Thursday, September 15, 2005

Operationalizing 'Partisanship'

If there's one constant I've noticed in my travels across the political Internet, it's that commenters from all quadrants of the ideological map love hurling charges of partisanship at one another. Whether left against right, right against left, or middle against both ends, it's a perennial favorite in both major camps' insult arsenals, right up there with "Bush-lover" and "right-wing noise machine" for liberals and "Bush-hater" and "liberal media" for conservatives. But since few of its users seem to hold any reliable concept of what exactly constitutes a "partisan," the term becomes in practice more of a synonym for "person whose ideas I disagree with." These people are better off sticking to coarser slurs like "Rethuglicans" and "Dummocrats," since they capture their inchoate ire somewhat less ambiguously.

How, then, are we to distinguish spurious charges of partisanship from more meritorious ones? defines the present sense of the adjective thusly: "Devoted to or biased in support of a party, group, or cause: partisan politics." If partisanship could be determined by any single decision, vote, or declaration, the term would be indistinct from "judgment" or "discernment." Charges of bias in any direction thus require hard evidence of consistent support or opposition based solely on party or ideological commitment. Viewed in this way, partisanship looks less like a strict dichotomy than a finely graded continuum, across which some individuals prove themselves more partisan than others by the frequency with which they hew to or inveigh against different causes.

So, if we wanted to measure partisanship in elected officials, we might start by looking at how closely their votes tow the party line (i.e., compare the number of votes that skew in the hypothesized partisan direction against the total number). We could add to that the percentage of media appearances and interviews in which the official categorically supports his own side or rails against the opposition vs. those in which he or she does not. Third, we could take into account how frequently the official publicly disagrees with members of his own party or ideological orientation. Empirical measures like these would lend scientific heft to garden-variety accusations of partisanship and allow voters to see in concrete terms whether their representatives are motivated more by the public interest or political advancement.

The point of the above discussion is this: in the absence of a strict, preferably quantifiable definition for 'partisan,' it's just another insult. But if you're gonna get into callow name-calling, it's best not to confuse your audience with terms that have actual meanings. Moreover, if there's one thing this nation's political discourse needs less of, it's empty rhetoric--a significant reason why Americans continue to support weak candidates in election after election.