Partisanship /Partisan

Many Americans use the word “partisan” as a negative term, much the same way they use the word bias. In this view to be partisan is to be wrong, to be unwilling to fully consider the facts, to be pursuing a selfish or self-interested agenda at the expense of the public interest, or to be so driven in a certain direction as to be unthinking and fanatical.

By contrast, other meanings of partisan are both very simple and without any negative connotation. Thus partisan sometimes means of, or concerning, a political party and nothing more. By this usage anyone who belongs to, or identifies with, a particular political party is a partisan, as is any party meeting. Presidential nominating conventions, then, are by definition partisan events. Elections in which the ballot lists the party affiliation of the candidates are sometimes called “partisan elections.” And those (usually) local elections that do not list that information and are called non-partisan. Similarly, partisan is sometimes used simply to mean that someone has a position on an issue, with no assertion thereby made about the validity, wisdom, or rectitude of that position. In that sense the word is the opposite of neutral.

From this latter standpoint, some dialogue advocates consider the more common, pejorative use of the word partisan (the idea that partisanship is a bad thing) to be based on dangerous myths about neutrality, politics, disagreement, and the public interest. Specifically, these advocates argue that many Americans make a mistake in thinking that the right answer to every policy question is obvious to anyone who is paying attention, isn’t totally biased, and isn’t lacking in basic mental ability. This explains - say these dialogue advocates - why so many Americans oppose or are suspicious of all politics and any disagreement about public matters. To these mistaken Americans, the news that politicians are arguing with each other indicates that those elected officials are being self-interested and wasting time (or worse), when what they should be doing is “getting the job done.” However, pro-disagreement dialogue advocates expect and even welcome time-consuming disagreement. Through such back and forth discourse, they say, people can learn from each other and get closer to the truth. Also - they add - many questions (and most policy questions) do not admit of a simple or obvious answer. In other words, reasonable and well-intentioned people are going to disagree; and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, they say, it’s a good thing, and we need more, not less, of it.


Phil Neisser

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