The partisan view of ‘principle’ is a principal cause of the mess we’re in


When it comes to politics, Americans increasingly brook no compromise.

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, growing numbers of Americans fall into ideological camps at either end of our political spectrum. Pew calls these locked-in partisans the consistently conservative and the consistently liberal.

These camps still amount to only about 10 percent of the electorate each. But because they are way more likely to vote in primaries, their political influence is wildly disproportionate.

Moderates remain the largest group but also the most politically disillusioned and disengaged and thus most easily ignored.

The ideological camps tell their elected leaders to budge nary a millimeter to reach agreement on policy. They describe this behavior as “standing on principle.” Of course, in your family or at your workplace, you call this behavior “being a jerk.”

The partisans seem oblivious that their attitude is a principle reason why the national government is broken.

The political press helps not one bit. Its habitual rhetoric subtly lauds ideological inflexibility as a mark of courage. Meanwhile, leaders who shift their position, either to get something useful done or because their views changed in the face of new evidence, tend to be described in pejorative language. They are “waffling,” “kowtowing to opinion” or “triangulating” out of “expediency.”

They are, this coded language suggests, corrupt cowards.

For political journalists, this is often an unconscious reflex, reinforced by a tendency to view conflict as more interesting than solutions. But the more we in the media school the public to regard inflexibility as courage, and compromise as cowardice, the more we fuel the toxic climate you see today.

Let me just say it straight out: It takes zero courage to be inflexibly partisan. If you’re a Republican elected official, the Tea Party and the ditto heads will cheer, and the corporate cash will roll in. You’ll win the primary in your gerrymandered district, and face token opposition in the fall. If you’re a Democrat, the only difference is that MSNBC and the Daily Kos lead the cheers, and unions provide some of the cash.

What takes real courage is to risk movement off a safe position to get something useful done. Do that and you’ll get hammered as hard by the partisans on your side as by those on the other.

It takes guts to do what’s right for the Republic, rather than to placate the ideological puritans who now rule our politics. Such courage is in sadly short supply

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