Why We’re Voting for the Wrong Reasons

“Negative partisanship” can be cured by positive change.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
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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.

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