Post-2016 tribalism has put defensiveness at the forefront of politics. Particularly on the right, Reagan’s 11th Commandment—don’t insult members of your own party—has always held sway, but the Trump cult of personality has put such thinking into overdrive.
One cannot criticize the president on any grounds without being harangued, dragged over the coals and called any number of rude names you’d be loathe to repeat in front of your mother.
The 11th Commandment has long been outdated, particularly as the modern party system has taken to rectifying some of its duopolistic shortcomings by embracing the “big tent” mindset. Encouraging “fringe” ideologies—a label that simply references the number of adherents minority political movements have as compared to more mainstream ones, but often used as a pejorative to undercut the seriousness of policy proposals that don’t come from the establishment—to join together with the broader partisan coalition rather than striking it on their own as independent parties that is not congruous with 11th Commandment thinking. The more ideologically driven libertarians and conservatives in the GOP are predestined to clash with self-styled pragmatic creatures of the D.C. establishment. If the party is a big tent, where various factions hold the same core values but disagree over the best policies by which to implement those values, this is a positive. Debate is in aid of a more robust party with a more fully outlined legislative syllabus.
But if the 11th Commandment rules the day, the fringe is told to sit down and shut up for “the common good.” One is usually fed a line that the perception of internecine fighting presents the image of a weak party, which jeopardizes the chances of electoral success. And it’s impossible to implement one’s values from the minority position.
The minority is effectively neutered: it’s told it cannot be effective outside the framework of a national party, but its voice is muzzled within the framework of a national party. To make matters worse, those “fringe” members of minority ideologies who have their voices expropriated are told by others that this is done for their own political good, as if anyone but the individual could make such determinations.
The tendency to trivialize and demonize ideas and opinions that originate with minorities in the party is, in part, rooted in the numerical morality inculcated into modern democratic thought. In its most colloquial form, democracy invests the majority with the force of morality. Fairness dictates that the opinion supported by the greatest numbers ought to direct public actions, since these affect the polity at large. It gains a force of moral legitimacy often used as a cudgel against anyone who stands in opposition. Detractors are too easily positioned as undermining the common good, a tact which neatly sidesteps actual debate about the validity of ideas.
Both legislative debate and sectarian intra-party skirmishes often model such behavior. But it is actually an impediment to an efficacious politics, particularly where party is concerned. Self-regulation is made impossible by the 11th Commandment embargo on criticizing one’s fellow partisans, or at least by the embargo the majority places on the minority. Ultimately, this weakens the party, philosophically and corporeally.
Policing one’s own party is akin to federalism, a concept the right has traditionally embraced. Life occurs at local levels and the people apprised of the nuances of on-the-ground situations are best equipped to satisfactorily resolve them, particularly as their own welfare is bound up in the solution. So runs the argument for federalism. Additionally, federalism naturally buoys efficacy: when solutions to the problems that touch on one’s wellbeing are not going to come from above, one becomes a much more proactive agent in one’s life.
Partisan identities, particularly when constructed under party organizations, require the same kind of model, particularly once the concept of representation enters the framework, if they are to be efficacious. Representation does not require the individual cede their autonomy, rather it requires accepting an external figure as an intermediary who channels their interest. Figuratively speaking, Congressional representatives are stand-ins for their constituents.
But they can only be so if individuals are free to explore and express themselves ideologically. Partisanship is not primarily political; it is first and foremost philosophical. Parties need a core set of values if anyone in the electorate is to make sense of them. Individuals, before they align their interests with a party need two pieces of information: First, they need to understand their personal epistemology. Second, they need to understand the epistemology of various political parties and how these mesh—or fail to mesh—with personal belief.
It is very easy to identify the things in which one does not believe. If one is a rational actor, with a well-developed sense of self, rooted in a cohesive set of values, distinguishing between right and wrong is a simple act of intuition. Democrats know they hold different values than Republicans and vice versa. The contrast is stark.
But distinguishing between conservative, libertarian and establishment ideologies—all subsets of the Republican party—becomes more complex. Now partisan identity is not a matter of values; ostensibly, these strains of thought largely share the same sets of values. Now partisan identity is a matter of how best to implement these values.
Democrats, rejecting the validity of these as a basis for good public policy, can have nothing useful to say. Only members of competing subsets of right-wing thought can argue with any validity over what course of action is the most viable for success. Yet, 11th Commandment thinking seeks to hamstring precisely this.
Political parties need to be self-policed. They cannot, on philosophical grounds, be held in check by opposing partisans. Democrats and Republicans can debate each other on political grounds; this is the whole point of a system of representation: it is an endless war of attrition for the minds of the polity, a campaign to prove each side’s policies are the best.
But philosophically, one cannot have anything useful to say about values with which one is in fundamental disagreement. Intraparty bickering should be encouraged if parties are to be a tool for citizens, rather than a means of oppression. Politics is downstream of philosophy. Thought predates action. Public policy needs ideology to direct it, which requires serious debates on the merits of ideas. When parties ostracize their “fringe” members, they abuse them. They preclude them from having a say in the political process, which is violative of the very concept of political representation. It is impossible for one’s interests to be represented if one is precluded from expressing those interests.
Which is why parties need to be aggressive about self-policing. It is not infighting that makes parties weak. To the contrary, parties stagnate without internal debate. They founder on principle and elect members who are not actually representative of the values in the party platform, which creates numerous and very public instances of hypocrisy, making it even easier for opposition parties to question their seriousness.
For the sake of political and philosophical longevity, parties need their members to question each other’s values and ideas.