Polarization vs Partisanship in the Context of the Impeachment Debate
Josh Huder | February 4, 2020
“Polarization” is used as a near blanket explanation for anything political, from congressional dysfunction and lack of compromise to disdain for the opposite party. And now, it is also to blame for the impeachment, the trial, and the impending acquittal of President Trump.
Except it isn’t, at least not entirely. While polarization has become a catch-all, a very important distinction exists between partisanship and polarization. And this is particularly true about impeachment.
Polarization is, most often, a concept describing ideological and policy differences among political actors. Policy stances on issues like healthcare, gun regulation, and voting rights are more polarized today. The scope of policy conflict has widened and become more difficult to bridge in recent decades. We are more polarized.
But policy differences do not explain all political conflict. Partisanship is a distinct factor, separate from the ideological differences manifest among voters and political actors. As Nolan McCarty describes it, “Partisanship… can be more general in that it may refer to any partiality one feels toward one’s own party regardless of whether polarized preferences and attitudes are the source.”
This “partiality” is exposed constantly as partisans adopt whatever policy positions their party proposes. The Republican Party was the free trade party until it wasn’t after 2016. Republicans argued fervently for checks and balances until President Obama left office. On the other side, Democrats were typically very pro-space exploration until it was President George W. Bush’s idea to go to Mars. Democrats typically favor large government spending on infrastructure until President Trump wants to do it, too.
This “teamsmanship,” as Francis Lee termed it, reflects intense party competition. It’s distinct from ideological attitudes, which is why the few true ideological members get so much press. They step out of the typical partisan lane and create new dimensions of conflict. Congressman Justin Amash resigned from his party due to his ideological disagreement. Senator Mike Lee went viral for calling an administration briefing “insane.” These moments clarify the distinction between true ideological principles and standard partisan warfare.
Impeachment fits firmly within the partisan framework, not the polarization framework. Yes, they overlap. But here’s the kicker: Investigations are not policy disputes. They explore whether existing laws, principles, or norms were violated. One’s view of a labor, business, healthcare, or environmental regulation is distinct from the question of whether it was violated. Support for investigations typically highlights partisan conflict. Shades of gray exist, but typically breaking the law is not ideological.
President Trump’s impeachment fits in that not-ideological category. The debate is not whether the US should have given Ukraine aid. It is whether the president violated the law and Constitution by withholding authorized and appropriated military aid. He did. This is no longer in dispute. Since former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s book manuscript was leaked, even the President’s Senate defense team seems to acknowledge it occurred, but claims it does not warrant removal. Republican defenders no longer focus on whether law was violated. The House has displayed “overwhelming” evidence that it happened. It just does not warrant conviction.
The only ideological principle at stake here is the system of government established in the Constitution. Separated powers should hold other governing institutions accountable between elections. This was one of the less controversial debates at the Constitutional Convention. But the fact the President’s defense blatantly disregards those checks further demonstrates the lack of ideology at work. Laws were broken. Norms were violated. But checks and balances neither checked nor balanced those violations because partisan warfare rules.
Americans are more entrenched in their policy views than ever; we are polarized. But while “polarization” has become convenient shorthand, it actually has little bearing on support for or against this impeachment. Electoral fortunes are intensely tied to partisan affiliations. So long as this reality remains the case, institutional checks and balances will become tied to the party affiliations of those branches of government. Rather than independent sources of power coexisting and competing, partisan teamsmanship will determine the limits, if any, on the scope of power of the current and future politicians occupying the presidency.
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