Why We’re Voting for the Wrong Reasons

“Negative partisanship” can be cured by positive change.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
Add to Briefcase
Ron Fournier
May 11, 2015, 8:02 a.m.

These three quotes ac­cur­ately re­flect an un­sus­tain­able trend in Amer­ic­an polit­ics: We’re vot­ing for the wrong reas­ons.

1. “Polit­ics isn’t about love. It’s about who you fear.” —Ezra Klein, Vox

2. “People don’t like their own party any more or less than they used to, but they dis­like the oth­er party much more.” —Dan Balz, The Wash­ing­ton Post

3. “[V]oters form strong loy­al­ties based more on loath­ing for the op­pos­ing party than on the old kind of tri­bal loy­alty.” —Jonath­an Chait, New York magazine

Klein, Balz, and Chait are sum­mar­iz­ing the find­ings of Emory Uni­versity’s Alan Ab­ramow­itz and Steven Web­ster, who stud­ied a range of polit­ic­al at­ti­tudes to de­term­ine what best pre­dicts party loy­alty. They con­cluded that a key mo­tiv­at­or of voters is “neg­at­ive par­tis­an­ship.”

“Re­gard­less of the strength of their at­tach­ment to their own party, the more voters dis­like the op­pos­ing party, the great­er prob­ab­il­ity that they will vote con­sist­ently for their own party’s can­did­ates,” ac­cord­ing to the Emory study.

In today’s polit­ics, a vote is far more likely to be a force of cas­tig­a­tion than a res­ult of in­spir­a­tion or as­pir­a­tion. I call it the “least-lousy jus­ti­fic­a­tion”: My side sucks, but not as much as those oth­er guys.

Klein put it this way: “We like the party we be­long to a bit less, but we hate the oth­er party much more.”

This doesn’t bode well for the fu­ture of the Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an parties, un­less they’re able to ce­ment their duo­poly in a less­er-of-two-evils polit­ic­al sys­tem—and in that case, it doesn’t bode well for demo­cracy.

Let me ex­plain. Klein ar­gues that the Emory study “at­tempts to un­tangle a mys­tery about mod­ern Amer­ic­an polit­ics: How can there be re­cord levels of party loy­alty and straight-tick­et vot­ing at the same time that few­er Amer­ic­ans than ever be­fore are identi­fy­ing as Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats?”

The an­swer, ac­cord­ing to Ab­ramowtiz and Web­ster, is neg­at­ive par­tis­an­ship.

I can buy that. But it’s only half of the equa­tion: An­oth­er ex­plan­a­tion for why frus­trated voters align with one of the two ma­jor parties, des­pite the fact that they don’t feel com­fort­able in either one, is that they have no oth­er choice.

The Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an parties are in a con­spir­acy of dis­il­lu­sion­ment. These two an­ti­quated and cor­rupt in­sti­tu­tions cling to the status quo while the rest of the world is un­der­go­ing rad­ic­al trans­form­a­tion and can­ni­bal­ism.

What if we had an al­tern­at­ive? What if the next cam­paign cycle or two pro­duced a new con­gres­sion­al party, a cred­ible in­de­pend­ent pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, or rad­ic­al change from with­in the GOP or Demo­crat­ic Party?

In oth­er words, what if people were giv­en something to vote for rather than against? What if the next as­pir­a­tion­al elec­tion (like 2008) res­ul­ted in new ways to cam­paign and gov­ern that be­gin to re­store the pub­lic’s faith in polit­ics (un­like 2009-present)?

I sus­pect neg­at­ive par­tis­an­ship would de­cline, along with the in­fuence of those pro­fes­sion­al par­tis­ans and pun­dits who profit from hate and fear.

As I’ve writ­ten be­fore, there is hope that the civic-minded mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion will “des­troy” the polit­ic­al status quo be­cause they, for the most part, are prag­mat­ic and pur­pose-driv­en and are less ideo­lo­gic­al than their par­ents or grand­par­ents.

One small ex­ample is this email from Alex Tor­pey, the 27-year-old may­or of South Or­ange, New Jer­sey, who I asked to re­view the Emory study. It is ed­ited for length.

As not just a mil­len­ni­al, and not just a non­af­fili­ated voter, but also a non­af­fili­ated elec­ted of­fi­cial, I see the par­tis­an­ship, which has gone from “Here are two sides work­ing to­ward the same goals, but provide a check to keep each oth­er hon­est and elec­tions com­pet­it­ive” to “How do we play the sys­tem to make sure our side wins and our or­gan­iz­a­tion main­tains or gains power.” “¦

It’s a trap many com­pan­ies, or­gan­iz­a­tions, and gov­ern­ments fall in­to: They fail to sep­ar­ate the “in­sti­tu­tion” from the “concept” or why the in­sti­tu­tion ex­ists, and rather than find ways to ad­vance the concept (of gov­ernance, defined by their val­ues), they find ways to ad­vance the in­sti­tu­tion. It’s easi­er to do, it pro­duces more tan­gible “res­ults,” and it en­sures any one per­son’s sur­viv­al with­in the or­gan­iz­a­tion be­cause it’s en­sur­ing the sur­viv­al of the or­gan­iz­a­tion. “¦

Be­cause so many ap­pear to have lost sight of the lar­ger is­sues (the concept) and fo­cused on a war of in­sti­tu­tions, they’ve man­aged to turn an en­tire gen­er­a­tion off from it. I don’t see the value of join­ing a party, be­cause they are show­ing me no value as a per­son in­ter­ested in the con­cepts. As the or­gan­iz­a­tions con­tin­ue to op­er­ate in “or­gan­iz­a­tion world,” where the goals of the or­gan­iz­a­tion are most im­port­ant, they lose good tal­ent from folks who don’t really care about that and see that it’s not the best way to ac­tu­ally ac­com­plish lar­ger goals of so­cial change, of good poli­cy­mak­ing, and of justice and pro­gress. The cycle con­tin­ues, as you see bril­liant young people so totally un­in­spired by gov­ern­ment, so resigned of its fail­ure, lit­er­ally re­shap­ing leg­al frame­works for how busi­nesses and non­profits op­er­ate to fit them in­to their pas­sion for so­cial change. 

But, un­for­tu­nately, be­cause gov­ern­ment does mat­ter so much, the brain drain that ex­ists means the gov­ern­ment, mostly many of our le­gis­lat­ive bod­ies, is per­form­ing poorly, and we’re all suf­fer­ing be­cause of it. The best way out of this seems to be find­ing ways to show people, es­pe­cially young people, that there is tre­mend­ous value in par­ti­cip­at­ing in a civic space, wheth­er it be in a loc­al school board, by run­ning for may­or, by county or state gov­ern­ment, or wherever.

As more people real­ize this, it will build mo­mentum, and I be­lieve we’re already see­ing that. I’ve met dozens of amaz­ing young people at loc­al and state levels of gov­ern­ment, some of whom do identi­fy with a party, but above all, they per­son­ally identi­fy with their own goals and with the value that the gov­ern­ment in this coun­try is a dy­nam­ic, ex­per­i­ment­al in­sti­tu­tion that is just wait­ing for people to come in, shake it up, and get it on the right path.”

I pray he’s right and mil­len­ni­als re­in­vent polit­ics and gov­ern­ment so that people don’t feel com­pelled to hold their nose while vot­ing.

What We're Following See More »
Collins, Cruz Appear to Oppose Health Bill
1 hours ago

Republican opposition to the GOP health care bill swelled to near-fatal numbers Sunday as Sen. Susan Collins all but closed the door on supporting the last-ditch effort to scrap the Obama health care law and Sen. Ted Cruz said that "right now" he doesn't back it. White House legislative liaison Marc Short and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the measure's sponsors, said Republicans would press ahead with a vote this week." Collins said she doesn't support the bill's cuts to Medicaid, while Cruz said it wouldn't do enough to lower premiums.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.