America’s Party Culture, Part 2: Destructive Behavior

Discrimination is an operative force in politics; a functioning government must calculate what courses of action are likely to benefit the citizenry and the nation as a whole. To do so, politicians must have a vision of an end towards which they are working, meaning ideological belief is the driving force behind an efficacious politics. Parties are an organizational tool to this end; they connect members of the citizenry, who have disparate sets of belief in how society can be ordered, with politicians of similar judgment. If they are to be efficacious, parties must have an identity which is bound up in ideological belief.

Discrimination, at least as it applies to politics, should not be a pejorative. It is a bias in favor of the reality one perceives; it leads the individual, who believes absolutely and fervently in its benefits, to labor to bring it into being. Ideally, this should promote a more honest politics, as believing in the righteousness of an end leads to a sense of moral compunction and self-imposed accountability. Nor is this incompatible with respect of individual rights. To the contrary, the formation of value-judgments is the product of a free conscience. Any who cherish the right to pursue their principles must recognize the self-same right in their fellows. Politics, then, ought to be an arena where legislators vie to prove the superiority of their beliefs on their merits and make them the base of public policy.

But this is not the approach which modern political parties adopt. They do not cling fast to belief, nor make ideology the fountainhead of politics. In their lexicon, discrimination is a pejorative and tolerance a cardinal virtue.

Civil discourse, political leaders claim, requires inclusion. Modern politics has eschewed the supposed intolerance of discrimination and determined that compromise is a better foundation for government action. In doing so, they have attempted to do an end-run around the necessity of legislators to make a discriminatory choice in favor of one outcome. As a result, they have eroded principles and hollowed out the core of politics. These steps, taken to enhance efficacy, have done exactly the opposite, for they make parties, which are the chief intermediary through which citizens experience politics, largely defunct.

Nowhere is the folly of the virtue of tolerance so well illustrated as in the modern Republican Party. Proudly proclaiming itself a “big tent” party housing many different strains of belief, the GOP also abides by the 11th Commandment, the idea that it ought to be taboo to criticize members of its own party, lest internecine squabbling damage perception in the electorate.

Efficacy becomes less a reflection of the quality of government’s response to need and more a reflection of acknowledgment of something lacking. The focus in not on eradicating want, but on paying lip service to its existence. Suffering is addressed, but only in to recognize the nobility of those who toil on against adversity. It is not to be eradicated, for that would necessitate parties making discriminatory choice. It is so much easier to orate than to act.

The locus of modern politics that narrates rather than solves civic problems is an outgrowth of a culture that derides discriminatory judgment and upholds tolerance. It is impossible for parties to act because they are paralyzed by fear of offending some group upon whom they might one day depend in an electoral race. Thus, they speak in vague generalities on universal problems in the hope that the listener injects their own biases and interprets the message into one that makes him believe the party is empathetic to his situation, thus earning his support.

But, a party that lacks central tenets of belief, which refuses to take principled stands because it fears the label of discrimination, ultimately has no identity. It serves no particular base and cannot possibly stand for a particular agenda. There is no central animating idea which gives the party drive; it cannot govern effectively. And this is the danger of “big tent” thinking, especially when it is combined with a reticent attitude towards self-examination: without central support, the tent can collapse upon itself.

Big tent thinking can ostensibly work if members of the party can unite around principles and an end of government action, even if they differ over what course of action best achieves that end. But this demands introspection, it demands individuals from different ideological subgroups suspend consideration for the emotional health of their fellow party members and ignore calls for tolerance.

But to do so would violate the 11th Commandment mentality, which cannot separate individuals from the ideas they espouse. The 11th Commandment might be an efficacious rule of etiquette in a party that engaged in self-examination and hammered out the minutiae of its beliefs and agendas. But in a party that refuses to discriminate on ideological grounds, all it does is prevent members from making valid criticisms, thus opening up the possibility that individuals with directly contradictory beliefs become untied under one party’s agenda. And parties in government cannot withstand the kind of strain this places upon them because it makes it impossible to advance an agenda.

Again, the tensions between “big tent” thinking and the Victorian circumspection of the 11th Commandment mindset are evident. Put together, they promote a distorted view of the realities of politics, which makes efficaciousness, not to mention functional government, impossible. They promote a view of who is a member of the party’s base that is not reflective of reality. Debate which promotes a particular, actionable ideology could correct this without doing any lasting damage to the party. In the short-term, it might result in fewer victories, as voters who find their interests really lie elsewhere adjust to a shifting electoral landscape. But the result would be a more settled partisan landscape, where the lay of the land is evident and one can get one’s grounding. In the long-term, the party can connect more easily with voters whose ideological similarities mean their loyalty is durable.

The same cannot be said for the real-time collapse of a party in power when it attempts to legislate and finds it has no consensus on which to act, as the Republican Party is currently discovering. All the current legislative woes of the Republican Party are a result of a series of victories in which no clear policy was espoused, leading to members who are not united in belief as to what end government should be working towards. The collapse of the party’s big tent, a result of its desire to sacrifice principles for victory, is playing out very publicly. And its ineptitude will have very real and very long-term repercussions.


Also published on Medium.

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