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January 26, 2007
On the Virtue of Partisanship

In examining this week whether partisanship is a good or bad thing, NPR has produced an artful and rich examination of precisely the wrong question. In a forum where anecdotes reign, the pro- and anti-partisanship partisans have plenty to say, and, as is the case in any good debate, nobody wins. There are plenty of examples, after all, of deleterious bipartisan decisions (think Prohibition and Japanese internment). But there are also examples of partisan disasters (the Johnson years, or more recently, the dramatic rise in spending under Republican rule). No matter whether you are a dyed-in-the-wool party hack, or a transcendent, smarmy Independent, there was plenty this week to bolster your self-perception.

The question we ought to ask, however, is whether our representatives are loyal first to principle, or to party. Former RNC Chair Ed Gillespie tried to thread the needle, by arguing that the two are married. "Parties are based," he said, "on political philosophy."

This is akin to stating that NFL teams are based on a love of the game. Political parties, like professional sports franchises, are built to win. Principles are, at best, means to that end — rallying cries we shout to convince ourselves that ours is the team favored by God, and the other the team of Satan. (Of course any thinking person understands that this is only true when my North Carolina Tarheels face the aptly named Duke Blue Devils, but that is not something one can expect the common man to discern.) To today's professional partisan, principles are communication tools, carefully worded to elicit votes, crafted to tap into whatever deep beliefs we citizens tell ourselves we hold.

Former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile, also on the NPR program, best summarized the dilemma when she declared, "Partisanship is a good thing when your party is guided by principles." This is a wonderful statement, coming from a woman with a track record of vicious and unintelligent rhetoric, because it encapsulates the very problem, to wit, that the parties are controlled by the likes of Donna Brazile, Karl Rove, and a host of others who long ago abandoned principles as anything other than slogans, as rallying cries in the fight for victory and its accompanying spoils.

Do you ever get the feeling, when you listen to a politician speak, that he is more like a trained monkey (or Keanu Reeves, to go a step lower on the performance scale) than an actual human person? Ironically, it was the professional actor, Ronald Reagan, who was last able to make us feel like he really meant what he said. Even better, one got the sense that he had arrived at his convictions without first asking himself what would make him most popular among swing voters in Ohio.

Jean Giraudoux wrote, "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made." I get the feeling that today's politicians don't get the humor in that quip. Witness Democrats consulting experts in order to learn how to "communicate their faith." The American people want me to love Jesus? Fine, I'll squeeze that in between health care and legal reform. "Lou! Write me a few lines about my faith in Jesus! And make it sound sincere, for Christ's sake!"

Perhaps principle will never mix well with partisanship, because politics is, by its very nature, transactional. We give to some and take from others in the hopes of getting a little something nice for ourselves. In the grubby political marketplace, where the wealth and freedom of strangers is what's being traded, we shouldn't expect principle to flourish. If so, then maybe the solution is to keep the political marketplace as small as possible. We still need one, to be sure — if nothing else, as a jobs programs for mediocre lawyers and former student body presidents — but perhaps we should confine it a little more tightly. Like in an iron box. At the bottom of the ocean.

I think something like that was the idea behind situating our nation's capital in a swamp. But then somebody went and built bridges, and then some other bozo invented air conditioning, and now we can't seem to be rid of these people.

With that in mind, and in spite of all my anti-partisan talk, I'm looking forward to this new period of partisan bickering. It means that our politicians will be so busy sticking it to each other that they will have less energy to stick it to us. So I guess that makes me a pro-partisan. In a principled sense, of course.

Posted by Woodlief on January 26, 2007 at 01:50 PM