It’s always been etiquette in social situations to avoid religion and politics. Fights about these two important areas of life are not a new thing. I would contend though that what has occurred in our time is a move beyond politics and beyond partisanship to partisanism. Let me explain what I mean.
Politics: I know people who say they just don’t want to talk about politics. I haven’t figured out how we live without talking about politics. “Politics” comes from the Greek polis, the word for city, and has to do at root with the affairs of the city. The city was the state in ancient Greece. Since then, we have created additional levels of politics at state and national levels. Decisions about school curriculums, trash pick up and recycling services, policing, the creation and maintenance of state parks, the right of way of roads, what taxes we pay, and the regulations that govern interstate travel all are political.
Politics exist because more of us exist than simply our own households. We all have our ideas of what makes a good place, a good society. Politics is the process of how we figure out together how human societies best flourish. Good political processes are essential to a healthy society. When these processes cease to function well in promoting the common good, social orders deteriorate. Not all at once, perhaps. Societies may live for a while on the capital of formerly constructive political processes. I think that is our current predicament.
Partisanship: If you have two human beings, you probably have disagreements. Often, a number of people will take the same side against others. In many countries there are multiple groups with particular interests. Partisanship is not necessarily a bad thing because it allows diverse interests to have a voice in political decisions all have to live with. Effective politics recognizes the situations that need to be addressed for the health of a society, allows different voices to be heard, and arrives at compromises that aren’t perfect, but work, at least imperfectly for everyone. Healthy partisanship ensures that all the citizens are considered and that political solutions are ideally common good solutions, not favoring some citizens over others. Partisans keep in mind that they represent a certain interest but also serve those with different interests. Maintaining that tension is important if you believe in the equality and value of all your citizens.
Partisanism: I looked. It is actually a word. I see partisanism as a distortion of healthy partisanship. It is where party ideals become ideology and there is a kind of absolutism about it that says we are right and they are wrong. The point is not seeking some form of common good, but simply the good of our party, our group. Wrong people don’t deserve good. Partisanism stirs up a religious fervor befitting the fact that it is an -ism. If partisanism can’t get its way it obstructs and often complains that the other side is unwilling to compromise. What is really the case is that the extreme positions sides are forced to in these situations brook no compromise–only winners and losers. Nothing is left on the table. We only allow either/or. There is no room to consider both/and.
Partisanism at its worst becomes political extremism in which pretenses of principle are jettisoned for the ruthless exercise of power. It might be a form of fascism on the right or a form of statism on the left. In history, this always ends badly in the loss of human rights, and often, a succession of violence.
As a follower of Christ, I believe both that politics reflects an aspect of the “culture mandate” given Adam and Eve and that in a world of finite and fallen human beings the best that can ever be obtained are proximate goods. Any move toward the absolutism of partisanism and political extremism ignores these realities and substitutes an earthly kingdom for a heavenly one. Hence, I believe at best politicians work for proximate solutions that listen to and serve all those represented by them. I believe it is essential that our parties strive toward this kind of political work and that as a citizenry, we support that work and stop vilifying political compromise and negotiation. Might we release a kind of creativity when we free politicians from the tyranny of “either/or” politics to explore what “both/and” might look like?
I hope those of you reading don’t try to argue with me about what “they” did, whoever “they” are. I’m not interested in those arguments because I’m not interested in that kind of partisanism. I don’t mind a politics where we have different ideas of the common good as long as the common good of all our citizens is our aim. Any other politics is unworthy of us because implicitly we are saying that there are some Americans we don’t need, some Americans who don’t count, some who don’t have the same value as human beings. I’ve watched us espouse the idea of all being created equal on July 4 and ignore it the rest of the year for too long. We won’t get it perfect but a politics that relentless pursued the common good, and vigorously resisted partisanism, could get it better. No matter your party, that’s a politics worth talking about.