Contrarianism for the Sake of Contrarianism (or: The Virtue and Vice of Partisanship in a Post Partisan World)
by Kyle Moore
It may seem most odd coming from me a single concept: partisanship is good. Now you can look across the internet and find no shortage of others making this very same argument, many of them being partisans themselves.
I too am a partisan, and on rare occasions I could be viciously so. But at the same time my approach to politics would suggest an eagerness for post partisanship that is echoed by my long time support of the newly minted President of the United States. I am a lefty, but for two years I have been a staunch supporter of the single candidate who succeeded most in making post-partisanship one of the defining themes of his campaign.
My general political philosophy would also suggest that I would be among those quick to condemn the evils of partisanship; I have maintained for much of my life as a political commentator and student of political science that while I have my own personal political principles and beliefs, I feel that the country is best served by a government of moderation, and that those who are often considered my ideological allies would accomplish the most should they temper their political zeal with the dubious charms and trappings of centrism and compromise.
I am, in short, a poster boy for the incoming post-partisan movement, and yet, at the seeming achievement of what would be at least a near term political ideal for me, I find it necessary to affirm that in the face of post-partisanship, we will need the partisans.
I think it is also interesting to note that I don’t make a defense of partisanship in the same spirit as my ideological peers and opponents. Those who firmly define themselves along the political spectrum and at the same time decry the thoughts of a post-partisan America do so largely for the reason you would expect: liberals and conservatives and everyone else think they are right, and thus think it is their duty to continue the partisan fight.
There’s something very important here, and I would never deny or even claim as ill the right of a citizen to freely express his or her dissenting opinion. But my belief in partisanship is more mechanical than that of others who believe in the practice and the culture of opposing politics.
Imagine, if you will, a room. You are in the room chained tightly to a wall, and someone else is in this room on the exact opposite side of you, also chained tightly to the wall such that the both of you are rendered completely immobile. In the exact center of the room between the two of you is a ball that floats at exactly eye level.
You look at the ball and you declare, “This ball is blue.”
From the other side of this room you hear the voice of your co-inhabitant scoff and snidely remark, “No it isn’t. This ball is red.”
Fiercely the two of you fight out back and forth whether the ball is blue or red and since neither of you can move, it’s not like either of you could get closer to take another look, inspect the thing from different angles, etc. Finally, though, a smile cracks across your lips, “Hey,” you say, “here’s a thought. Maybe the ball is colored differently on each side.”
From the other side of the room you hear the voice grunt in contemplation. “Maybe. I’m also wearing glasses, maybe they’re tinted and I just didn’t notice. Are you wearing glasses?”
“Matter of fact, I am. What color are the walls to you?”
“Hmmm… same here.” You’re stuck, somewhat until your companion tries a different thought.
“Maybe the ball is the same color, and has something on it, like an invisible paint, and the lenses in our glasses pick up that paint differently?”
“Sounds a little far fetched.”
“Sure, but it’s possible. I mean, what do we know about that ball as a fact?”
You shrug, “Nothing,” you grumble and that’s about when the chains let go and allow you and your newfound partner to inspect the ball more freely and from different angles.
Okay, so that was a long and convoluted metaphor/example, I admit, but this is what proper partisanship looks like. When partisanship, as a tool, works the way it is supposed to it creates a forum and a dynamic inside that forum in which the value of ideas are allowed to be tested against other ideas, observations are questioned, and in the end, the final prevailing conclusions are made that much more strong because of the conflict.
Sometimes partisanship in this most useful form ultimately and completely proves wrong the precepts of one ideology, or perhaps more accurately, the dogma of that ideology, and sometimes it proves it unassailably true. More often than not, however, when partisanship is working at optimal levels, the final result is some sort of compromise, one that pulls the very best from all participants, using the opposing concepts to ultimately create a rock solid foundation.
Indeed, the very document of this nation’s governance, the Constitution, is a living and breathing example of a partisan compromise in action. Remember that in constructing the framework of our legislature, there were two chief polarizing ideas. Representatives from those states with smaller populations wanted to see a legislature created in which each state was represented by the same number of delegates. The reason for this was because if this wasn’t put into place, the fate of the lesser populated states would be at the whim of those more densely populated states.
Likewise, the densely populated states felt that the only true way to have equal and fair representation would be to ensure that the disparities in populations be accurately reflected in the size of delegations. After all, to do otherwise would be to put the fate of the majority into the hands of the minority, a concept that was hardly in keeping with the democratic ideals of this newly forged nation seeking to crawl out from underneath the tyranny of monarchy.
The thing about that dispute is that both sides had valid arguments. Equal representation based upon states wouldn’t necessarily level the playing field, it would unfairly skew it away from more people. Likewise, representation based upon population would leave those lesser populated states woefully under represented. The compromise as we see it in action today, is both simple and natural; do both, create two houses, one in which each state is equal, and one in which each state is weighted based on its population, and make it necessary that both houses must agree before enacting legislation.
Our Congress, though it may enjoy terrible approval ratings now, is a marvel in governmental engineering, and an example of what partisanship can accomplish when it is doing what it is supposed to do. And in an ideal world, all outcomes of partisanship work would be like this, the arguments and debates acting as a crucible in which the useless is burned away leaving only the useful remaining in the ashes, tempered, and strengthened through its ability to survive the inferno.
Of course, for as great as I make partisanship sound here, we live in a political climate where the very term “partisanship” has become a dirty word in the political vernacular. The reason for this is simple, and in recent weeks we have seen perhaps the boldest examples of this phenomenon thanks in large part to the governmental process we just witnessed.
The short of it is that to far too many, partisanship is a game or a war. Contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism as opposed to contrarianism being a useful tool to hone the ideas that govern this nation has become in political circles a virtue, not a vice.
It is true that the very nature of our political discourse is conflicted by nature. Since the old ideological sparring of Jefferson and Adams and earlier our national debate has been one of either/or. But conflict is like a drug, and conflict in the political arena yields power to the victors.
There are a myriad of reasons why specifically positive partisanship all too easily gives way to partisan rancor, but suffice it to say that generally the destructively antagonistic nature that inhabits our political culture does so because ultimately it produces victors and the defeated, and with no treaties to signify times of political peace, and no off seasons to mark a time when the field is no longer used for battle, politics is a perpetual practice in doing anything and everything to win.
In a way, the dogmatists are largely responsible; those ideologues who are so invested in their own ideology that no empirical evidence would be enough to disprove their theories on governance. It is this contingent that drives the debilitating level of debate in our political sphere, and they are granted that power because at least in the near term, it works.
This level of partisanship affects us on a visceral level, it emotionally attracts us into an us vs. them argument, and believe me, it works, and it works far better than building strong reasoned arguments. In watching elections, you pick up on terms and phrases that touch on this concept; comparisons between “heart candidates,” and “head candidates.” It reverberates through the old political wisdom that it’s never enough to get a voter to agree with you, you have to convince them that the election is so important that it’s worth getting off your couch and actually voting for.
This is why the vicious partisanship of the now is so often couched in the hot button issues, ultimately EMOTIONAL issues. Abortion, gun rights, prayer in schools, those aspects of American life that people don’t simply think about, but actually feel about.
Think back only to as far as 2004. Poll after poll suggested that John Kerry was far more trusted on the economy than George W. Bush. Now, typically, the economy is seen as one of the leading issues that voters are concerned with when they head to the voting booth. But despite this, Bush still beat Kerry. Why?
For one, the economy was not the leading issue of the 2004 election which alone helps to prove the point; unless the economy is tanking in a serious way, it’s essentially too egg-headed of a subject for people to generate an emotional response to. Wall Street numbers go up, they go down, who cares? If you talk to Joe and Jane Sixpack (and yes, I’m still a little steamed that Sarah Palin took what is ultimately a poli-sci wonk term and mainstreamed it), they’ll surely have opinions and strong ones at that about the economy, but chances are that they know rather little about the subject, and no matter how emotional they speak, as long as they still have a job and can pay the bills, they aren’t going to get so steamed that the economy will over ride other considerations that they have when they enter the voting booth.
But another thing to look at when we are considering how Bush beat Kerry is that Bush beat Kerry in subjects that were much more emotional and personal in nature to the voters. On socially conservative subjects, Bush had engendered the trust and support of an energized socially conservative demographic. And on national security, not only was Bush able to make a convincing case to the electorate that he was better prepared to defend the country, through the use of techniques that exploited the human psyche (read: Terror Management Theory) the national defense aspect of the Bush campaign was connecting directly to the electorate’s emotional center.
Note that I’m not even attempting to establish an argument on the virtues of that election or its candidates, I am simply making the illustration that it is the emotional that far outweighs the intellectual in politics. I make this point because the reason why destructive partisanship is so resilient in modern politics is because it in turn exploits the emotional.
For a different example on the same subject, just look at this election we just finished. I could probably write a book on why Obama won, but one thing that was integral to his victory was the sheer enormity, energy, and competancy of his grass roots effort. I can say comfortably that no politician in America has ever enjoyed as strong of a ground troop organization, and part of why that existed was because Obama the politician had an uncanny knack of being able to emotionally connect with his supporters leading to many of his critics to describe his political coalition as cultists using any number of derisive phrases and epithets.
The inspiration for me to build this argument comes from none other than Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh just recently said, when asked about his hopes and thoughts of the incoming administration, tersely said, “I hope he fails,” and has not really changed his tune much since then.
Now, it would be easy for me to call him a hypocrite and be done with it. After all this is a man who was among a cadre of other movement conservatives that equated any dissenting opinion of George W. Bush with treason. I think I would be well within my right to now say that HE is the one that is anti-American, that he hates America, that he’s unpatriotic, and in the end that he’s a big fat hypocrite.
But my point here is not to settle scores, and to be honest, there are plenty of other liberals out there already calling him on the hypocrisy that I hardly need to join the chorus. What fascinates me is the timing of his opposition, the timing of his statements and the statements of many other so-called conservative patriots who have already chosen to make it clear that they oppose the Obama administration.
What has there been to oppose? Granted, this statement and thought are quickly becoming obsolete as President Obama has hit the ground running and has already made some fairly large moves from directing Guantanimo to be closed, to enacting a rather bold executive order covering lobbyists, to repealing Bush’s executive orders on withholding White House records on the premise of executive privelege.
But it’s important to note that as of right now, President Obama has not been in office for 100 hours, let alone 100 days, and the moment of this contrarian attitude began before even the first hour began. In this time frame, sure the incoming administration had the opportunity to propose ideas and telegraph movements it would like to make, but it is ultimately important that this faction of dissent formed at a point when no actions had been officially taken, and most definitely before the true value of these actions could be assessed.
In other words, there is little to no good faith basis for contrarianism at this point. Now I understand the need for caution here, and I want to be clear about what I’m saying at this point. I believe in dissent, and above that, I believe in the constitutionally protected right of free speech and the proxy right of free opinion. From a legal standpoint, these people, all people can say and do as they wish without fear of reprisal, and from an ethical standpoint, I personally support anyone willing to stand as the voice of dissent against a tide of opinion.
But this is a matter of good faith, and ultimately motivation. What motivates the Limbaughs and the Hannities and the Malkins to take up the standard of hyper-partisan contrarian now? Surely one would say to provide a voice of balance against the rampant liberalism that is sure to gush forth from DC now that the Democrats are in charge.
But even this fails in my opinion to pass the test of an opposition founded in good faith. For an argument of good faith has to first be one in which the ultimate desired goal is to lend to the betterment of the country as a whole, not a single movement, and second it should be couched in either the empirical or at least the intellectual. That’s to say there should be some sort of logical grounding underneath the call for a contrarian stance.
The election of Barack Obama left us politically sort of in a state of political tabula rasa. We have a first term president, so off the bat we don’t have previous terms of service to inform our opinion and thoughts on how the next four years of governance will go. This president comes from a completely different ideology as the former president. Indeed, some have posited that Obama is non-ideological, and some reporters have even noted that the new president tends to hold ideologues in less than high regard. Thus with an ideological shift in leadership, we see new ideas that must be tested.
Finally, it is also important to note that the world has dramatically changed since the last time someone even remotely close to President Obama has inhabited the White House. The nineties, and the Bill Clinton era may have been less than a decade ago, but since then everything has changed so significantly that it would be difficult to use the Clinton presidency as yardstick of measurement for the Obama administration.
Allow me to further clarify, in the list above I do mention new ideas, and this does mean that there is room for a contrarian argument in good faith based upon the value of those ideas, but let’s not kid ourselves, this is not the area in which Limbaugh et al. stake out their territory, just as this is not where the PUMAs stake their claim.
PUMAs, a political group that can best be described as Hillary Clinton supporters who have essentially refused to move on from Clinton’s primary loss in the early summer of last year, are interestingly similar in make up to the Limbaugh crowd. For though these folks call themselves liberals, and have all but canonized Hillary Clinton’s platform, they demonize anything and everything that has to do with Obama.
As a side note, this is actually quite a funny dynamic to behold. They cheer Clinton as the Secretary of State, and strangely enough seem to ignore that this is the Secretary of State in the Obama administration. They advocate vocally on behalf of Lily Ledbetter, but seem to ignore the fact that Ledbetter was herself an Obama supporter. As McCain voters in this last election, they righteously ignore the irony that the man they voted for voted against the “Ledbetter legislation”.
In either case, be it Limbaugh, Hannity, etc., or the Puma pack, what is lacking from their contrarianism is intellectual fault, and motivation that is first and foremost driven by the good of the country. For the dittoheads, the true goal is the continued war on liberalism with a permanent conservative ruling class and majority in mind. For the PUMAs, it is revenge against a political personality that defeated their political hero.
And ultimately, the are all equally fine to do just what they are doing. That people are allowed to develop their own political beliefs, and to act upon them is the beauty of our political system. But the flipside of that coin is that while they are more than free to do this, should they?
That is the heart of what I’m getting at here. I will defend the contrarian argument with my dying breath, even if it is contrary to my own ideals and beliefs, but there is a line in the sand. Over that line, the voice of dissent is not useful, and in not being useful it is ultimately destructive. No, Rush Limbaugh ranting on the radio for however long he does for however many days of the week he does will not threaten the state of the union. But it continues to poison the political well, and it stands in the way of those who do want to see America succeed whether that progress occurs under conservative or liberal or libertarian ideas.
Thus we must protect their rights to make a mockery of truly effective political discourse, but at the same time we cannot afford to let them derail the great work that waits for all of us, for the passionate hearts and minds of all political philosophies and ideologies. There must be a line drawn, one that finally and definitely indicates that these people do not act in the bet interests of our country, and that their choice of partisanship OVER prosperity as opposed to partisanship as a tool FOR prosperity necessarily evicts them from the important discussions ahead.
They must not, at all cost be silenced, but at the same time their words should not be granted the sligtest sliver of gravity. For any political figure, Bush or Obama, and the countless presidents and elected officials to follow, their ideas must forever be held to the fire of public opinion, but as a people, from the most famous, to the most obscure, we must reject as a matter of principle the argument of bad faith, the act of partisanship for political gain as opposed to national gain, and the contrarian argument that has no goal but to be contrarian.