Jonathan Haidt, author of “The Righteous Mind,” has dedicated years of his professional life attempting to heal the gaping wound of our partisan divide. As a social psychologist, he’s a “marriage counselor” between Left and Right. The problem, he notes, is that while we share a common set of moral sensibilities, we differ in the emotional charge associated with each of them.

Moreover, as a species, we have survived over time by forming groups, or tribes, to meet our needs in a harsh and competitive world. And the things that bind groups together – biological relatedness, religion, a shared historical or mythical past – separate us from outsiders and impede an understanding of their interests, experiences and perspectives. Instead, we develop a team mentality of “us against them” that blinds us to reality. In politics, that translates into a focus on the victory of our political party rather than sound policy from wherever it may emerge.

Principles, praxis and partisanship are obviously not the same thing. Consider President Clinton lying to a grand jury. It pulled liberals in different principled and partisan directions. So it would be helpful to separate them out. After all, holding a president responsible for his behavior doesn’t diminish the political ideals for which he was elected. Nor would it justify the energy, effort and money spent by his opponents to uncover his sexual encounter. The “team” might take a hit, having to concede the misconduct of one of its own, but not any real interests. And the latter trump the former.

Focusing on principles and praxis over partisanship is essential to the kinds of compromises that allow democracy to function. When partisanship dominates, we become “rubber ball” citizens – thrown against the wall, we simply react against whatever the other team does. Sometimes the reaction is trivial, other times more serious, but all lead to the kind of bad feelings that destroy the “marriage” of democracy.

Consider the columns criticizing First Lady Michelle Obama’s attempts to improve school lunches. Having raised my kids in Spain, the first thing I learned from Spanish mothers was to bring a “bocadillo” (a hearty sandwich on baguette bread) for my kids’ after school snack a tradition followed by Spaniards of all political stripes rather than the cookies and industrial snack cakes I had originally shown up with.

Yet here at home, efforts to improve school lunches have become a partisan means to score points. Praises are largely limited to liberal circles and critiques to conservative ones. I’ve read, for example, that the kids don’t like their healthier choices (neither did mine at first), that Mrs. Obama is a “gastro fascist” and catty comments such as “We can't all have a chef or send our children to private schools as the Obamas do,” as if they were somehow abusing their privileges – they have a chef! – rather than living like every other presidential family.

School lunches may seem trivial, but more important issues like climate change also become shaped by the partisan divide. Science, however, is our one universal language, crossing national, cultural and linguistic borders. It shouldn’t be a partisan issue, although solutions to the problems it raises may be.

Haidt argues that our innate need to form groups is the cause of today’s polarized partisan divide. Yet, it can’t account for its intensity. We were more polarized after the Civil War and during the Great Depression, for example, than at other times. One reason might be that, like today, these were eras of tremendous inequality in terms of wealth, opportunity and privileges.

In fact, factoring in the moneyed interests behind energy policy and the provision of school lunches clarifies some of the mystery in the partisan versus principled divide as it relates to climate change and our children’s meals. So, our team mentalities may exacerbate our troubles, but the troubles themselves may spring from other sources.

28 comments on this story

Nevertheless, until we can all say “shame on you, Mr. President, for lying to a grand jury” and “kudos to you, Mrs. Obama, for caring about our children’s health,” we’re not serving principle. Instead, we may be reacting out of our tribal instincts; ones that lead us to focus on the partisan game. It’s that behavior, however, that’s destroying the marriage of democracy, which is the union of different, but equally necessary, political insights and orientations.

Mary Barker teaches political science at Syracuse University’s study abroad program in Madrid, Spain, and at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas. She is currently on leave to conduct research and is teaching at Salt Lake Community College.