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The Spirit of the Parties

American political parties are making a mess of democracy – or at least many citizens seem to think so. The percentage of Americans who view both major parties unfavorably has risen steadily for nearly two decades. Today, only a third say that the two parties adequately represent the public; sixty percent suggest a third party is a needed corrective. Public evaluations of party leadership in the U.S. Congress have reached record lows. As many as one-in-three party members have serious reservations about their own team.

And is it any wonder? Parties in government appear hopelessly divided and hampered by encrusted leadership; their legislative efforts are riddled with pointless gridlock and other dysfunctions; the ceaseless pursuit of money often blinds party elites to the needs of the rank-and-file. We could hope for change, but the odds are long. The reform-minded citizen faces a deck stacked with obstructions – gerrymandering, ballot and funding requirements, winner-take-all voting rules – that protect the party duopoly of Republicans and Democrats. We seem stuck with a system that channels diverse preferences to merely two alternatives, both of them subpar. It’s easy to be alienated by it all.

Yet amid the frustration with party elites and calls for reform, there is this curious fact about political parties: Most citizens identify with one. The Pew Research Center reports that at least two-thirds of registered voters are solid party identifiers; add in the “leaners” – people with an affinity for a party but a hesitancy to embrace the label – and the number surpasses ninety percent. Over 60 percent of all citizens identify with a party and most of the others say they are closer to one party than the other, according to the American National Election Study (ANES), the gold standard survey in political science. The ANES also finds that the proportion of citizens who strongly associate with a party has grown since the mid-1970s, a trend that went hand-in-hand, not coincidently, with a decline of weak partisans. The strongest party loyalists now comprise a third of the American public, roughly the same fraction as avowed independents. We hear a lot about a movement toward independence from parties. The data suggest a more complicated story.

We could take some comfort from that story. Parties are foundational to modern democracies – they link the electorate and elites, and they help bring order to governing – so in that sense it is heartening that parties retain some support of the public. But the story line changes when we look beneath the surface of party identification. Christians will catch a whiff of a problem by asking: In this political moment, do parties foster a vision for shalom? Do they embody civic practices that leave room for citizens to disagree on weighty issues and still walk away at peace with each other? In the language of this series, do they promote “respectful conversation” or “convicted civility”?

Perhaps these questions expect too much. Parties are built for competition, not reconciliation. They are designed to mobilize division. Still, I want to suggest that a seeker of shalom can in principle embrace party politics. Competing and highlighting political differences are not necessarily morally disqualifying. Perhaps some Christians even have a special calling to be salt and light as critical insiders within the parties. But it is surely a fraught vocation, especially considering how easily the mobilization of our differences can swerve into demonization of the other side.

And that’s where the recent story of American party politics takes a troubling turn. We often bemoan how ideology or policy preferences on hot-button issues push partisans apart, and indeed these are important concerns. But today’s most consequential divisions are more basic; they operate at the level of identity. Political scientists call this pattern affective polarization, a deep emotional resonance with a party – the “in-group” – and visceral reaction against the opposition – the out-group. Our partisan divide isn’t merely about liberals versus conservatives, pro-life versus pro-choice. Our lives as partisans have become downright tribal.

Parties have reason to keep it that way. The tactics of modern party politics – the microtargeted ads, the focus-group-tested candidates, the poll-driven policy posturing, and, above all, the identification of what – and whom – partisans ought not love – have been honed and deployed expertly in the past few decades, often in ways that we do not see. Christians have been major targets of those formative efforts, what we might call a partisan liturgy, borrowing language that my colleague James K.A. Smith adapts from Christian worship to describe any set of rituals that shapes our desires. The faithful should pause to wonder whether and how they’re caught up in those partisan practices. Are Christians engaging parties as critical insiders, advancing important goals while speaking out against the parties’ manifold problems? Or have they been co-opted by the rituals that shape partisan identity, succumbing to the instincts of the political tribe?


Americans’ ambivalence about parties – the citizenry’s simultaneous distaste and embrace – puts them in esteemed company. When James Madison referenced the “mischiefs of faction” in his argument for constitutional ratification, he especially worried that unbridled democracy might let loose the scourge of majority parties. In his Farewell Address nearly a decade later, George Washington warned the fledging republic to avoid “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” A who’s who of revolutionaries and constitutional framers – Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams (both John and Abigail), among others – expressed similar sentiments.

By the end of the 18th century, however, many of the same elites had worked to form the mischievous factions they claimed to fear. By the presidential election of 1800, a party system – Federalists versus Jeffersonian Republicans (or Democratic-Republicans) – had taken root. Washington appeared prescient about that party “spirit.” These early parties (and their leaders, as Micah Watson discusses in his post in this series) were deeply divided and their political clashes were often venomous. But elites came to see the value of unifying organizations in a constitutional experiment designed to diffuse and fragment power.

Today, parties are a potent means to mobilize segmented groups under a relatively coherent umbrella of leaders and ideas. They serve as key “linkage institutions,” a way for elites to rally the electorate and for the electorate to influence elites. Parties also bring structure to decision-making in Congress and state legislatures, with their dozens – even hundreds – of individual members clamoring for the interests of their home districts. Moreover, while the majority rules the halls of power, the opposition has influence and legitimacy because it speaks with a collective voice. For these reasons, among many others, political scientists and theorists often insist that modern democracies, with their extended territories and diverse populations, could not thrive without the existence of political parties. To say that we are bedeviled by the mischiefs of Republicans and Democrats or saddled with tired political structures is not an argument that we should abandon parties altogether.

Yet what about all of that mischief? By using elections as a springboard for control, parties are democracy’s unlikely partner. They are built to compete for blocs of voters, which is another way of saying they are designed to divide the body politic into a small range of groups that are easier to identify, target, segment, and mobilize. In the process parties sharpen and amplify differences, real or imagined, with the goal of presenting stark contrasts among alternatives. The formation of a partisan entails both ascent and rejection. Parties thrive not only when you know where you belong; they also want to remind you that you don’t belong somewhere else. The wider the chasm between your group and “theirs” – the greater the group polarization – the deeper and more durable your identification with the group.

Political scientists disagree about the precise causes and effects of partisan differences. Many have argued that the gaps are largely about ideology and policy preference, often intensified by citizens’ political interest, class, race, or geographical location. Others suggest that while elites in Congress or state legislatures are indeed polarized along ideological and policy lines, ordinary citizens are far less divided. Still others insist that Congress hasn’t technically polarized at all: It’s merely re-sorted by ideology, such that New England liberal Republicans have jumped to the Democrats and conservative Democrats from the South have switched to the Republicans. On this account, the rank-and-file only look polarized because they are channeled to two options that are.

But there is another way to look at partisan division. In fact, this approach – what I introduced earlier as affective polarization – treats ideology and policy views as largely derivative, a reflection of deeper and more visceral emotional attachments to political groups. In Democracy for Realists, political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels show that, contrary to our “folk theories” of democratic citizenship, citizens rarely survey the landscape of ideologies and policy preferences, conduct a well-informed cost-benefit analysis, and make a choice to join groups that align most closely with the result of their calculus. They start with group attachments that fundamentally shape how they understand and act toward political ideas and institutions. Much of our political thinking isn’t rational; it’s a rationalization. Scholars often compare the phenomenon to sports loyalists. Very few of us give our loyalty to the team most likely to “maximize our expected utility,” determined after consideration of metrics in a spreadsheet. We generally come to that loyalty as a family inheritance, a passing down of a commitment that we didn’t choose.

Political loyalties take shape in a similar way, but they cut deeper into our evaluations of others. Shanto Iyengar and his team at Stanford’s Political Communication Lab, for example, ran several experiments to investigate implicit attitudes that partisans have about their political rivals. If mere ideology or policy views were the bases of inter-group attitudes, partisans would simply describe the opposition as wrongheaded. But instead partisans overwhelmingly label their opponents as untrustworthy, immoral, and dangerously threatening. The researchers also noted that the negative evaluations across partisan lines were more intense than attitudes across other identity groups (e.g., race, gender, or religion). It’s a result corroborated in other studies that use “feeling thermometers” to gauge a person’s emotional response to specific groups. The “warmth” gap between partisans is higher than any other set of groups. This is partisan tribalism, the translation of in-group identity into a marker of human worth.

One of the reasons this tribalism cuts deep is that it’s colonized areas of our life that we do not ordinarily imagine as “political.” Facebook might seem an innocuous place to share cat pictures or the latest family news with grandma, but recent network analysis suggests it also has become the most important hub for partisan-tinged news and in-group communication The loss of rhetorical boundaries on Facebook – and perhaps more acutely on Twitter – reinforces the gaping political chasm. Media analysts have thoroughly chronicled how deeply our tribalism has penetrated nearly every platform (television and print, social media, etc.) and form (not only news, but also entertainment). The patterns go well beyond the virtual world as well. Housing patterns are increasingly correlated with partisan attachments (there are now companies that will help you find a match between neighborhoods and your partisan loyalties). Marriage across party lines, just like race and class, is increasingly rare.

The Christian church is not immune. The recent experience of white evangelicals is a prominent case study. If I were to put the power of partisan polarization to the test, I’d want to observe the response of white evangelicals to a GOP standard bearer who divorced twice, owns casinos, has a reputation for philandering, and thinks repentance doesn’t apply in his case. So, 2016, social science thanks you. And what did it reveal? Not only that partisan polarization persists under those conditions, but also that it has the potential to re-frame how the faithful understand their own basic convictions.

That partisanship among white evangelicals persisted is not a difficult story to tell. We have heard a great deal about how this election was profoundly different in its populist or authoritarian or racial undertones, that it was a historical disruption. Yet in many ways it was ordinary; the story is as much about continuity as change. The line-plot of the Republican’s share of the white evangelical vote over the last five presidential election cycles is flat. The exit polls showed 79 percent of white evangelical vote for Bush in 2004 and Romney in 2012, for example; in 2016 it was 81 percent for Trump, no different statistically from those early contests. Better surveys suggests slightly different numbers but a similar pattern.

Those trends lead me to read the news headlines about the 81 percent as less about continuity than a candidate. The question seemed to be: How could white evangelicals vote for him? But that question assumes white evangelicals were voting simply for a man, rather than out of a (partisan) identity. The strength of their attachments apparently even re-shaped longstanding moral convictions, most notably the full U-turn in how white evangelicals assess the importance of presidential character. In a 2001 PRRI poll, white evangelicals were the most likely among all religious groups to think private character is important in a public leader; in 2016, just before the election, they were the least likely of all religious groups to hold that view. It is hard not to see the change as a textbook case of partisan rationalization. Yes, it is possible that some white evangelicals were noseholders who overlooked Trump’s foibles in favor of higher priorities (e.g., abortion). But recent analysis by Paul Djupe and others suggests that subset of white evangelical voters was quite small. Polarization was at the forefront.


The American founders were on to the threat of partisan tribalism long before contemporary social scientists. When Washington warns against “the spirit” of party, he is decrying a certain disposition, a dangerous kind of group-based enthusiasm. James Madison, the master of political psychology before it was cool, noted the same tendencies in Federalist #10:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points…; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions who have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into animosities that where no substantial occasion presents itself the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.

The concern about affective polarization rooted in in-group/out-group conflict over identity and fueled by political entrepreneurs: it’s all there in Madison’s diagnosis of the problem of faction, circa 1787.

So what about a cure?

Madison’s prescription was largely institutional. Extend the republic so that factions increase in not only numbers but also range of interests; structure political access through the separation of powers and federalism so that factions are divided and dispersed; and then force those separated institutions to share power so that factions compete and counter each other’s ambitions (“checks and balances,” as we often say). It was a brilliant and counterintuitive move: To protect the body politic from the thing you fear, create more of the thing you fear, and then build mechanisms to control them.

The question of whether Madison was brilliant yet wrong is well beyond the scope of this piece. But we could still ask whether the Madisonian instinct for a structural fix could serve us today in addressing polarization. Consider two possibilities, one feasible in the near-term, the other a much longer project, at best:

Crush the gerrymander: State legislatures generally re-draw the lines of legislative districts in response to the reapportionment of seats after each Census. That means the party in power has an opportunity to craft district borders to maximize the number of seats that party will win in a given election – an opportunity they have seized with abandon through the process of “gerrymandering.” Not surprisingly, the resulting seats are almost always “safe”; very few campaigns for the House of Representatives are competitive. Because incumbents don’t need to moderate their views to cast widely for votes, they are liberated to govern from one side of the polarized extremes. Shifting the line-drawing to an independent commission or even a computer algorithm might push legislators to greater moderation by drawing lines that force them to compete for their seats. These reforms are difficult but not unprecedented. Some states have moved to commissions, and over half the states have some kind of reform initiative underway in anticipation of the 2020 Census.

Open the door wider to new parties: A variety of mechanisms protect the party duopoly, but few have as much impact as our system of single-member districts with first-past-the-post voting. In nearly every legislative district, the candidate with a plurality of votes (the most votes, not necessarily the majority) wins the lone seat in that district; the losing party (or parties) goes home with nothing. It’s easy to see why this favors two-party systems by comparing to legislatures with proportional representation (PR), in which parties win seats in proportion to the vote they receive. In a hundred-seat legislature, for example, a party with only five percent of the vote would still have five percent of the seats in a PR system. As a result, smaller parties have a place in legislative processes, especially when no party garners a majority and the parties must form a coalition government. But the reforms prospects here are quite dim. The U.S. Congress, using its power under the Constitution’s Election Clause (Art. 1, sect. 4), could take action in favor of PR (it has in the past on single-member districts). But the parties have little incentive to make a change that challenges their position, and there’s virtually no knowledge and tepid interest in the public about the PR alternative.

What else? How about rules for presidential primaries? Ballot requirements? Campaign funding? Housing policy? But return to those Madison’s analysis for a moment. He placed great stock in institutional “precautions,” but he reminded his peers that structure wouldn’t be enough. To meet the threat of factions, he said, we would still need citizens imbued with “sufficient virtue.” His message to us: Partisan tribalism will not diminish merely by tweaking institutions. We need a civic culture that nurtures change.

What would it mean, then, to build a civic culture that pushes against the prevailing practices that generate and reinforce polarization? We should not be so naïve to think that we can simply demand that our leaders get along. We shouldn’t even have such a hope in ourselves. A change in civic culture requires practices that reorient and habituate our purposes. Martin Luther King’s rhetorical flourishes were inspiring, but his insistence on the practice of non-violence was the nitty-gritty work of culture-making. It was not simply a tactic of influence; it was also a formative ritual oriented around the hopeful convictions of a disciple of Christ.

It’s no coincidence that King’s fight against the racial tribalism of his day took root in the church of Jesus Christ. Christian worship is filled with practices that can’t coexist with polarized minds. We are called to worship in community; urged to confess our breaking of shalom; invited to a table together; and sent out to serve others across all lines of difference. To adapt Smith’s language again: While our lives are immersed in a partisan liturgy, Christian worship presents a set of counter-rituals that call us to account. Church leaders often worry about bringing the political into the sanctuary, and there are compelling reasons for that concern. But is there anything churches should be better equipped to tackle than disciples who turn their tribes, partisan or otherwise, into an idol? Partisan polarization requires a multifaceted response that matches its complexity. But perhaps seekers of shalom should start when they gather with each other.

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