Partisanship, Ideology and Loyalty

by Henry on February 6, 2009

Brink Lindsey has a post at Cato Unbound criticizing Nancy Rosenblum’s work on partisanship (I’ll be contributing to the seminar myself in due course).

she cites findings from the political science literature that independents tend to be less interested in politics, less informed about the issues, and less likely to participate in the process than are their partisan fellow citizens … All fair enough. Yet knocking independents down a peg doesn’t change the fact that partisanship in America today is a dreadful mess. … under present circumstances at least, partisan zeal ought to be attacked rather than defended.

I’ll confine my bill of indictment to two charges. First, partisanship undermines clear thinking. Second, it undermines moral integrity. In both cases, the root cause is the same: the conflation of friend and foe with right and wrong. … partisans are vulnerable to believing fatuous nonsense. … their beliefs, whether sensible or otherwise, about a whole range of empirical questions are determined by their political identity. There’s no epistemologically sound reason why one’s opinion about, say, the effects of gun control should predict one’s opinion about whether humans have contributed to climate change or how well Mexican immigrants are assimilating — these things have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Yet the fact is that views on these and a host of other matters are indeed highly correlated with each other. …

Even when partisans know what the score is, they’re constantly tempted to shade the truth, or at least keep silent, in order to be a good team player. Recall, for example, the fury unleashed this past fall on the handful of conservative commentators who were willing to admit the obvious: Sarah Palin was obviously, embarrassingly unprepared for the office she was seeking.

While I don’t think that these criticisms are necessarily wrong as such, I do think that they are aimed at the wrong target. When Brink argues that partisans are often inclined to believe stupid things, or to have strongly correlated views on political matters that have no apparent connection, he’s likely correct. But this criticism hardly applies only to partisans. Take two examples.

First, Libertarians. These aren’t partisans in the usual sense of the word; while there is a Libertarian Party, I’ve never in my life met a libertarian who votes for it (or indeed who has expressed any sentiment other than embarrassment at its existence). Yet even in the absence of party identity, libertarians appear quite as vulnerable to dumb-yet-convenient truth claims and strong correlations of political views as are traditional partisans. Indeed, this is apparent on precisely the two issues that Brink refers to – gun control and global warming (my strong impression is that libertarians, at least those engaged in public debate, tend to be strongly against the first, and highly skeptical about the existence and/or remediability of the second).

Second, purveyors of what might be termed the ‘bipartisan consensus’ in Washington DC. This is a set of viewpoints that defines itself against partisanship. But again, casual empiricism (from someone who reads their output, lives in DC etc) would suggest that they are at the very best no better than similarly well-educated partisans in their understanding of the truth, and arguably somewhat worse (because their ideas have been systematically less likely to come under challenge, they are more likely to be bad ones). And again, there are correlations between apparently disconnected beliefs – there is no reason why someone, for example, who believes that Social Security reform is teh awesome should be more likely to have believed four years ago that the Iraq war was a Very Good Thing. But in my admittedly personal and unsystematic experience, those two points of view were very highly correlated indeed.

The point is that what Brink is concerned with here is a much more general and pervasive phenomenon than partisanship. What he’s worried about is ideology. And while political parties are one prominent bearer of ideology, so too are political movements, densely interwoven social networks and many other social phenomena. Not only that, but ideologies are hard to do without. Joseph Schumpeter has a quote somewhere that I keep meaning to try to find again, to the effect that our ideologies blind us to much of reality, but without our ideologies we would not see at all. I think that is mostly right – which is not of course to say that ideologies should not be subjected to empirical test, tempered by discussion etc, but they are in the end impossible to eradicate, and have heuristic benefits as well as disadvantages.

The second problem that Brink points to is real again, but is similarly more general than partisanship. It isn’t only partisans who have incentives to shade the truth to protect comrades, or to avoid punishment by their peers. It’s anyone who works within an organization or coalition. The New Republic – a magazine which has on occasion criticized leftwing bloggers for their over-eagerness to toe the party line is a good example. I suspect that many people who write for the New Republic believe that their editor-in-chief, Martin Peretz, is both nasty and crazy. Yet (perhaps with a couple of exceptions) they aren’t going to say this in public places, because they don’t want to be fired or blacklisted. Loyalty and compromises are again, not a specific problem of parties.

So, my challenge to Brink is as follows. Can you provide us with any warrant to believe that partisans are especially vulnerable to problems of ideology and misplaced loyalty, as opposed to other actors in politics and public debate? My first-approximation belief is that we don’t have such a warrant – and that while the problems that Brink identifies are real problems, they are generic ones. This may be the result, as Brink notes, of historical changes, but if we are talking about latterday partisanship, I really don’t think that Brink’s charge stands. Or, to put it another way, if we didn’t have organized political parties as bearers of partisanship, I imagine that we would suffer under all the same burdens without enjoying some of the benefits (in terms of organizing public debate etc) that Rosenblum identifies.

{ 43 comments }

1

ben wolfson 02.06.09 at 7:31 pm

the existence and/or remediability of the second

They couldn’t be skeptical of the existence and the remediability of anthropogenic climate change!

Anyway, both libertarians and “bipartisan consensus” types are, straightforwardly, partisan; only if partisanship means partisanship with regard to an organization with “party” in its name do they constitute telling counterexamples. I gather that that is the definition being worked with, and that “independent” just means “not registered with some political party”, but if you want to describe the likely psychological traits that will accompany partisanship, that’s ridiculous. You can be a Tom Hanks partisan, defending his movies in the face of all comers. So it seems odd to say that what Brink really has in his sights is more pervasive than partisanship. It’s more pervasive than Partisanship, the political science term of art, maybe.

You aren’t calling someone a member of a party when you call them a partisan, after all; you’re using the OED’s unfavorable connotation: “An adherent or proponent of a party, cause, person, etc.; esp. a devoted or zealous supporter; … Also with unfavourable connotation: an unreasoning, prejudiced, or blindly fanatical adherent.”

It would be odd if mere membership in a party made one a partisan in this sense.

2

Sebastian 02.06.09 at 7:36 pm

“Can you provide us with any warrant to believe that partisans are especially vulnerable to problems of ideology and misplaced loyalty, as opposed to other actors in politics and public debate?”

Very tentatively, I would suggest that partisans tend to invest more in action than more (for the lack of a better word, but I don’t mean it to seem as derogatory as it sounds) apathetic people. So I think they get all the community protection/solidarity things that you get in normal human communities, but with an extra helping of sunk cost fallacy. You’ve worked so hard on X that it can’t all be worthless.

3

Henry 02.06.09 at 7:38 pm

ben – the book that we are referring to is all about parties, and people who identify with parties _in particular_ rather than, violently advocating Tom Hanks or Haagen-Daz- hence the specific usage here. It may be that Brink is unintentionally slipping between these different meanings, but I don’t think so.

4

Rich Puchalsky 02.06.09 at 7:47 pm

“They couldn’t be skeptical of the existence and the remediability of anthropogenic climate change!”

Actually, they can. It has been quite common, since the late 90s, for a single global warming denier to go through all four of the following steps, sometimes in the same document:

1. Global warming doesn’t exist;
2. And if it does exist, it’s not man-made;
3. But anyway if it’s man-made, it’s beneficial;
4. And if it’s not beneficial, it’s too expensive to do anything about.

5

Rich Puchalsky 02.06.09 at 7:54 pm

The people who decry partisanship as an abstract principle are engaging in a weird ideology of their own, of course. This ideology says that what is wrong is not the particular beliefs, actions, or outcomes of the actions of any partisan, but the mere fact that they are so declasse as to support anything intensely. Someone opposing chattal slavery would get the same “But are you so sure that you are right?” and “The people you’re against aren’t really so bad as you’re making them out to be” as someone working towards a neo-fascist state. It’s the ideology of comfortable upper-middle-class self-satisfied people.

6

Adam Kotsko 02.06.09 at 8:11 pm

Re: Rich’s four contradictory claims — Global warming denialism is an awesome example of an ideology that fits with Freud’s “broken kettle” logic, as Zizek used it in connection with the Iraq War. The problem is that there are too many reasons to oppose action on global warming!

7

Stuart 02.06.09 at 8:17 pm

she cites findings from the political science literature that independents tend to be less interested in politics, less informed about the issues, and less likely to participate in the process than are their partisan fellow citizens

One question that comes to mind here, is whether this is specific to the US (or more generally FPTP political systems), or true for all sorts of polities. I could see with only 2 realistic choices in a fairly corrupted system could turn off a lot of independents – or just people in general, that then say independent because they don’t want to be associated with the views and excesses of either party or its most outspoken supporters).

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minneapolitan 02.06.09 at 8:28 pm

I think wolfson is correct with regard to the passage cited in the post. If it does not contain an intentional conflation of partisan-as-party-supporter and partisan-as-teeth-gnashing-zealot then there is surely an unintentional one.

So-called libertarians are some of the worst people out there (amongst those who should know better) about pretending that their ideology is not an ideology. Esp. as has been discussed before, when they get into their Econ 101 mode.

I think partisans and partisanship are just great. Virtually anything that creates exploitable cracks in the system is something that can work towards the advancement of true libertarianism, that is, anarchism. I’m all for taking advantage of the chaotic nature of capitalism and the mental ossification of religion and the unbending hierarchy of government to undo their domination.

9

Dave Weeden 02.06.09 at 8:43 pm

Joseph Schumpeter has a quote somewhere that I keep meaning to try to find again, to the effect that our ideologies blind us to much of reality, but without our ideologies we would not see at all.

Isn’t this a sort of paraphrase of the possibly apocryphal story of Karl Popper beginning a lecture with “Observe!” – and then waiting until a student finally objects, “Observe what?”

I’m not so sure that “ideologies are hard to do without.” The Church of England and the Labour Party seem to manage very well. (This may be rather UK-centric for some readers.) Actually, I’m not sure whether by ‘ideology’ you mean something like a private philosophy, constructed quasi-empirically (ie with a lot of guesswork and prejudice) or a sort of “off-the-shelf” belief system, by definition shared with other people. And in a sort of football crowd sense: when they sing, you sing too.

Ultimately, the interesting question is, “why hasn’t the credo of Brian (You’re all individuals… You’ve all got to think for yourselves), which is pretty much the unwritten basis of democracy (if people don’t think for themselves, why bother asking them anything?) caught on more?”

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Keith M Ellis 02.06.09 at 9:07 pm

The people who decry partisanship as an abstract principle are engaging in a weird ideology of their own, of course. This ideology says that what is wrong is not the particular beliefs, actions, or outcomes of the actions of any partisan, but the mere fact that they are so declasse as to support anything intensely.

I disagree with this. While I’m certain that this accurately describes a portion of those who decry partisanship, it’s certainly not true of all.

It seems to me that Lindsey’s central claim is correct: partisanship is even more (potentially) counterproductive than ideology because it involves personal loyalty where ideology only involves social identity. Personal loyalty is a powerful motivator.

Still, It’s been years since I last identified myself as “moderate” or “centrist” because it’s been my observation that too many others who self-identify as such are motivated by the kinds of sentiments that Rich describes. It’s simply reflexively a “pox on all your houses”. The only reason I ever self-identified as such was not because my positions are generally “centrist”, but because on some particular issues I deviate from the so-called “party line”. For example, my reasons for supporting international trade are entirely progressive, but the position itself is contrary to what is considered to be progressively correct.

I think I’ve given up hope that public discourse on policy in a democratic context will, in our lifetimes, be any better than the dismal state it is. Most people simple don’t have the time or motivation to spend educating themselves about specific issues (and thus wouldn’t need the shortcut of adopting the positions of their fellow partisans) and don’t have the stomach to disagree with their fellow partisans on particular issues if they did.

Does anyone have any realistic suggestions on how this might be changed? I’d love to hear them.

And let’s be realistic about the gap of ignorance we’re facing here, as well. For example, I met a really nice, well-intentioned, intelligent woman a few weeks ago who knew practically nothing about the US presidential campaign and told me that she decided she supported McCain because she saw the Biden/Palin debate and personally responded to Palin. She told me that it would be nice to have a woman elected to such a high office. She leans left—is against Prop 8 and supports abortion rights. She had no idea that Palin opposed abortion even in the case of rape and incest. Basically, she is as profoundly politically ignorant as anyone I’ve met. When people like her represent a large portion, perhaps the majority, of citizens in a democracy, where can we even begin to make this process more productive?

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Tom Donahue 02.06.09 at 9:08 pm

I think it’s fairly clear that Lindsey’s “two charges” mean (1) that the more partisan-minded are less likely to think clearly than the less partisan-minded; and (2) that the more partisan-minded are more likely to have their moral integrity undermined than the less. Hence, strictly speaking, it isn’t relevant to evaluating Lindsey’s charges that non-partisans with other features (e.g., purveyors of the bipartisan consensus) may tend to think unclearly or may lack moral integrity. What is relevant is evidence about clear thinking and moral integrity among both the more partisan and the less. Unfortunately, Lindsey’s argument (which I just looked over at the Cato site) provides evidence that the more partisan-minded may be liable to muddled thinking and lack of moral integrity, but so far as I can see provides no evidence that the less partisan-minded, as a class, do better on these dimensions than the partisan. True, the argument does posit a mechanism (“the root cause”) that could explain the variation, if that existed. But it doesn’t give evidence that would substantiate the alleged variation; so the mechanism doesn’t do much to support the thesis, which is partly an empirical generalization. Hence the argument, as it stands, doesn’t seem to me to be worth much. Its two theses-cum-charges are interesting and may well be true; the evidence by which it supports them isn’t the right kind of evidence.

12

omega Centauri 02.06.09 at 9:26 pm

I think the political partisan has an additional motivation, to him there is a never ending war raging, between his party, and the bad guys. So conceding a point, however trivial, is seen as having a cost beyond the merely psychic. It is seen as a potential blunder that could lead to a loss in the all important war. That his peer group will likely see his concession as an act of treason, is an additional motivator.

Your point about the impossibility of avoiding some sort of ideology/partisanship is a good one. Myself, I belong to an ideology that says that using the best available epistemology when determining a course of action is of primary importance. Such an ideology shouldn’t be correlated with any particular party. However in today’s America the violations of one party have become so egregious that it is impossible not to join the other.

13

Rich Puchalsky 02.06.09 at 10:07 pm

Keith Ellis: “I disagree with this. While I’m certain that this accurately describes a portion of those who decry partisanship, it’s certainly not true of all.”

Well, nothing describes every portion of something. But I think that it’s true of, say, 90-95% of the intellectual “moderates”. Look at Lindsay: his last two sentences say that we need to evaluate factual claims and then that we must be willing to say a pox on both houses. It must be a priori impossible, in his universe, for there to be a situation in which problems are really predominantly one party’s fault.

“It seems to me that Lindsey’s central claim is correct: partisanship is even more (potentially) counterproductive than ideology because it involves personal loyalty where ideology only involves social identity.”

No one is willing to stick up for personal loyalty? OK, I will. Politics, if you are not an upper-middle-class person who is basically apolitical except for opining about it, involves risks. The risks can be great or small, but in any case, who do want standing with you as you take them? Some jerk who is going to say “Oh, as an independent I disagree with you on that issue, goodbye”, or someone who says “Well, I disagree, but we’ve worked together, and you supported me so I’ll support you”? There really are very few people who believe fervently in every element of the linked Democratic or GOP packages of issues. So why are they linked? Because it makes good sense to do so. The people who aren’t willing to work in coalition or solidarity with other people are merely disloyal and untrustworthy, not independent and freethinking.

14

Keith M Ellis 02.06.09 at 10:20 pm

“The people who aren’t willing to work in coalition or solidarity with other people are merely disloyal and untrustworthy, not independent and freethinking.”

Maybe. But I think you’re presenting a false dilemma. I’m loyal to the people I’ve worked with to achieve my political goals, but not to a fault. I’ll go my own way when I think they’re wrong. But I don’t look for opportunities to disagree, I don’t fetishize such disagreement.

Surely, though, the previous President is a very good example of the vices of loyalty? Loyalty, in his view, trumped all other considerations.

15

Rich Puchalsky 02.06.09 at 10:27 pm

The previous President demanded loyalty up, but had no loyalty down. To illustrate the vices of loyalty, I think that you need a case with more virtues.

And yes, it’s a false dilemma. But I was primarily concerned with showing how the issue might look from the other side. People seemed to accepting the idea that loyalty meant extra danger because it made people easily manipulated, and not looking at the reasons why people need loyalty in the first place.

16

Thomas 02.06.09 at 10:28 pm

Rich, Brink’s point isn’t that party politicos shouldn’t support the goals of their coalition, or even that there shouldn’t be coalitions, but that there is a difference between being in a coalition because it is politically necessary and being in a coalition because one says one believes every element. He says that modern partisans actually tend to believe every element.

17

Rich Puchalsky 02.06.09 at 10:30 pm

“He says that modern partisans actually tend to believe every element.”

Then he’s wrong. This is simply the same straw partisan that gets dragged out and set on fire every time.

18

Grand Moff Texan 02.06.09 at 10:32 pm

the fact that partisanship in America today is a dreadful mess.

That’s a “fact” to this person? How amusing. Does Brink get to tell us when we’re going too far? Because I am used to that “argument” from the Unity types who fizzled so badly last year, and persist only in the commentariat, and their idea of partisanship seems to be “things that threaten DC insiders.” The commentariat’s notion of the center, as has been exhaustively documented on the blogsphere, is well to the right of American opinion polls. But here I see I agree with Henry, so I’m being redundant.
.

19

robertdfeinman 02.06.09 at 11:42 pm

The claim that there is symmetry on the left and the right is not born out by observation. Psychologist Robert Altemeyer has studied the relationship between those who will follow the “party” line and their political leanings for over 40 years.

He coined the term “right wing authoritarians” to describe this personality type. There is a nice write up on wikipedia. Think of Rush’s dittoheads as the typical example: willing to follow the lead of their authority figures, the ability to ignore evidence that contradicts their beliefs and a resistance to considering all sides of an issue.

He has put his work into a free, online book that you can read or download at his web site: The Authoritarians

Coupled with this is a second type said to have a “social dominant orientation” (also defined at wikipedia). This type are the strongman leaders, think Cheney or Rumsfeld.

The right is much more likely to have RWA types than is the left. So “partisanship” is not symmetrical. As you can see from the current stimulus debate, the Dems are willing to compromise, when the GOP was in the majority there was no thought of doing that and it seems even in the minority they have no desire to cooperate.

This is the fundamental divide and CATO (in all its permutations) is a perfect example of a place dominated by ideology and intolerant of dissent. That they are blind to this goes with the territory.

20

Sebastian 02.07.09 at 12:31 am

“He coined the term “right wing authoritarians” to describe this personality type. There is a nice write up on wikipedia. Think of Rush’s dittoheads as the typical example: willing to follow the lead of their authority figures, the ability to ignore evidence that contradicts their beliefs and a resistance to considering all sides of an issue.

He has put his work into a free, online book that you can read or download at his web site: The Authoritarians

Coupled with this is a second type said to have a “social dominant orientation” (also defined at wikipedia). This type are the strongman leaders, think Cheney or Rumsfeld.”

Yes one never sees authoritarianism on the left. Certainly not! Only two out the three most horrific examples. Hardly noticeable.

I’m willing to buy that at this very moment in time, in the United States, more of the authoritarian-bent personalities are on the right. But lets not be silly about it being some right-wing-mainly personality trait in general.

21

engels 02.07.09 at 12:51 am

Who needs psychological research when you can Godwin it?

22

Rich Puchalsky 02.07.09 at 1:11 am

“Rich, Brink’s point isn’t that party politicos shouldn’t support the goals of their coalition […]”

Looking back at the thread, I see that I skipped over this. There’s a shift there from my example, which was intended to apply to anyone doing politics, to “party politicos”. I consider myself to be a partisan, and I’d consider most of the people on Daily Kos (for example) to be partisans. But they aren’t party politicos in the sense that they have official positions in the party.

Many or most partisans are activists, and activists take political risks that they are usually not protected from by anyone except fellow activists. Without loyalty, I don’t see how most politics would be possible. Well, I’ll amend that — the right-wing corporates, like the Cato people, are generally well-paid for their work, and don’t need loyalty.

23

John Emerson 02.07.09 at 1:29 am

During the period about 1870 — 1932 the Republican and Democratic parties in the US seemed to be regional and ethnic patronage parties whose most stalwart supporters were angling for government jobs. There were a systematic disagreements about tariffs and Prohibition but beyond that ideological content was pretty slender — in particular, neither was more conservative , by our standards, than the other, and both were pretty conservative. On top of that, the west and, to a degree, south weren’t effectively represented by either party.

So all the ideological work was done by third parties and non-party movements outside the two parties. Most of the non-party movements would support sympathetic candidates in either major party, so there were Progressive Republicans and Progressive Democrats. Individuals could easily hop from a minor party to a major part and back and then to the other major party. (Ignatius Donnelly was a Republican, a founder of the Populist Party, and then a Democrat.) Third parties would cut non-competition deals with one of the major parties. For a time North Dakota was controlled by the Non-Partisan League, which was really a third party.

I think that some kind of extra party (not third party) group is the best way to go in the US. But unfortunately, the early twentieth century option of playing the Rs off against the Ds is impossible, because the Rs are mentally ill. Still, a group working especially in primaries and offering only conditional support to specific Democrats would have a lot more leverage than anything happening now.

24

Rich Puchalsky 02.07.09 at 1:40 am

“Still, a group working especially in primaries and offering only conditional support to specific Democrats would have a lot more leverage than anything happening now.”

Isn’t that essentially what Daily Kos et al does? Sure, they in theory support all Democrats, but that support is nominal for politicians that they aren’t making a particular push for. All that they are giving up by being a Democratic group rather than an extra party is the possibility of opposing a Democrat in a general election — and that opposition would be rare (there aren’t many Democrats that would actually be worse than Republicans) and also fairly nominal.

25

John Emerson 02.07.09 at 4:16 am

I think that Kos and especially Firedoglake have moved in that direction. More is better. Frankly, I don’t think anyone but influence-peddlars, boodlers and grafters should ever give a dime to any national Democratic group again.

Trivia: Vito Marcantonio, the reputedly- Communist NYC Congressman and LaGuardia ally, started his career as a Republican. Of course LaGuardia was also a Republican.

26

geo 02.07.09 at 5:39 am

Rich @6: This ideology says that what is wrong is not the particular beliefs, actions, or outcomes of the actions of any partisan, but the mere fact that they are so declasse as to support anything intensely. … It’s the ideology of comfortable upper-middle-class self-satisfied people.

Yes, exactly. If you read a lot of, say, book reviews in the great repositories of conventional wisdom (eg, the Times Book Review and Publishers Weekly), you’ll notice, almost invariably, disapproval of any forceful argument for anything that isn’t already conventional wisdom. The terms of art are “ideological,” “unbalanced,” “overzealous,” “preaching to the converted,” “unlikely to persuade anyone who isn’t already convinced,” etc, etc, ad nauseam. The merest hint of radical criticism or moral indignation is offensive to such people.

27

Sebastian 02.07.09 at 6:07 am

“Who needs psychological research when you can Godwin it?”

Seriously, if your research discovers that gravity doesn’t pull, umm you question the research. If you can’t account for 2 rather noticeable counterexamples, your research isn’t very good. It isn’t as if psychological research has ever been sketchy or anything.

28

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 02.07.09 at 12:37 pm

RTFM, Sebastian. Altemeyer’s got the Commie angle covered. I don’t agree with his definition of “right-wing” authoritarianism, but he goes to the trouble of describing what he means by it. From p 9-10 of the book (or p15-16 of the PDF):

Right-Wing and Left-Wing Authoritarian Followers
Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their
society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such people
have historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled,
customary leaders, and that means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically these
followers have personalities featuring:
1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in
their society;
2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and
3) a high level of conventionalism.
Because the submission occurs to traditional authority, I call these followers rightwing
authoritarians. I’m using the word “right” in one of its earliest meanings, for in
Old English “riht”(pronounced “writ”) as an adjective meant lawful, proper, correct,
doing what the authorities said. (And when someone did the lawful thing back then,
maybe the authorities said, with a John Wayne drawl, “You got that riht, pilgrim!”)

In North America people who submit to the established authorities to
extraordinary degrees often turn out to be political conservatives, so you can call
them “right-wingers” both in my new-fangled psychological sense and in the usual
political sense as well. But someone who lived in a country long ruled by Communists
and who ardently supported the Communist Party would also be one of my
psychological right-wing authoritarians even though we would also say he was a
political left-winger. So a right-wing authoritarian follower doesn’t necessarily have
conservative political views. Instead he’s someone who readily submits to the
established authorities in society, attacks others in their name, and is highly
conventional. It’s an aspect of his personality, not a description of his politics. Rightwing authoritarianism is a personality trait, like being characteristically bashful or happy or grumpy or dopey.

You could have left-wing authoritarian followers as well, who support a
revolutionary leader who wants to overthrow the establishment. I knew a few in the
1970s, Marxist university students who constantly spouted their chosen authorities,
Lenin or Trotsky or Chairman Mao. Happily they spent most of their time fighting
with each other, as lampooned in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the People’s
Front of Judea devotes most of its energy to battling, not the Romans, but the Judean
People’s Front. But the left-wing authoritarians on my campus disappeared long ago.
Similarly in America “the Weathermen” blew away in the wind. I’m sure one can find
left-wing authoritarians here and there, but they hardly exist in sufficient numbers
now to threaten democracy in North America. However I have found bucketfuls of
right-wing authoritarians in nearly every sample I have drawn in Canada and the
United States for the past three decades. So when I speak of “authoritarian followers”
in this book I mean right-wing authoritarian followers, as identified by the RWA
scale.

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Eli Rabett 02.07.09 at 3:34 pm

The problem with non-partisanship in the US these days is that there is no one on the right you can work with as the recent idiocy of their insisting we have ineffective tax cuts in a stimulus package shows rather than more effective government spending on infrastructure and income support.

Basically the Republicans, even the so called moderates your average toxic girl or boy friend that mom warned you about. Growing up, before Goldwater, it was a toss up whether to be a Republican or a Democrat, the Democrats were better on a lot of things, but supporting them, meant giving power to the segs in the south. The Republicans were a bit to the right of where I wanted to be on economics, but except for the fringe ok. This has changed.

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John Emerson 02.07.09 at 5:41 pm

This ideology says that what is wrong is not the particular beliefs, actions, or outcomes of the actions of any partisan, but the mere fact that they are so declasse as to support anything intensely. … It’s the ideology of comfortable upper-middle-class self-satisfied people.

Rich and I were on a thread elsewhere where I was trying to present an activist description and analysis of today’s media, and bumped up against two or three media historians who criticized it as “simplistic”, etc., from a historical point of view. There seemed to be no recognition that the way you sum up a situation in order to decide what to do about it (the activist view) might legitimately (and in fact, must) focus on different things and present things differently and than an objective historian from Mars would. I believe that they held the common academic belief that activist descriptions differ from academic descriptions by being wrong and dishonest, whereas it’s really just a different way of sorting, selecting, and presenting the data. Still less did they recognize that hands-on activism can be a form of research, and teach you things you couldn’t learn otherwise — and one of the media experts revealed his total ignorance of contemporary activist media criticism.

I’m just starting to read Hofstadter, and in the first few pages I skipped to I found him accusing perfectly sane Progressives and Populists of paranoia. I think that Hofstadter’s rejection of popular politics is wired into college teaching. (I haven’t read far, and maybe Hofstadter’s own view is more nuanced, but I think that that’s the way he is read and taught.)

I get the feeling that this view starts with using Joe McCarthy and Father Coughlin as the archetypal Populists, interpreting those who opposed WWII as Nazi sympathizers, which few were, and then lumping the WWI opponents in with them. The problem with this is that by doing so you effectively denounce a high proportion of the Progressives and left liberals who made the New Deal possible.

So after WWII we got professionalized, neutral, administrative liberalism, with the populism held firmly under control. And since 1968 we’ve had a faux-populist right (controlled by big money) repeatedly humiliating a professionalized, administrative Democratic Party.

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John Emerson 02.07.09 at 5:49 pm

To put it differently, Roosevelt’s first two terms were progressive, popular, and quasi-left, and quasi-Populists, but in his next two terms the experts and administrators took over and marginalized or crushed the popular forces. And at the same time , the US went into a permanent mobilization and accepted is mission as the next world empire.

I suspect that many contemporary liberals would be torn between denying what I just said, and saying “I don’t see anything wrong with that”.

As I always say, republican populism is fake, but Democratic elitism is real.

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Sebastian 02.07.09 at 6:47 pm

Good heavens, why in the world would a psychologist intentionally choose terminology that is going to directly confuse normally used terms like that? It isn’t as if he is trained in how people react to common stimuli. So he is using the term as ‘right’ wing authoritarian, and every one in the world is going to read it as ‘right-wing’ authoritarian. Come-on. That is just silly. I could write a book about ‘Modern Communists’ that effectively defined them as the Democratic Party. I could argue that what made them modern was their rejection of the total government control of capital and their desire to control capital through indirect means–regulation of the uses of capital. And it would all go well so long as you only used by definitions. But it would be completely misleading in the real world.

And look how it played out in this very thread. Robert writes “The right is much more likely to have RWA types than is the left. ” Which hasn’t been shown at all and is almost certainly garbage. Definitionally RWA types tend to support either the current regime, or tend to get sucked cult-like into counter-culture regimes. Whether or not they will be right-wing or left-wing in typical usage of the term is likely to depend on the location of the status quo. RWA types in Chavez’s regime are very likely to be left-wing. RWA types in modern Russia are likely to be former Communists. RWA types in the Ukraine are likely to be a weird mix. The whole point is that the definitional concept being described is not attached to right and left wing as normally meant. The problem I have with the term is that ‘right-wing’ adds essentially nothing to the term.

Authoritarian personality is just as good or bad a term with no extra confusing language. And frankly it captures the underlying personality trait better because it allows for the cases where the Authoritarian Personality type gets sucked into a counterculture-cult type situation or unwarranted revolutionary situation. (It allows for some Che or Mao followers to be easily described without getting into a stupid ‘left-wing right wing authoritarian personalities’.

Probably the whole thing isn’t that precise. A better description would probably to make it a subclass of something like ‘subordinating personality’ but whatever.

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Sebastian 02.07.09 at 6:52 pm

And I just realized that I probably got sucked into a troll diversion, sorry about that.

Back on topic, it may be the case that political partisans are no more likely to be sucked into ideology and misplaced than other groups. But it doesn’t seem ridiculous that they might be somewhat more likely because they see themselves as actors and thus may fall prey to a sunk cost fallacy (I’ve worked so hard for this, how can I give it up now) that isn’t *as* available to others.

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Matt Austern 02.08.09 at 3:44 am

It’s always possible. Most people are inclined to fall victim to their own self-image. And I certainly don’t think that those who flatter themselves that they’re above such grubby things as partisanship are immune to such dangers.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.08.09 at 5:35 am

I guess that never working towards anything is a great defense against getting too invested in sunk costs.

(Yeah, yeah, false dilemma again; no doubt I should surround this with lots of “it isn’t *as* available etc.)

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praisegod barebones 02.08.09 at 6:47 am

‘That is just silly. I could write a book about ‘Modern Communists’ that effectively defined them as the Democratic Party.’

True. But wouldn’t you just get sued for plagiarism by Jonah Goldberg?

37

Bruce Wilder 02.08.09 at 7:17 am

Politics is a team sport. Partisanship follows from that fact.

Now, it is a curious feature of the current configuration of the two American political Parties, that ideology, in a loose sense of worldview and general attitudes, is a very strong predictor of partisan identification. But, as another commenter points out, this state of affairs is historically unique; making something that never happened before in 180 years of American party politics into a universal seems a bit odd.

Partisanship, in the first instance, is about the Party as an alliance to obtain office and power. At its core, even in the absence of deep patronage, a Party is a mutual aid society among job-seeking politicians. Ideology and policy programs are just means (and not the only means) to broaden the alliance and enlist auxiliaries. In power, Party is a means for the disciplined exercise of power, but always with consideration for holding or obtaining office.

One of the peculiar features of American politics is that there are only two Parties. This must be considered a product of the Presidential system and the Electoral College, as parliamentary systems appear to allow the persistence of third and fourth and fifth Parties, even though two major Parties may predominate.

The constitutional function of Parties in government is to reconcile conflict into policy choice. Third Parties persist in parliamentary systems, because they always have some realistic hope of obtaining and exercising political power. Indeed, holding the balance of power in parliament, they may, occasionally, have outsized leverage, which may compensate for being mostly excluded.

In a Parliamentary system, the existence of third, fourth and fifth Parties can draw off obnoxious elements and idiosyncratic regional interests, leaving the main Parties able to fashion more coherent policy agendas and, even, ideological identities. It is a lot easier to be a coherent Party, when you only need 40% or so of the vote, than in the U.S., where it is necessary to aspire to 51%, when no third Party volunteers for the suicidal task of electing the Presidential candidate they like least. (The current Labour gov’t obtained its Parliamentary majority with 37% of the vote [22% of those eligible to vote]; nice work if you can get it.)

The impulses that give rise to regional and ideological third (and fourth and fifth) Parties in other countries must exist in the U.S. After all, the diversity of human ambivalence is universal. But, institutional arrangements frustrate and suppress the emergence of these Parties. This, despite the obvious potential to exercise power, afforded to centrist bi-partisans. The pressure to form a Party able to unite the loyalties of 55% or so, of the electorate, and the inability to sustain more than two Party identities, must generate frustration and resentment, as well as encourage the Parties to construct a “Big Tent” of strange bedfellows. It is in this challenging context of team formation that critiques of partisanship arise. To wit, complaints about the alleged “need” for a third Party are perennial, and tensions among broad, and conflicting coalitions, which concatenate unrelated issues into the party platforms and agenda. Many of the criticisms and complaints are really not about the nature of “partisanship” per se, but about there being only a binary choice in the U.S. system. All kinds of political philosophy, personal ambition, and material interests, identities, and regionalisms, must be folded into that diptych.

As it happens, the division of the Parties has put most of the authoritarians into a single Party, as others have noted. The authoritarian attitude cluster (and that’s all it is, a cluster of attitudes that seem to point to a category of personality style) has characteristics that would ordinarily point to low levels of political participation, but not alignment to a political program. They do tend to respect hierarchy, but they are also natural egalitarians. They are good followers, but poor team players and lousy diplomats.

Having most of the authoritarians in one of two Parties is certainly going to undermine any symmetry of organization or philosophy across the Parties. It does mean that distinctive attitudes are the the new Partisan “ideology”, which is may prove to be more elastic a common bond than interest, identity, or philosophy.

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Eric H 02.08.09 at 6:26 pm

You could just as easily suggested to robertdfeinman that he RTFM. Altemeyer himself points out that RWA political right wingism, and from the snippet provided, it is easy to see that the political left fits the definition, i.e. blind trust in gov’t authority. LWA, as noted, may be political left wing when fighting the gov’t, but they become politically left RWAs when they win the revolution. Which they did in the US many years ago.

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engels 02.08.09 at 6:59 pm

LWA, as noted, may be political left wing when fighting the gov’t, but they become politically left RWAs when they win the revolution. Which they did in the US many years ago.

Hold on to your tin-foil hats!

40

Rich Puchalsky 02.08.09 at 8:35 pm

This whole concept of talking about “partisans” without specifics is fatally flawed — or, rather, it’s mostly an example of the ideology I sum up in comment #5 above. It’s meaningless to talk about partisans if what you’re concerned about is authoritarians, because this discussion is in a contemporary context in which the authoritarians are linked to specific political parties. It’s also pretty pointless to talk about partisans if what you’re concerned about is political activists, which is what I suspect that people are doing because partisans who aren’t activists don’t really appear on the radar screen of the people who like to talk about how rude everyone has become.

There are many different paths by which people come to political activism. Going on about how partisanship makes people stupid is just a way of smearing anyone who is politically active as a thug.

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Sebastian 02.09.09 at 1:28 am

“LWA, as noted, may be political left wing when fighting the gov’t, but they become politically left RWAs when they win the revolution. Which they did in the US many years ago.”

Ugh, can you not be on my side?

42

derek 02.10.09 at 1:38 pm

Lindsey’s first indictment is that partisanship undermines clear thinking in the partisans, as if that’s the most important thing about the political system. But I would say that the most important thing is that the system is able to think clearly about all the issues, which it is less likely to do if everyone agrees. Americans think the most striking thing about their political system is what Ds and Rs disagree about. Outsiders think the most striking thing is what they agree about, and how that casts alternatives to the American bipartisan consensus into the wilderness of “crazy talk!”. The Overton window may move left or right, but maybe what it really ought to do is open wider, to let more light in.

It’s like Searle’s Chinese Room. The man in the room doesn’t know Chinese, and the room with its books doesn’t know Chinese. But man plus room, considered as a system, is a fluent translator. So a political milieu made up of warring extreme partisans seems more likely, in my opinion, to have a grasp of all the possible views than a fuzzy group of hugging Kumbayah singers.

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BillOBill 02.11.09 at 5:55 am

#36 Many of the criticisms and complaints are really not about the nature of “partisanship” per se, but about there being only a binary choice in the U.S. system
+1

#40 …partisans who aren’t activists don’t really appear on the radar screen of the people who like to talk about how rude everyone has become.
Perhaps not, but they show up at my kids softball games on a pretty regular basis…

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