In his NYT column today, David Brooks discusses political discrimination (“partyism”), a social phenomenon characterized by an increasing willingness to make moral judgments about others based purely on political labels. To Brooks, it’s a perspective that turns politics into “a Manichean struggle of light and darkness,” profoundly debases human interaction, and erroneously conflates the personal and the political. Political scientist Russell Muirhead, though, sees the potential benefit of partisanship even from the vantage of our age’s inflammatory political divide. With Brooks’s partyism in mind, and a hotly-contested midterm election just a week away, we offer here the Preface to Muirhead’s The Promise of Party in a Polarized Age.
As a partisan myself, I know a bit of what party spirit feels like. I have been moved—by anger, by conviction, by hope, by affection, and sometimes by hate—to hold signs, to sit through caucuses, to make calls, to write checks, and to vote. On those election nights when my party was defeated, I have crawled early into bed full of woe. And I will never forget the nights when my party has won, celebrating with friends into the sunless hours of morning.
Perhaps this experience gives me a sympathy for those who find it in them to take a stand and carry this stand to the political world. From a combination of habit, affection, and conviction, such people stand with a party. These may be “passive partisans” who think about politics only now and then. Or they may think about it a lot and try to talk their friends into voting this way or that. They are also the ones who make elections happen—they vote, stuff envelopes, knock on doors, drive people to the polls, make phone calls, contribute money, design strategy, and run for office. They are the ones who cheer in joy and who mourn in sorrow on election night—and either way, steel themselves for another fight. If they are prejudiced, narrow, and blind in some respects (and they can be), they are also idealistic, inspired, and knowing. Partisanship does not entirely deserve its bad name.
It is hard to imagine life without political friends—those with whom I can take a certain measure of agreement for granted. But it is also stimulating and provocative to be with political opponents. They remind me of the mystery of political disagreement: Why would someone so decent and so thoughtful disagree with what seems, to me, so obvious, so true? Are they blinded by selfish interests? Are they heartless? Or… am I… not entirely right after all? What is it about the political world that can give rise to such disagreement? Party spirit is the starting point for a basic curiosity about political things.