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.