As Usual, Tonight's Winner—and Loser!—Is 'Partyism'


The most startling—and telling—poll I read before tonight's election came in a Sept. 22 column from former Obama White House regulator/administrator in chief Cass Sunstein:  

In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said that they would feel "displeased" if their son or daughter married outside their political party. By 2010, those numbers had reached 49 percent and 33 percent. 

There it is, ladies and Germans, your real Last Acceptable Prejudice. This the engine behind such odd human behavior as political parties sending creepy, we're-watching-you letters to voters before Election Day, campaign ads showing either party abetting Death itself, anti-interventionist, pro-immigation activist Grover Norquist urging a Team R vote over anything else (and doing it well!); or even aging journalists having the occasional sad that a retired rock drummer may have attended a Tea Party rally that one time.

Let's go back to the research:

To test for political prejudice, Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, political scientists at Stanford University, conducted a large-scale implicit association test with 2,000 adults. They found people's political bias to be much larger than their racial bias. […]

In a further test of political prejudice, Iyengar and Westwood asked 800 people to play the trust game, well known among behavioral scientists: Player 1 is given some money (say, $10) and told that she can give some, all or none of it to Player 2. Player 1 is then told that the researcher will triple the amount she allocates to Player 2—and that Player 2 can give some of that back to Player 1. When Player 1 decides how much money to give Player 2, a central question is how well she trusts him to return an equivalent or greater amount.

Are people less willing to trust people of a different race or party affiliation? The researchers found that race didn't matter—but party did. People are significantly more trusting of others who share their party affiliation.

Pause a moment to savor just how gross this is (the mounting political bias, not the receding racial animus). Democrats should automatically trust John Edwards more than, I dunno, Bob Dole? Ted Stevens should get the nod for Republicans over Russ Feingold? To cite a personal anecdote, I married into a family of French Catholics—they could have been "displeased" at the unbaptized Amerloque, but that would have been pretty messed up to the daughter they love and trust, non? (Current box-office trends in France notwithstanding.)

Any election night is a victory for what Sunstein calls "partyism"—the tribal pull of collective political action, in-group rallying, organized hatreds. But it's also the most vivid demonstration project of how partyism is suffering a long-term and richly deserved demographic decline.

In a long piece at Vox.com about Gamergate, Ezra Klein used some of Sunstein's cited studies to point out (and decry) "the politicization of absolutely everything." Excerpt:

Politicized media outlets and activist information sources have incentives to cover the worst of the other side, and to play to the fear, anger and even paranoia of their own side. Structurally, each side only becomes familiar with the most extreme members and interpretations of the other side — and so comes to loathe and fear them even more.

But as Nick Gillespie, no stranger to the politicization of everythingpointed out over at The Daily Beast,

Sure, dead-enders are more bitter than ever. But what Klein can't acknowledge is that fewer of us actually invest in our political identities. That helps explain why party self-identification keeps heading south and approval for political parties has been on the skids for a long time.

Does it ever. Those parents seriously considering getting mad at their daughters for marrying outside the designated major party may want to drink in this recent Gallup chart, which shows that the leading political self-identification of EVERYONE YOUNGER THAN AGE 59 is neither Democrat nor Republican, but "independent":

Look, too, at who was tuning this latest election out as the Partyism was kicking into high gear the last few weeks:

Perhaps even worse for the long-term health of the two big parties, it was the independents who leaned closer to the tribes who were turned off the most:

When even a "wave" election like tonight was ultimately an election about nothing (aside from hating on Obama and his 'care), all that life-and-death urgency from the Partyists begins to feel like electro-shock therapy on a corpse. The target audience after a while can't help but respond accordingly.

Watching the analysts on Fox News tonight—George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Brit Hume—it's striking how unanimous they are that this election really doesn't have much to do with Republicans suddnely waking up and smelling the vision; they just didn't get in the way of a restive electorate during a particularly painful six-year-itch. This pendulum swing will soon be widely misinterpreted as a meanginful shift toward pro-Republican sentiment in the electorate, but the long-term trendlines remain clear: Fewer and fewer people see their identities as either Democrat or Republican, making each election cycle that much more volatile, while hopefully opening up the political process to such long-overdue developments as rolling back the drug war and maybe even pushing the newly victorious Republicans a teensy bit closer to the fiscal responsibility they've been dining out on for years.

Unsettling addendum: David Brooks decries partyism; Jonathan Chait defends. NOW WHAT DO I DO???