Attack of the Partisan Zombies

What can save us from mindless partisanship?


in Features


The election of 2016 revealed an American electorate more deeply divided than at any time in history — or did it? In reality, there were far deeper divisions among blacks and whites, Protestants and Catholics, Northerners and Southerners, and other groups in the U.S. in 1950 or 1900 or 1850 than there are today. The inflammatory language and hot-button issues that characterize today’s national politics result largely from the conscious strategy of Republican and Democratic politicians and consultants to mobilize a new and invasive species in the American electorate: the partisan zombie.

A partisan zombie is someone who uncritically adopts, as a personal credo, the current platform of the Democratic or Republican Party in its entirety. Partisan zombies come in two types: checklist conservatives and litmus-test liberals. Wherever on the political spectrum they are found, partisan zombies have to sacrifice intellectual consistency to partisanship. Ordinary zombies eat the brains of other people. Partisan zombies eat their own brains.

Self-lobotomization is necessary for partisan zombiehood. That’s because party platforms are incoherent compromises among different factions and interest groups. Party platforms do not represent a consistent ideology or public philosophy, derived from this or that set of abstract first principles of political theory or ethics. Nor do the platforms represent 100 percent of the interests of any particular faction. The agendas of the Republican and Democratic Parties are nothing more than somewhat random lists of the priorities of particular factions that may disagree on many if not most subjects.

The major parties are particularly incoherent in the U.S. because of our electoral system. Unlike most democracies in the world today, the United States still uses the archaic, premodern “first-past-the-post” or “winner-take-all” electoral system instead of other methods that do not punish third parties, like ranked choice voting or proportional representation in multi-member legislative districts. These alternate electoral systems, instead of punishing third-party and independent candidates, allow other democracies to have multiparty systems.

In most of the world’s democracies, voters vote for a party which then, after the election, if it does not have a majority in the legislature, tries to join other parties to form a majority coalition. In the U.S. the process is reversed. To avoid the “wasted vote” problem that penalizes third parties under our electoral rules, American factions that would have their own coherent, perhaps small parties in continental Europe — Greens, democratic socialists, libertarians, populists — first form coalitions under the labels “Republicans” and “Democrats” and then try to win elections.

The Republican Party is not really a party in the European sense. It is a coalition of what, in continental Europe, would be national populists, moderate conservatives, and libertarians (called “liberals” on the other side of the Atlantic). The Democratic party in the U.S. is even less coherent. It is an assemblage of groups which, in much of Europe, would have their own relatively small parties: environmentalists, social liberals, social democrats, democratic socialists.

What holds together the members of a governing parliamentary coalition in a multiparty democracy might be called the Stinky Compromise Platform. None of the parties that unite to form the majority coalition supports the Stinky Compromise Platform in its entirety. And none of the cooperating parties, in general elections, will run in favor of the Stinky Compromise Platform. Why should they? They have their own non-stinky, uncompromising party platforms. But because parts of the malodorous coalition agenda promote some though not all of their goals, various allied parties hold their noses and support it.

In the United States, however, every platform of the two major parties by definition is a Stinky Compromise Platform.

Consider the Democrats. The Democratic coalition includes both upscale non-Hispanic white environmentalists and representatives of Latinos, many of whom are working class. Among many Greens, there are deep misgivings about U.S. population growth, which is now driven chiefly by immigration and immigrant fertility. Meanwhile, the opposition of Greens to suburban, highway, and pipeline construction imposes economic costs on working class Americans of all ethnicities. In the stinky compromise that is the Democratic Party agenda, Greens get opposition to natural gas pipelines and Latino advocates get Democratic support for amnesty for illegal immigrants and high levels of immigration based on family reunification.

Then there are the Republicans. The incoherent GOP coalition includes both libertarians and populists. The libertarians, who tend to be professionals and business executives, are generally liberal on social issues like gay rights and abortion but favor lower government spending at all levels. Many working-class populists combine socially-conservative views on matters of sex and reproduction with hostility to banks and big business and support for preserving or expanding Social Security and Medicare. Before Donald Trump scrambled the chessboard, the Stinky Compromise Platform of the Republican Party combined the budget cuts favored by elite Republicans with the social conservatism favored by downscale Republican voters.

Intra-party compromises like these are not a problem for intelligent nose-holders who see themselves as members of extra-party interest groups or ideological movements, for whom the Democratic Party or the Republican Party is merely a convenient instrument — environmentalist activists, for example, or Tea Party conservatives. But there is another category of voters who do not realize that the stinky compromise is, indeed, stinky. They do not even realize it is a compromise.

These are the partisan zombies. Partisan zombies include Democrats who embrace, as non-negotiable parts of their personal identity, the entire party line of the Democratic party this week, no matter how ridiculously incoherent it may be. They are passionately, personally against natural gas pipelines and passionately, personally in favor of amnesty for illegal immigrants. For them, it is inconceivable that an intelligent person of good will could be pro-amnesty and pro-pipeline, or both anti-amnesty and anti-pipeline.

For their part, partisan Republican zombies do not include those who support the GOP only insofar as it supports the goals of a more important interest group or ideological faction to which they belong. Rather, partisan Republican zombies are those who buy into the whole Republican platform, no questions asked. They are for outlawing abortion and gay marriage and they are also for lowering taxes further on the upper classes by abolishing capital gains taxes and estate taxes on rich heirs and heiresses. If any policy is found in a compromise document cobbled together by different Republican groups, then they are for that policy before they even know what it is. Go, team!

For most of U.S. history, uncritical partisan zombies of this kind were rare and limited almost entirely to political operatives. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the parties were patronage machines, and the people who marched in torchlight parades and wore funny hats at party conventions were expecting jobs or maybe government subsidies. Partisanship was a matter less of ideals than of self-interest.

But the late 20th century and the early 21st century has seen the growth in numbers of Americans who have no personal involvement or stake in the political system other than voting or in some cases donating money and yet who follow politics obsessively, as a kind of recreational drug. Developments in the media — first cable television and talk radio, more recently social media — have enabled a growing number of Americans to spend a significant amount of time each day poring over news sites and opinion aggregators and exchanging links and tweets with like-minded friends. This one reads the Daily Kos or the Huffington Post six times a day at the office and bombards friends with links to articles denouncing Republicans as fascists, racists, sexists, and homophobes. That one returns obsessively to Breitbart or Fox or Redstate like a gambler in Vegas who keeps coming back to play the slots one more time. Partisan zombies, all.

Partisan zombies are addicts, and there is much money to be made by partisan media outlets in supplying them with their fixes. Even worse, as institutions, the Democratic and Republican parties have an interest in promoting partisan addiction. The old bases of the two parties — loyalists to party machines who expected jobs or other payoffs in return for votes — are being replaced by partisan zombies, many of whom have no personal interest, other than the intangible reward of identity affirmation, in the outcome of an election.

The danger is that the new model requires the two parties to whip up far more irrational zeal and unfounded fear and boundless hatred than the old did. The partisan base must be convinced that the other party is going to turn America into a fascist or socialist dictatorship, launch a nuclear war, or destroy the earth’s climate. This election might be the last!

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, the ruling Party now and then decrees the Two Minute Hate. In today’s media universe, competing Orwellian parties can promote the 24-Hour Hate.

Is there a way to escape the political equivalent of World War Z among partisan Democratic and Republican zombies? The answer, I think, is to shrink the ranks of the partisan zombies by weakening the parties themselves.

The conventional wisdom that American politics is afflicted by too much power for interest groups or too much ideology is half a century out of date. It is the catechism of the political scientists of 1950. Those political scientists idealized what they imagined to be the disciplined party systems of Britain and Europe. They hated the mid 20th-century political order. Back then, America’s national parties were weak coalitions of strong factions, largely geographic: conservative Midwestern Republicans, liberal Northeastern Republicans, reactionary Southern Democrats, liberal Northern Democrats. Both civil rights reformers and segregationists could be found in both parties. There were pro-union Republicans and anti-union Democrats and environmentalism were largely supported by Republicans.

Today national interest groups have lost much of their bargaining power by identifying themselves with a single party. Labor unions are de facto elements of the Democratic partisan machinery. So are African-American and Latino advocacy groups. At the same time, business groups like the Chamber of Commerce have become almost exclusively identified with the Republican party. But blocs of swing voters have more influence than partisan base voters, occasional base mobilization strategies notwithstanding.

American politics could use more interest groups that seek to make both parties compete for their votes. The U.S. political system could also use more ideology. Yes, you read that correctly. More ideology and less partisanship.

As we have seen, the major-party agendas do not reflect any coherent political ideology (or public philosophy, if you don’t like the term “ideology”). A party agenda is a compromise among groups, not a set of policies based on a coherent vision of the public interest.

Providing coherent visions of the public interest is the legitimate task of ideologies — conservatism, social democracy, libertarianism, populism. A few decades ago, nobody mistook conservative columnists like William F. Buckley, Jr. or George Will for spokesmen for the Republican national committee. And prominent liberal public intellectuals like John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (yes, it was a very male and very white field) were frequently at odds in public with the Democrats.

Today, however, the thoughtful representative of a particular extra-partisan public philosophy has vanished from TV talking heads panels, replaced by mostly-obscure “Republican strategists” and “Democratic strategists” whose job is to recite the talking points of this morning’s DNC or RNC memo. There is a place in our political ecosystem for partisan spin doctors. But journalism and public debate would be far less zombified if more TV panels and newspaper columns were open to individuals who were assigned to examine politics and policies from the perspective of a distinct point of view, whether or not their conclusions coincided with Republican or Democratic talking points.

Would the festering population of partisan zombies shrink if interest groups played the two parties against each other more and if there were more non-partisan ideological pundits in the media? Possibly. Some Americans who might otherwise have become partisan zombies might discover they are really pro-union or pro-business and willing to vote for sympathetic politicians of either party. Others might be saved from a life (or afterlife) as zombies by personal identification with commentators who criticize both the Democrats and the Republicans, from a consistent populist or libertarian or social-democratic standpoint.

It’s certainly worth a try. The experiment of giving two incoherent coalition parties their own mindless zombie militias to be deployed in every electoral cycle is not working out well. •

Image courtesy of Prouse Family via Flickr (Creative Commons)