I Know I’m Not, but What Aren’t You? How Negative Partisanship Makes It Impossible to Govern Ourselves

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I have no idea what most of my friends are for, but I know in great detail what most of them are against. Many of them, of course, are against the same things that I am against–which is why we are friends. Some, though, are against things that I am not against (but we can be friends anyway). And a few of them–and these are more like acquaintances–are against me. Being against things, it seems, is what it currently means to have a political position.

Political scientists call this “negative partisanship,” and, though it is not new, it is getting worse. Evidence suggests that Americans experience politics more tribally in the first part of the twenty-first century than they have at any time since measuring public opinion became a thing. Consider one startling bit of comparative data: In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would be “displeased if their child married outside their political party.” In 2010, the number stood at 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats.

These results are important because in-group marriages have always been an important marker of tribal identity. People now feel more strongly about their children marrying outside their political party than they do about their children marrying people of a different race or nationality.

One of the most interesting things about negative partisanship is that it only partially correlates to differences of opinion. To try to understand this dynamic, University of Maryland political scientist Liliana Mason surveyed twenty-five hundred people — split equally between Republicans and Democrats — to assess their opinions on a variety of controversial issues, the extent of their identification as either liberal or conservative, and their degree of willingness to (1) marry, (2) be friends with, (3) live next door to, and (4) spend occasional social time with somebody who identifies with the opposite ideology.

Mason aimed to separate out the way that people’s relationships with each other were affected by “issue-based ideology,” or conflicts based on different opinions, and “identity-based ideology, or conflicts based on different partisan identifications. She found that people were about twice as likely to be willing to engage in all four social interactions with people who disagreed with them about important issues as they were with people who identified with the opposite political party. “The effect of issue-based ideology,” she suggests, “is less than half the size of identity-based ideology in each element of social distance.”

If representative, these results indicate that only about half the hostility that Americans feel toward their political opponents stems from actual political disagreement. The rest comes straight from the scared-little-mammal portion of our brain that divides the world up into “us” and “them,” clings to the in-group out of a sense of desperate insecurity, and perceives anybody outside the group as an existential threat. When this attitude defines a population, it soon ceases to matter what anybody is for, since political engagement no longer has much to do with enacting policies that one favors. Rather, it is motivated by “defensiveness, judgment, anger, and a need to win.”

This appears to be the road we are traveling down. Over the summer of 2016, a Pew Research Center study asked voters whether in the November election they anticipated voting primarily for a candidate they preferred or against a candidate they opposed. Among those who intended to vote for Donald Trump, 53 percent reported that they would be voting primarily against Hillary Clinton, compared to 44 percent who planned to vote for Trump. Among those planning to vote for Clinton, 46 percent said that they would be voting primarily against Trump, and 53 percent would be voting for Clinton.

Thus, for the first time since Pew began asking this question in 2000, more people who voted for the eventual president saw themselves as voting against the losing candidate than for the winning candidate. Some level of negative partisanship always occurs in a two-party system, where the best way to vote against one candidate will always be to vote for the most credible alternative. But when a majority of voters choose a candidate primarily because of who that candidate is not, then we get some major shifts in the way our government works.

One result of negative partisanship is that those who win elections become much less accountable to the people who voted for them. If a majority of the people who vote for President Smith do so because he is not Candidate Jones — and not because they find Smith trustworthy or competent or because they agree with any of his policy positions — then President Smith will not lose the support of his voters by demonstrating untrustworthiness or incompetence or by taking unpopular policy positions. He just has to keep not being Jones, which is about as low as the bar for success can ever get.

Negative partisanship also leads to much more extreme candidates than its positive counterpart. This happens because of the way that party nominations work. When the main object of a general election is to get more people to vote for your candidate than the other candidate, then the best way to win is to nominate someone who will attract voters from the other party and appeal to independents. When the primary purpose of an election is to rouse your own voters to hate and fear the other candidate, then the incentive for moderation disappears.

But negative partisanship is perhaps most dangerous because it eventually weakens the important political norm of mutual tolerance. Wanting to defeat the other party is not the same as wanting to vanquish it. Confusing the two throws us back to the mind-set of the Federalists and the Republicans in 1800: we refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of our opponents, and we imagine that if we could just get rid of them once and for all, the country could get back to the normal business of democracy. This is a fantasy. The other side is not going away. The people we disagree with aren’t going to simply vanish. And figuring out how to share the country with people we profoundly disagree with is precisely the normal business of democracy.

The fatal shift in our understanding occurs not when we want our own side to win or even when we just want the other side to lose. It occurs when we conceive of the other side as threatening to our well-being by its mere existence. When this happens, the guiding logic of our political culture shifts from the logic of the marketplace, where every transaction has the potential to enrich both the buyer and the seller, to the logic of the Hunger Games, where everybody is ultimately the enemy and every interaction is a zero-sum game.

As with most things that our scared-little-mammal brains cling to, negative partisanship persists because it is easy, because it is comfortable, and because it feels good. A large part of our brain actually likes hating people, and resentment works like a drug — we experience it and get high on it and have to keep experiencing it so we don’t come crashing down. If outrage were not fun, it would not be part of the daily recreational habits of such a large number of people.

It is a lot easier to be against things than to be for them. Being for things is a lot of work, and arguing effectively about what we are for requires us to suppress millions of years of evolution — but it might actually save our civilization. Knowing where you want to go, and being able to articulate a coherent direction to other people, is a prerequisite to going places. If all we can do is explain what we are against, then the best we can ever hope to get is nothing, and the best place we can ever go is nowhere.

Michael Austin is the author of several books of history, several books of literary criticism, and a bestselling textbook. This essay is adapted from his most recent book, We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition.

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