Politics & Policy

The Problem with Partisan Faith

Hillary Clinton acknowledges supporters at a rally in Raleigh, N.C., in June. (Reuters photo: Jason Miczek)
Blind loyalty to a party or candidate is easy, and it’s damaging our politics.

Update your scorecards: The Republican nominee for president supports using unemployment-insurance payments from employers to fund six weeks of paid leave for new mothers, while the Democratic nominee is declaring: “When America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void. So no matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead.”

Donald Trump is sounding like John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton is sounding like George W. Bush. Yet few partisans are complaining loudly that their nominee has adopted positions they once considered anathema.

In 2003, longtime Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal released his memoir of Bill Clinton’s White House, The Clinton Wars. One reviewer began his assessment of the book by asserting that Blumenthal is a man of profound, intense, deeply devoted religious faith — and the core of that faith is that everything that is good in the world comes from the Democratic party.

Over the years, we’ve seen more and more Americans adopting that faith or its mirror image, the idea that all good comes from the Republican party. It’s not a formal religion, but partisan devotion so deeply affects its adherents’ thinking, morality, actions, and reactions to world events that it might as well be a religion.

Each passing political cycle makes it a little clearer that partisan faith has nothing to do with policies and issues.

This is what made a Democratic primary-debate audience applaud Barack Obama’s attack on the individual mandate in February 2008, and then turn around and applaud his enactment of an individual mandate a year later. It’s what made few if any Democrats complain when Obama declared, in a church, to a pastor, that he believed marriage was between a man and a woman, and those same Democrats applaud when Obama endorsed gay marriage a few years later.

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This is what made Sean Hannity welcome Julian Assange onto a recent episode of his show, six years after he accused the WikiLeaks provocateur of “waging war against the U.S.” It’s what made people who defended Bush’s NSA programs lash into Obama’s, and vice versa.

This is what drives the ludicrous double standards and hypocrisy we see in most of our public political debates. We need to get money out of politics because of the Koch Brothers, but Tom Steyer’s big-spending environmental-advocacy campaigns and union-funded attack ads are righteous. Obama declared it was “unpatriotic” for George W. Bush to run up the debt by $4 trillion in eight years, but understandable that he ran up the debt by $9 trillion during his own presidency.

Each passing political cycle makes it a little clearer that partisan faith has nothing to do with policies and issues.

This is what drives the media’s two-faced treatment of politics. Eventually, every question becomes viewed through the lens of what answer offers the most partisan advantage in the current moment. Take the question “How old is too old to be president?” Back in 1996, Time magazine was not subtle, asking “Is Dole Too Old to Be President?” on its cover. Nor were most voices in the media subtle about the suggestion that John McCain was too old in 2008.  A Wall Street Journal headline from April of that year asked, Is McCain Too Old?A Slate headline from that June asked, “How might the senator’s mind deteriorate over the next eight years?” A McClatchy headline from that August reported that “some wonder if McCain’s too old and wrinkly to be president.”

Just imagine the words “old and wrinkly” in a headline about Hillary Clinton this year. You can’t, because this year, we’re told by Daily Beast columnists Eleanor Clift and Michael Tomasky that any questions about Hillary Clinton’s health or fitness constitute “ageism.”

McCain and Dole were 72 when they ran for president. Hillary Clinton will be 69 on Election Day.

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Ultimately, what far too many people in politics believe is that the other party is just the bad guys, the embodiment of all flaws of human nature and every kind of sin, to be defeated at all costs. Period. The exact same traits are interpreted completely differently based upon partisan affiliation. The other side is greedy, selfish, and miserly; my side is thrifty and determined to avoid waste. Their side is dumb and can’t understand details; my side is focused on the big picture and doesn’t get bogged down in the weeds. The other side is a bunch of warmongers; my side won’t compromise on protecting innocent lives. The other side is a bunch of simple-minded jingoist nationalists; my side is a steel-spined band of patriots. Their side is a freak show, the worst of humanity, a “basket of deplorables”; my side has passionate grassroots with loveable eccentricities. Their side is incompetent; my side makes innocent, harmless mistakes.

#related#This is a really stupid way to look at the world. Human virtue does not line up by party. Each side is big enough to include some jerks, loons, maniacs, idiots, insufferable know-it-alls, pathological liars, and toxic personalities. To think otherwise, you have to spend a lot of time ignoring the counter-evidence while making your life a festival of confirmation bias.

If a person’s true answer to every question is, “Whatever benefits my party the most, even if it contradicts what I said last cycle, or last year, or yesterday,” the conversation grows stale quickly. In this light, it’s hard to blame voters for disengaging themselves from politics. If the passionate partisans don’t take their positions all that seriously, why should anyone else?

— Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.

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