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Our politics are not polarized, they’re partisan — which could be worse

The political science evidence is much stronger that we have partisan biases than it is that we have deep ideological convictions.

A protest sign is attached to a utility box near the Capitol Building in Washington, Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, in response to supporters of President Donald Trump who stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

Last semester, I taught a course at Brigham Young University titled “Introduction to Political Parties.” While there are definitely more difficult courses to teach (or take) both in terms of depth and difficulty, there is a special problem that comes from helping students think through their own partisan attitudes — and biases.

As I watched insurrectionists run through the halls of the national Capitol on Wednesday, I could not help but be reminded that this depth of partisanship seems to be one of our central problems in this country.

Partisans — especially, at this moment, Trump’s supporters — are increasingly unable or unwilling to police their side. And make no mistake, that is what needs to happen before our politics spin out of control. We are not going to fix this as Democrats and Republicans engage in normal political conflict. The constitutional structure and our two-party system will not be enough for that.

We often describe our system as “polarized,” and while this isn’t wrong — as I often try to explain to my students — it is just not quite as candid a description as it needs to be. Instead, we are partisan, and often in the worst senses of that word. The political science evidence is much stronger that we have partisan biases than it is that we have deep ideological convictions. While it does seem true that most people are committed partisans (to varying degrees) they don’t seem to be ideologues who deeply believe everything said by their own “side.”

Indeed there is a great deal of evidence (some compiled here by myself and my colleague Michael Barber) that many partisans take whatever positions they need to take in order to stay in line with their party. They just care about the label and their tribe. We shouldn’t describe ourselves as polarized so much as we describe ourselves as partisan. And isn’t that exactly what we saw in the insurrectionists at the national capitol on Wednesday? They didn’t have any obvious program beyond “Trump” — up to and including a flag for him.

They were so deep in their partisan fervor for Trump that they were willing to riot on his behalf. When I talk to students about this kind of motivation, I often cite George Washington who noted that partisanship has its “root in the strongest passions of the human mind” and is “inseparable from our nature.” I find that we all want to believe that only “those people” or “a few people” are at fault, but the longer I study parties the more obvious it becomes that almost anyone can be led down the path to defending unethical, even criminal behavior that they would not justify under any other circumstance other than a partisan fight where the limits come off.

I used to believe the numbers of such people without limits were smaller, but I have slowly had to change my mind. As the Trump administration started, several colleagues and I had dinner with a relatively high-ranking government official. We probed the limits of this man’s partisanship only to find that the limits didn’t really exist. When pressed as to when he would go against his party, we were unable to come up with a situation. Would he vote to put in place an authoritarian leader? Would he support illegal actions? What about rounding people up into stadiums for torture and execution (see Pinochet in the 1970s)?

The answer in all cases: loyalty above all else. The party is just right. Does that not describe the people who fly the flag of Trump in the halls of Congress?

I have favorite institutional reforms (some of which can be found in this lecture given at BYU’s Kennedy Center). We could restore amendment rights in the Congress, alter the primary election rules, or — a personal favorite — expand the size of the House. But in the end, if Washington’s claim is right that partisanship is sown deep into the human heart, we’re going to need norms that human beings rigorously enforce — even when we have to enforce it against our own side.

Whatever institutional changes we make (and we should consider them), I always tell my students the same thing: make sure you have some limits to your partisanship. It’s a small thing, like acting “locally,” and so it may not seem like much. But it is an essential step.

I have never been much of a Harry Potter fan (I’m more of a Tolkien man myself). But the most memorable line to me has always been Dumbledore’s commendation of Neville Longbottom: “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” This is a difficult truth. Who likes doing that? But with our partisanship addiction, there is no other way.

The sad part about this? I know I’m not a very good teacher of this virtue. I am not a very partisan person by temperament or inclination. Therefore, I’m not an exemplar of speaking truth to my party. It would be better if my students could see a fire-breathing Democrat or a pit bull Republican take on their own party. Of late, I have been able to point them to Mitt Romney, a senator from our own state who has been willing to tell his friends the truth even when they do not want to hear it. But the truth is these examples have been far too thin on the ground.

When partisanship has no limits, the republic will have truly fallen. So, while there is work to do all around us, a good place to start is to scrutinize our own limits. Do we have them? What do they demand of us? Our friends, more often than we want to admit, have let things get out of control.

May we let this moment be one where we start enforcing some of those limits, or our politics will become not just partisan but truly nasty, brutish and short.

Jeremy C. Pope is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and the author of “Founding Factions: How Majorities Shifted and Aligned to Produce the U.S. Constitution.” Follow him on Twitter @JeremyCPope.