Partisanship Is the New Racism
Democrats and Republicans may sit together for Obama's speech, but partisanship won't budge.
By Shankar Vedantam
Jan. 24, 2011
Partisanship is the new racism. We love to criticize it, and we love to claim we've transcended it. We recognize it in our enemies but not in ourselves. We use it to discriminate against others. And increasingly, we find sophisticated ways to mask it in a veneer of open-mindedness.
New psychological research and insights from political science suggest parallels between partisanship and racism. Both seem to arise from aspects of social identity that are immutable or slow to change. Both are publicly decried and privately practiced. Both are increasingly employed in ways that allow practitioners to deny that they are doing what they are doing.
Let's take these assertions one by one. Most of us don't think of partisanship as a matter of social identity. We think that party loyalties stem from our views about government, abortion, guns, and foreign policy. But if you look at those issues, there is no logical reason why people who are against abortion rights should also support gun rights, as many conservatives do. There is no logical reason why those who support unions shouldn't also support a militaristic foreign policy—yet liberals tend to do one but not the other. The issues that bind liberals together and the ones that tie conservatives together are all over the place. Most people see the incoherence in their opponents' views: Liberals, for example, mock conservatives for opposing abortion on the grounds that it takes human life while simultaneously supporting the death penalty. Conservatives shake their heads at liberals who pour onto the streets for antiwar protests, but only when the commander in chief is a Republican.
In recent years, a number of political scientists have argued that our party loyalties drive our views about issues, not the other way around. But if our views don't make us Democrats or Republicans, what does? Consider this thought experiment: I have two neighbors, Jack and Jill. Jill is an African-American woman and a yoga instructor. Jack is a white man and an evangelical Christian. I've told you nothing about Jack and Jill's views about abortion, government, guns, taxes, or foreign policy. Yet most of us would have no trouble guessing that Jill is a Democrat and Jack is a Republican. How do we know this? Because social identity—race, gender, religious affiliation, geographical location—play an outsize (and largely hidden) role in determining our partisan affiliations.
When partisanship is seen as a form of social identity—I'm a Democrat because people like me are Democrats, or I'm a Republican because people like me are Republicans—we can understand why so many blue-collar Kansans are Republicans and why so many Silicon Valley billionaires are Democrats, even though each group's rational interests might be better served by the other party...