Monday, March 29, 2010


Partisanship is natural for humans. We seek out and align ourselves with others who share our views. Through them, we hone our ideas and gain courage from the knowledge that we are not alone in our beliefs. Partisanship gives breadth, depth and volume to our voice. In and of itself, partisanship is not only inevitable, it is healthy.

On the other hand, partisans have a penchant for denigrating those who think differently, often without considering the salient parts of opposing points of view. They seek the power to impose their views on those who don't share them, while overlooking their own shortcomings. Communism and National Socialism showed these tendencies. Both had features that attracted broad public support throughout a national expanse and both degenerated into destructive forces because their partisans gained control of their governments.

The danger in Communism and National Socialism was not that they attracted partisan support; it was that the partisans gained control of government. In general, partisanship is healthy when it helps us give voice to our views. It is destructive when it achieves power. All ideologies, whether of the right or the left, differ from Communism and National Socialism only in the extent to which their partisans are able to impose their biases on the public.

Our first President was keenly aware of the dangers factionalism posed for our new nation. In his 1796 Farewell Address, George Washington said (in part):
"I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy....

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government, and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose; and there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume."

Partisanship is a vital part of society ... provided it is always a voice and never a power. The danger is not in partisanship, it is in allowing partisans to control government.

Our political infrastructure is controlled by the very factionalism Washington decried. If we are to, as Dr. Junn said, "... strive to improve our democratic system of institutions and structures." must we not examine the effect of the partisanship which controls our nation's politics?



Urbano dela Cruz said...


what you call "factionalism," the sociobiologists call "tribe loyalty." We did evolve from close knit communities that only survived to the extent that we could define who was on our side and who was the "other."

As you say, it is a natural part of who we are as humans -the need to be part of a group.

The question I would ask is; what is the dynamic in our political life that moves group identity from the simple need to belong and radically shifts it to the shrillness of what you call "partisanship" -?

What moves groups from saying "we belong to this group -and this is what we believe" -to saying, "we are right, you are wrong. we must make sure that we are in control." -?

Fred Gohlke said...

Good Morning, Urbano

I hope I don't stumble. My lack of exposure to such concepts as sociobiology and its findings may make my response simplistic. If so, I hope you will not hesitate to say so. I have no ego to assuage. I want to learn. The reason I enjoyed programming was that, when a system said I was wrong, it was not an opinion, it was a fact ... and I was able to learn from that.

re: What moves groups from saying "we belong to this group -and this is what we believe" -to saying, "we are right, you are wrong. we must make sure that we are in control." -?

Part of the answer may lay in the "tribe loyalty" you mentioned. Since "We did evolve from close knit communities that only survived to the extent that we could define who was on our side and who was the 'other.'" aggressiveness toward outsiders may be instinctive. It is my impression that some "pack" animals are very aggressive when they perceive themselves to be threatened. Perhaps we respond the same way. Of course, that raises the question of how far removed we are from animals. To the extent that we consider our (belief) group unique and significant, I suppose we could consider non-conforming beliefs threatening. That could be a basis for attack.

I suspect another part of the answer lays in a human quality I think of as the "will-to-believe". This trait has great influence on our lives. For the moment, I'll just say the strength of a belief is not dependent upon the soundness of the precept but on the intensity of the will-to-believe. The will-to-believe tends to be accompanied by an absolute certainty that that which is believed is also true, and tends to progress from lack of knowledge through absolute certainty to destructiveness. Up to this point, I haven't been able to tie these thoughts smoothly into an overview of our political existence but I believe they have a profound affect on us.

I hadn't considered your question until yesterday. My thoughts have been directed more toward harnessing that aggressiveness than toward understanding its cause. It may be that understanding the cause will make the harnessing easier. I'm not sure.


Anonymous said...

urbano dela cruz asks -

What moves groups from saying "we belong to this group -and this is what we believe" -to saying, "we are right, you are wrong. we must make sure that we are in control." -?

Just as with religion, so with political parties and partisanship or factionalism.

For anyone or group to say - 'I'm fighting for what I believe to be wrong' would be absurd.

Anyone , by being part of a group, has by necessity, to adhere to the belief that the group ethos must be correct and it follows that everyone disagreeing with the group MUST, by definition, be wrong.

Logical solutions MUST come from independant thought, based in reality and on reasoned, coherent debate.

It is inconceivable that the individuals within a group will agree on every issue, ad infinitum.
There must be, at some point some disagreement which,when resolved becomes the group's stance.

It is then necessary for the group's members to have the 'will to believe' in that stance and it's correctness, in order for the group to survive.


Fred Gohlke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fred Gohlke said...

Thanks, Roy

It seems to me it would be well to recognize our society is no longer a single, cohesive, close-knit tribe. We have evolved into an agglomeration of tribes and most of us belong to more than one of them, whether of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, educational level, or any of the many others.

Thus, while each of us may see our goals through the narrow focus of one or more of the groups we associate ourselves with, we would do well to understand that others, too, seek group goals, some of which conflict with our own. Thus, as you say, we must prize independent thought.

However, our training is influenced by our groups and they tend to disparage independent thoughts and actions. It is difficult for people to have faith in those who may not share their dogma.

Perhaps, since it is inevitable that we do so, we will have the wit to select the best among them.