A few weeks ago I wrote a column for The Daily in which offered a qualified defense of partisanship, arguing that calls to overcome ideology are frequently nothing more than a demand for your opponent to stop being truculent and concede the truth of your worldview. Crowing about partisanship — these Obama critics are so terrifyingly extreme! — is often a nakedly partisan pursuit.
Take this headline from The Daily Beast: “John Roberts Upholds Obamacare and Rises Above Partisanship.”
Well. Had Roberts sided with the dissenters, would this have been a scummy descent into “partisanship” or the expression of a judicial philosophy? In the wake of Roberts surprising volte-face, former New York Times court reporter Linda Greenhouse wrote that the chief justice “saved the Supreme Court from the stench of extreme partisanship that has hung over the health care litigation.…” Or this Bloomberg headline: “Roberts Rejects Partisanship in Backing Obama Health Law.” And so on.
So what if a representative of the court’s liberal wing — whose reliable liberalism is rarely cast as ill-tempered partisanship — defected to Kennedy, Scalia, Alito, and Thomas, spurred by Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s pitiful performance before the bench? Would this be seen as an act of admirable post-partisanship, or would headline writers go for something a little punchier (“Bader Ginsburg Knocks Down Obamacare, Confirms Deep Skepticism of Children and the Infirm”)?
There was a rather stunning piece in the New York Times magazine last month in which liberal college professor Steve Almond upbraided his fellow progressives for complicity in the “degradation of our civic discourse” by participating in partisan cable news programs. It was Almond’s mea culpa for having appeared on Fox News — he resigned from Boston College when they invited Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker and defended the move on Fox’s Hannity and Colmes — a decision he later regretted.*
It was time, he wrote, “to define ourselves as Americans not by who we hate but by what we can do to strengthen our communities and country.” It was a stirring cri de coeur to minimize partisan bickering and start fixing America by acknowledging the “degradation of our civic discourse.”
Who could disagree with that? Well, Almond for starters. In the course of lamenting the partisan tone of conservative media, he rebuked Fox’s “imbecilic fans,” “conservative scoundrels,” “conservative demagogues,” “conservative wack jobs,” “conservative wing nuts,” “conservative agitprop,” “escalating right-wing fanaticism,” “right-wing misanthropy,” and “right-wing hysterics.” New York Times editors didn’t notice the discrepancy. It was partisanship as anti-partisanship, an uncivil plea for civility.
Those who have tsk-tsked Robert’s conservative critics, those who regularly bleat on about our coarsened political rhetoric, those denouncing our growing partisan divide, get a 2-for-1 deal when rebuking the supposed ideological rigidity of Republicans (without ever making ideological concessions of their own) while at the same time conveying the message that their opponents have trespassed the boundaries of extremism, a party that Ronald Reagan “would no longer recognize.”
It’s pretty clever trick. But it’s time someone called them on it.
* Speaking of which: I have appeared a handful of times of Glenn Beck’s (pre-chalkboard) television program, a decision I regret in light of his goofy conspiracy mongering. I later watched his series of shows on the “importance of history” and wrote about his many, many basic errors of fact. I was, thankfully, never invited back.