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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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.