The Age of Incoherent Partisanship

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Written By Pinang Driod

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The GOP has collapsed as a party, but voters in general don’t seem to care about what parties once represented.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

  • Bill Ackman is a brilliant fictional character.
  • How much less to worry about long COVID now
  • The great normalization

Irrational Tribalism

On Tuesday, Representative Elise Stefanik called for an end to the GOP primary season—in January, after one caucus in which some 56,000 Iowa Republicans chose Donald Trump. “I am calling on every other candidate – all of whom have no chance to win – to drop out,” she said in a statement, “so we can unify and immediately rally behind President Trump so that we can focus 100% of our resources on defeating Joe Biden to Save America.”

Maybe I spent too much of my career studying the Soviet Union, but Stefanik to me sounded like one of the old-school Kremlin Bolsheviks nominating the new general secretary and calling for an end to all this messy voting. Comrades, we have heard the voices of the Iowa regional party organization; they speak for the entire nation. The unreliable cadres who support the deviationists must now unite with us to defeat the wreckers and saboteurs.

Stefanik, of course, is just one of the many Republicans who have jettisoned their inconvenient principles and sworn loyalty to Trump. Such reversals are still shocking, if we care to remember them: GOP leaders such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham once declared Trump unfit for office but now sing the praises of the Great Leader. As my colleague Mark Leibovich put it last night on MSNBC, this is “white-flag week,” when even the last peeps of primary-season dissent in the GOP are being snuffed out.

Long before Stefanik’s call for less democracy, I wondered what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat in 2024. The Republican answer is easy: To be a member of the party is to abandon all political principles, of any kind, and bend the knee to the personal needs of Donald Trump. For Democrats, it’s more complicated. The Democrats were always a gathering of several constituencies under one roof, and their electoral house is even more crowded now that the guest rooms have been taken up by appalled independents and apostate former Republicans. And yet, in a historical irony, the once-fractious party is now more ideologically coherent than its GOP opponents.

I will not “both sides” this argument: The Democrats are today a model of ideological consistency compared with the Republicans. To be sure, they have their own problems; younger Democrats in particular have demands, such as student-loan forgiveness and other uber-entitlements, that transcend right or left definitions. (Neither are they “socialist,” because even socialists put limits on state support, but that’s an argument for another day.) And the Israel-Hamas war has uncovered a nasty streak of anti-Semitism in some Democrats that is, and should be, repulsive to any American.

But the Democrats, as a party, are in favor of American constitutional democracy, and when so much of our politics has become nothing but blue flags and red flags, that is enough. As John F. Kennedy once said to Richard Nixon (in the context of foreign policy, but with a sentiment that is more than applicable today): “I mean, who gives a shit if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25, in comparison to something like this?”

The Republicans, meanwhile, have in the course of a decade sublimated from a solid party into a miasmic gas of partisan incoherence. As I wrote in the summer of 2022, when I tried to define why I still thought of myself as a conservative, the GOP is not identifiably “conservative” in any way that people like me ever understood that word. I was a Republican because I wanted a small, efficient government that believed in constitutional limits on its own power, a strong national defense, and the advancement of free markets. That party no longer exists.

Partisan inconsistency is hardly news: Political scientists have known since at least the 1960s that voters are attached to parties but are far less coherent about policies. (Although much of this work is about the American system, plenty of evidence indicates that irrational partisanship is something of a natural human tendency that’s affecting other democracies as well.) But one American party has collapsed; the other is holding together a fragile, but so far dominant, prodemocracy coalition. In this unprecedented situation, our politics have been largely emptied of meaning beyond the existential question of democracy itself.

This is as it should be. Nothing is more important than the survival of the Constitution, even if some voters (and some legislators) insist on being mired in their own particularistic interests. I wrote in 2020 that I can never again be as partisan as I once was; I long ago quit the GOP and will never remarry another party. But I miss politics as a process, a series of arguments, among people united in their wish to better the country while disagreeing about how to do it.

One reason I hate the way Americans obsess over professional sports is because it has long been the breeding ground for symbolic attachments. Yes, I know: The need to belong to a tribe is deeply rooted in the human psyche, and people are probably better off releasing those feelings at football games instead of searching for more violent arenas (or even national battlefields). But I have never been able to get past how people who loved an athlete 10 minutes ago will hate the same player if he changes teams.

Politics now looks more like sports than ever before. But even sports fans know that in the playoffs, sometimes you have to cheer for a team you don’t like.

Related:

  • The GOP completes its surrender.
  • The long unraveling of the Republican party

Today’s News

  1. Congress passed a spending bill that will delay funding deadlines until March, securing more time to negotiate full-year appropriations bills and averting a partial government shutdown.
  2. A Justice Department report identified “cascading failures” in law enforcement’s delayed response to the 2022 elementary-school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, including the communication of inaccurate information to families and the lack of medical screening for survivors.
  3. Pakistan launched deadly missile strikes into Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province, fewer than two days after Iran carried out a deadly missile and drone attack on Pakistan’s Balochistan province.

Dispatches

  • Time-Travel Thursdays: Robert Frost’s nature-poet reputation obscured a deeply existential body of work, Faith Hill writes.

Explore all of our newsletters here.


Evening Read

Tim Gruber / The New York Times / Redux

The Culture War Tearing American Environmentalism Apart

By Jerusalem Demsas

Environmentalism has never been a stable ideology, and its adherents have never been a monolithic group. But, in Minneapolis, the green community has fractured as a wide array of self-described environmentalists find that they don’t agree on very much anymore …

The stated goals of Minneapolis 2040 included housing affordability and racial equity, but supporters also stressed the environmental benefits of funneling population growth toward the urban core instead of outlying counties. “All the evidence and data shows that when you reduce your carbon footprint by, for instance, not having a 45-minute commute in from the suburbs … it helps the environment,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey told me at a downtown ice-cream shop in September. “It’s really simple, right?” Maybe.

Read the full article.

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Culture Break

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Michelle Faye / FX

Watch. The latest season of Fargo proves that Dorothy “Dot” Lyon, played by Juno Temple, is not somebody you want to mess with, Esther Zuckerman writes.

Listen. In the latest episode of Radio Atlantic, editor Saahil Desai gives an early obituary for the barcode.

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P.S.

I am one of those people who, somehow, evaded COVID during the pandemic. This week, my luck ran out. I felt a little under the weather, with an irritating cough, and so, as I have always done in these past few years, I took a home test, whose COVID-positive result surprised me after all this time. And then I did what anyone who wrote a book on experts and expertise would do: I called my doctor and followed his instructions to the letter, including taking Paxlovid, which made my mouth taste like I’d been sucking on an aluminum lollipop.

But, my goodness, was I irritated. I have things to do! I’m a busy man! And then I realized that I am a 63-year-old man with additional comorbidities, and two years ago this mild cold might have turned into a mortal crisis. I have lost friends to COVID, and the disease scared the hell out of me only a few years ago. I say all this only to note that we are fortunate to live in the age we do, and in a country with vaccines and medications at our ready disposal. Like so many of us, I needed a moment of reflection to realize how fortunate we are. But shame on me: It shouldn’t take illness to prod our sense of gratitude.

I’ll be off until next week (thankfully because of prior commitments rather than illness). See you then.

— Tom


Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

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