Schansberg: You Might Be a Partisan if . . .

February 12, 2018

by Eric Schansberg, Ph.D.

Everyone seems to agree that partisanship is increasingly prevalent and toxic. But few people seem to see themselves as part of the problem. One aspect of partisanship can be a troubling lack of objectivity and empathy — and, even, blindness. So, how would we know if we’re partisans?

We all know that, at least in principle, it’s challenging to be objective. Think of a referee’s call in a sporting event between rival teams. Fans of one team get upset, confident that their team has been ripped off. Fans of the other team see the same call and are confident that the referees are correct. But then it all reverses two minutes later.

The problem: a lack of objectivity and blindness fueled by partisanship toward one’s favorite team. We can see it in others. But can we see it in ourselves?

Of course, favoring one “team” or another is not the problem. It’s the potential for bias and blindness that can easily come along with it. The stakes in politics are much higher — as they feed into society and culture, as well as public policy.

Looking at the low level of discourse in politics these days, it seems obvious that less partisanship would be really helpful. To those who are relatively objective on politics, it’s patently obvious that there’s plenty of room for criticism of both major political parties.

So, as a public service announcement, I’d like to help people see whether they’re political partisans. And I want to help non-partisans effectively signal their lack of partisanship. To do so, I’m going to borrow from Jeff Foxworthy’s famous riff of “you might be a redneck.” In this context, if you X, Y, and Z, then you might be a partisan if . . .

What should you do? First, if you’re a big fan of either team, then your standards are probably too low. Consider the possibility that both aren’t all that impressive. Quit being so nasty, dogmatic and team-centered, defending something that is indefensible. Recognize that most players on both teams are striving for power and let’s call them all to something (far) greater.

Second, try to focus on public policy more than party — and on principles more than personalities. It would be difficult to get educated on a large range of issues but make an effort to learn deeply about one or two issues. Read widely (instead of just from your own tribe) and have lunch with someone who is doing likewise. Try to figure out how the world actually works, rather than relying on a shallow approach to politics and policy.

Third, look in the mirror. It’s always easier to point fingers and attack others. It’s always tempting to rationalize, ignore our own flaws and make excuses. This has been a struggle for all of us since Genesis 3. But you can’t make progress, really, unless you’re willing to be introspective personally and to call out the yahoos in your own tribe.

D. Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast (in New Albany) and an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review. 


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