The rise of “partyism,” as Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein calls it, is a disturbing trend for several reasons. Among other things, it reinforces our already strong tendency to reflexively dismiss ideas associated with political adversaries. If you think most supporters of the opposing party are evil or stupid, it’s easy to preemptively reject their proposals without giving them any serious consideration.
The problem here is not so much that partisans accept policies they might previously have rejected. Perhaps Bush’s war policies or Obama’s approach to executive power were the right position all along. In principle, it is possible to hate the opposition, while simultaneously being tough on your own party’s leaders, as well. But, in practice, the more you hate the other side, the more you will tend to excuse your own leaders’ bad behavior, so long as they seem to be fighting the good fight against the partisan enemy.
Partisan prejudice can sometimes be beneficial. For example, it occasionally allows a president of one party to adopt valuable reforms that the other party would be unable to push through because it would encounter too much resistance. In general, however, partisan double-standards undermine rather than improve the already dubious quality of public discourse on political issues.
Sadly, it is unlikely that partisan bias will disappear or even noticeably diminish anytime soon. Part of the reason it will not is the increasing polarization between the parties in recent years. It’s more tempting to hate the opposition if their views differ substantially from your own, than if the gap is relatively small.
Elsewhere, I have argued that we can reduce the risks of political ignorance and bias by making more decisions by “voting with our feet” and fewer at the ballot box. Still, I have to admit that there is no easy solution, certainly not one that is likely to be adopted quickly. But the beginning of wisdom is at least to recognize that we do in fact have a serious problem, and that it is not limited to the close-minded drones who support the rival party you love to hate.