rival party is “cheating” or “un-American,” then any cheating by your side is minimized as “everyone does it.”
The problem is not simply the loss of trust, although trust is an essential feature of a healthy political community. It’s deeper. Americans do not simply mistrust; they hate one another, and believe they are justified in their mutual enmity.
There are no miraculous “silver bullet” cures for hyper-partisanship. To preserve our constitutional system, we first need to recognize lower the temperature, and engage in a slow process of confidence-building exercises, restoring trust and confidence. However, the threat posed by hyper-partisanship cannot be understated. If we cannot govern ourselves through the federal government, we confront the real threat of dissolution from within, which is the perennial threat of democratic societies. As John Adams observed, democracy “always wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.” When we hate one another more than we hate rivals who plot our overthrow, we confront an existential threat that cannot be ignored. As Americans, we need a reminder that what is best for the country is more important than our partisan preferences as Democrats or Republicans.
In the columns that follow, I hope to provide readers with further insights into these and related matters that occupy political scientists.
Dr. Ken Hicks is professor of political science at Rogers State University. The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Rogers State University.