Unhinged Partisanship

Mrs. Proudie, the bishop's wife

Mrs. Proudie, the bishop’s wife

I’ve been listening to Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset on my car’s CD player and came across a wonderful passage that reminded me of a couple of recent articles on political partisanship. In the marvelously evil Mrs. Proudie, who is the Bishop of Barchester’s wife and all but Bishop of Barchester herself, we see an unhinged partisan.

Americans supposedly don’t like partisans any more than Trollope did, but political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and Samara Klarto in a Washington Post column have cast doubts on this assumption. While Americans may increasingly claim that they are independents and not members of any political party, they vote like partisans and hold opinions like partisans. Here’s why Krupnikov and Skarto think that Americans nevertheless distance themselves from the partisan label:

When people see politics in the news and entertainment media, they see partisan gridlock and disagreement. Partisans are portrayed as uncooperative, uncompromising and angry.

This perception of partisans leads ordinary people to be embarrassed about admitting – including to pollsters – that they identify with a political party.  Instead, people have come to believe that they will make a better impression if they say they are independent.

In a second article, also appearing in The Washington Post, government professor Sean Theriault draws a distinction between partisans who believe in working within the system and those who have embraced political warfare. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, Texas’ two senators, are both very conservative, but Cornyn is facing a Tea Party challenge because he is willing to work with Democrats whereas Cruz is not. Trollope gives us a great example of a partisan in the Cruz mold.

In the following passage, Mrs. Proudie has her knives out for Rev. Crawley, a lowly rector who is associated with her husband’s archrival, Archdeacon Grantly. She and Grantly, however, bring different perspectives to the battle. The archdeacon merely believes her to be unpleasant and difficult. She, on the other hand, sees him as “an actual emanation of Satan”:

Mr. Crawley belonged to the other party, and Mrs. Proudie was a thoroughgoing partisan. I know a man,—an excellent fellow, who, being himself a strong politician, constantly expresses a belief that all politicians opposed to him are thieves, child-murderers, parricides, lovers of incest, demons upon the earth. He is a strong partisan, but not, I think, so strong as Mrs. Proudie. He says that he believes all evil of his opponents; but she really believed the evil. The archdeacon had called Mrs. Proudie a she-Beelzebub; but that was a simple ebullition of mortal hatred. He believed her to be simply a vulgar, interfering, brazen-faced virago. Mrs. Proudie in truth believed that the archdeacon was an actual emanation from Satan, sent to those parts to devour souls,—as she would call it,—and that she herself was an emanation of another sort, sent from another source expressly to Barchester, to prevent such devouring, as far as it might possibly be prevented by a mortal agency.

Those of us who believe in civil discourse as the road to solving America’s problems come up against the reality of Mrs. Proudies. The question is how we can compromise with people who believe they are heaven-sent to expose us as soul devourers.

I’m not sure what can be done, other than vote them out of office. If they ever achieve ascendency, then pluralistic democracy truly is in peril.

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