The Magazine

My Goodness, Your Badness

Moral judgments and partisan polarization.

Jun 2, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 36 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Social science has confirmed what political observers have been telling us for months: There is a clamor in America to dampen the spirit of intense partisanship that prevails in Washington. A recent survey sponsored by the Hoover Institution and the Economist showed that seven in ten Americans wish for party leaders who will "come together and compromise." This sentiment has found a special home among independents and moderates for whom the act of "reaching across the aisle" seems to have the status of a holy rite. Senator Barack Obama achieved great success early in his campaign by tapping into this feeling, promising to inaugurate what his supporters called a new era of "transpartisan" politics.

Yet for all the public pressure to embrace this ethos, some convinced partisans have expressed reservations. Over a third of the Democrats (35 percent) and almost half of the Republicans (46 percent) had the audacity to insist that their party leaders should "stick to their principles even if that means that nothing gets done." What many partisans want is not so much compromise itself as compromise on their terms, in which members of the other party break ranks and join the side of light in exchange for nothing more than praise for "taking the higher ground" and "acting responsibly."

Besides this fidelity to political principles, the Hoover/Economist survey provided evidence of another obstacle to any quick realization of the transpartisan dream. It is found in highly charged attitudes of Democrats and Republicans about the moral qualities of fellow partisans and opponents. Political conflict has spilled over into the realm of ethical assessment. Respondents in the Hoover/Economist poll were asked to select, from a list of nine basic human qualities, which ones described "people who are Republicans" and "people who are Democrats." (Respondents could check as many as they wished.) Three of these attributes were obvious virtues (open-mindedness, generosity, and honesty), and four were clear moral deficiencies (hypocrisy, closed-mindedness, meanness, and selfishness). The other two were intelligence, a positive quality but not a moral one, and patriotism, which most consider admirable but about which some probably have certain reservations.

One conclusion that jumps out from the data is just how highly each group of partisans regards fellow party members. Familiarity is supposed to breed contempt, but evidently not in this case. Thus, Democrats described other Democrats as possessing in good measure the three virtues: 73 percent of Democrats selected the term "open-minded" to apply to fellow party members, 49 percent "generous," and 37 percent "honest," for an average virtue response of 53 percent. More striking, few Democrats judged other Democrats as having any moral deficiencies. Are Democrats, for example, closed-minded? Only 4 percent of Democrats think so. The same holds in the case of the other three flaws, with the average response for the moral deficiencies being a paltry 4.5 percent. If he who is without fault may cast the first stone, then Democrats--in the judgment of Democrats--should be ready to fire away.

Republicans are no different. They judged fellow Republicans just as positively, indeed slightly more so, awarding themselves an average virtue response score of 54. And they thought no more ill of themselves, either. Just 4 percent of Republicans described other Republicans as "mean," 5 percent "selfish," 6 percent "hypocritical," and 13 percent as closed-minded, yielding a moral deficiency average of 7 percent. (Oh yes, and both groups also described their fellow partisans as being intelligent and patriotic, with Republicans especially celebrating their love of country.)

If the same kind of characterization that is used for an individual person can be applied to a collectivity, both groups of partisans can safely be pronounced insufferable. And equally so. But the two groups are insufferable in slightly different ways. Democrats flatter themselves above all for being open-minded, while Republicans think that being honest is their hallmark.

Feeling good about members of one's own party, even in this excessive way, probably poses no direct challenge to "getting together to compromise." For what it is worth, psychologists in our hyper-therapeutic age generally insist that high self-esteem is a precondition for relating positively to others. The difficulty for achieving the transpartisan dream comes when this positive self-assessment is coupled with a dim view of one's opponents, which, unfortunately, is exactly what the data show.

Despite their self-descriptions as being generous, Democrats and Republicans both display very little charity in characterizing their fellow human beings from across the aisle. They see hardly a glimmer of virtue in their opponents and much moral deficiency. No more than 6 percent of Democrats could find it in their hearts to say that Republicans should be described as possessing any of the virtues. Republicans were a bit kinder, with an average 13 percent naming a virtue. But Republicans were more willing to ascribe moral deficiencies to Democrats than Democrats to Republicans (by an average rate of 50 percent to 47.5 percent). For both groups the bottom line is the same. Neither one thinks the other is going to heaven, or anywhere close to it.

Interestingly, large numbers of Democrats and Republicans were in full agreement on describing each other as possessing the same moral deficiency: hyprocrisy. This is not surprising. Those who boast so much of their moral perfection practically invite being charged with this vice. Republicans must have especially relished the opportunity to describe Democrats as "closed-minded," while many Democrats no doubt rejoiced at checking "mean."

Advocates of transpartisanship tend to have a special place in their hearts--or at any rate in their rhetoric--for independents, whom they laud as honest brokers able to exercise impartial judgments. These accounts are usually no more than a form of pandering designed to cast partisanship in an unfavorable light, but in this case the independents do seem to hold a more balanced view of their fellow Americans. They think less well of each group of partisans than it thinks of itself and not as poorly as each group thinks of the other. Overall, independents describe partisans as having slightly more deficiencies than virtues, which is probably a fair assessment of humankind. As for their judgment of the relative merits of those in our two parties, independents pronounce a split decision. They describe Democrats as having greater virtue than Republicans, but also as having more moral deficiencies.

A shortcoming of the survey is that while it allowed independents to sit in judgment of partisans, it denied the same privilege to partisans. Independents were let off, as they usually are, scot-free. Could it be that Democrats and Republicans, despite their animosity, nevertheless have a grudging respect for each other for at least having the courage of their convictions? And might they not, if given the chance to judge independents, join in describing them as weak, vacillating, unfaithful, and supercilious?

Finally, the authors of the Hoover/Economist survey deserve the gratitude of all social scientists for venturing into hitherto forbidden territory, exploring the deepest fears and taboos of the partisan psyche. Respondents from each party were directly asked, without any soft pedaling, how they would feel if their son or daughter actually married one, meaning a partisan from the opposite party. In light of the previous findings, the importance of posing so frank a question can now be appreciated. For it is surely no small thing to introduce into one's household a son- or daughter-in-law who figures to be hypocritical, closed-minded, mean, and selfish.

Surprisingly, respondents did not object to partisan intermarriages in nearly the degree that one might expect. Less than a third of both Democrats and Republicans reported that they would be "upset" at this prospect. What can account for this relaxed attitude? Absent further data, we can only speculate on the reasons. One possibility, which is the least favorable to any comforting notions of tolerance, is that respondents thought that their own children could be trusted to find that most rare of creatures: a decent Republican or Democrat.

A more plausible explanation, however, relies on sound anthropological research, which has shown that groups of human beings from very early on came to appreciate the importance of exogamy as a way to avoid the ill-effects of inbreeding. At issue here, of course, are highly sensitive matters relating to the genetic consequences of interpartisan breeding, about which little, unfortunately, is known at present. Is the progeny of mixed-partisan mating likely to be a pure independent? Or does one party carry a dominant and the other a recessive trait, such that miscegenation actually works to the partisan advantage of one party? And which party is that? If an unbiased answer is sought, it might be better not to poll the partisans themselves.

James W. Ceaser is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of politics at the University of Virginia. He is the author, most recently, of Nature and History in American Political Development.