The Negative Partisanship Problem

When I argue with my dad about politics, I always end up saying the same thing: “The problem here is that I am convinced my negative partisanship is rational.” This goes over about as well as you might imagine, given the naked implication: “. . . and yours is irrational.”[1] But the problem remains that I am convinced—convinced that principle, available evidence, valid inference, and the dictates of a decently formed conscience warrant condemnation of and opposition to the national Republican party in the United States. Nor is this conviction merely the sedimentation of policy differences into a worldview at odds with Republican political goals. No, that would be mere partisanship. What I have for the GOP is negative partisanship. Their craven and hypocritical support of the Trump administration’s stupidity, dishonesty, incivility, thuggery, inhumanity, corruption, and indifference to bedrock democratic norms means that Americans are morally and politically obligated to both abandon that party in droves and support their Democratic opposition, despite its relative failings.

The essence of negative partisanship is supporting one party because of an aversion to its opponents. My best friend once told me that the measure of one’s negative partisanship can be found by reflecting on whose fringes you find silly and whose you find dangerous. Well, I think black-clad, sidewalk-sledgehammering Antifa goons are almost-entirely silly, but Bushmaster-toting, Punisher-skull wearing, white-supremacist militia LARPers have me (and here I acknowledge the irony) contemplating gun ownership for personal protection. This assessment is, to my mind, entirely reasonable. And I will confess to holding the opinion that those who disagree with it have either been duped (if only by themselves), have their values out of order, or are running a con. You might make the inverse assessment. Millions have. But the whole point of convinced negative partisanship is that I know you are wrong—dangerously, irrationally wrong.

I am also convinced, however, that my negative partisanship—my judgment of who is silly and who is dangerous—is a problem. But it is a problem in a specific and underexamined sense. It is not “problematic” in the way that word is commonly used now, to express by understatement how some person or act or speech has violated the moral canons of the critic. To be problematic in this sense is, I think, no more than to be vulnerable to criticism. But, as Kierkegaard argues in his little book, The Present Age, that something can be criticized only tells you that it is finite.[2] Because my convinced negative partisanship is mine and I am finite, it is surely “problematic” in the sense meant by the critic. But that is not why it is a problem in the sense I mean.

Nor is negative partisanship a problem for the skeptical reasons associated with bourgeois liberalism. It is entirely possible to judge whether my negative partisanship is warranted or not. Indeed, I know it is possible because I have made that judgment again and again in recent days. The existence of opposed and antithetical convictions do not prove, by some specter of Hegelian logic, that my negative partisanship is inherently false.[3] No, negative partisanship is not a problem because it is illiberal.

The problem only appears when negative partisanship works in concert with rational conviction. If the only factor were reasoned conviction in general, I do not think there would be much of a problem at all. If, for example, I opposed a local stadium bond initiative because I discerned it to be a boondoggle and swindle (of the sort that Professor Harold Hill himself could take pride in), while you judged it to be a wise civic investment, then we could argue about who is right. And if our argument was solely a matter of negative partisanship that amounted to no more than feelings of deep personal aversion, the problem I have in mind would not appear either. Rational people, we hope, can rise above such things, hold their noses, and work together to solve problems.

No, the problem I have in mind emerges out of my reasoned judgment that the national Republican party is not only distasteful, but is in fact and reality bad—bad at governing, bad for democracy, bad for our society and for its culture. Or rather, the molten core of the negative partisanship problem is not that I have made this strident judgment—however insulting some portion of my readership is bound to find it—but rather with what it implies. The root of the problem grows from the implication so obnoxiously obvious to my father when I finally level my discussion-ending bon mot:

Because my conviction is rational, those who do not share it—those who hold the opposed, antithetical judgment that Democrats are communists destroying America, undermining freedom, etc.—are irrational. And, of course, their equal-and-opposite negative partisanship implies the same about me. (Though that is more evidence why mine is correct, theirs is mistaken, and their basic outlook unreasonable.) But I have already dismissed semi-Hegelian concerns that the symmetry of implication indicates that both positions are inadequate and can be algebraically “cancelled.” If anything, the opposite holds: at least one of these implications of irrationality is correct. That is the thing about negative partisanship. Whether I am right about how awful your party is depends not at all on whether my party is good. To put the matter more forcefully, the problem with warranted negative partisanship’s implication that my political opponents are irrational is not that I might be wrong, but rather that I am right and I know it.

Of course, being right is not obviously a problem. If anything, it seems like the solution to a problem. Clarity about my political opponent’s irrationality seems to relieve me of the onerous obligation to dialogue, negotiate, compromise, or cooperate with them. Being right seems to allow me to dispense with discussion and oblige me to pursue the political power necessary to dispossess this debased party of its offices. We know our enemy, we are invited to think, we know what to fight for, and now we must fight. But giving in to such agonistic impulses allows the negative partisanship problem to conceal itself by making agonism seem like the only option. “People who cannot be reasoned with must be forced, if not into compliance, then at least to get out of the way. What else is there to do? What option have they left us?” The agonist impulse renders our opponents mute objects around which we must navigate.[4]  

But while we struggle with the negative partisanship problem’s implications, we often fail to notice the problem itself. And this failure is, well, problematic. We accept the implication of our opponents’ irrationality as a straightforward matter of fact. It is a matter of fact, yes, but a dreadfully unnatural one. If and when it is true that our opponents are irrational, the warranting situation necessarily contains a surd—that is, an element of objectified stupidity, of factual meaninglessness, of mute, inexplicable “there-ness.”

We overlook, and so in our political strategizing fail to account for, this surd because it runs against our spontaneous anticipation that reality should be completely intelligible. How, after all, can a true implication be absurd? Answering this “how?” would take us too far afield, but let it suffice to say that the rational judgment beneath warranted negative partisanship reveals that the situation in which we find ourselves is, in fact, absurd.

The easier question to answer is “why?” Why is this absurdity knit into the situation assessed by negative partisanship? Because politicians, like all of us, are not supposed to be malign and irrational actors. Republican politicians are capable of being, indeed are obligated to be, attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible in their governance. This capacity and obligation renders them—renders all of us—eligible for politics at all. Normatively speaking, politicians may engage in such collective, discursive governance in the first place because they are rational, responsible beings who can discern the truth and pursue the good together on the basis of mutual agreement.

But to the extent that they wave away data, refuse to ask relevant questions, accept answers that are convenient rather than correct, and enact policies that are advantageous rather than good, politicians fail to be what they really are. And so they are rational and irrational, responsible and irresponsible at the same time. They make themselves into a concrete contradiction, a living absurdity. And because they do so in the arena of politics, on the field of our collective action, they also produce an absurd situation. And if their opponents take that absurdity for a premise, then no matter how rigorous our practical reasoning, no matter how warranted our opposition, the deliberative process will produce consequences likewise marked with irrationality. False premises yield unsound arguments and the absurd cannot be true.

This absurd situation is what the agonist endeavors to simply muscle through. With enough power—cognitive, political, or marshal—the depravities of their opponents can be overcome. One might say,

If some of our opponents wish to defect and cooperate with us, all the better, but we do not need their cooperation and we will not wait for it. Indeed, they have been so stupid, so irrational, so malevolent, that we are well served to be suspicious of their cooperation should they offer it. Consequently, the impulse to agonism goes hand-in-hand with revolutionary imagination. The offending party needs to be sidelined, exiled, “purged.”

Moreover, we may conclude, the objective situation they have established with their stupidity and malevolence needs to be abolished, dismantled, razed. In the extreme, history itself must begin anew: year zero.

But all of this amounts to no more than the destruction of evidence. The negative partisanship problem persists, for unreasonable, irresponsible politicians and their supporters do not only sin against those who suffer under their malign policies (to whom we will return in a moment), but also and in the first place against their own nature. They have put their light of reason under a bushel and foresworn the dignity proper to responsible freedom. But we may only read these sins as sins if the light is not thereby extinguished, nor dignity expunged. By acting as though the light has gone out and dignity forever lost, the agonist at once takes an absurdity for a fact and, ironically, implodes the moral scaffold they presumed to have ascended. If one’s political opponents are irrational all the way down, then the process of dehumanization is complete and they are not to be blamed, only destroyed. The previous century evinces that this line of reasoning is not at all hypothetical.

The hardest version of the negative partisanship problem is that reason and responsibility demand that the unreasonable and irresponsible be somehow and nonetheless treated as possessing reason’s light and freedom’s dignity. They must be invited to repudiate their lies, to understand and affirm the truth, to turn away from their schemes and instead conceive, decide upon, and to cooperate with just and worthwhile courses of action. But this strategy will, by all appearances, be doomed to fail. But the negative partisanship problem is bigger than even that. For reason and responsibility compel us to recognize in evildoers the dignity and value that they, by their policies and rhetoric, have so often refused to recognize in others. What is worse, it would afford them this consideration when the consequences of their sin and evil have been borne by others—by the weakest, most vulnerable and forgotten among us—and not themselves.

We might imagine that a noble and victorious revolution would find such an approach to politics challenging to adopt, even if they could vindicate the victims of injurious policies with the full force of collective action. But how would those two aims—the dignified rehabilitation of the vanquished and the vindication of the victimized—be accomplished together? It is one thing to set them out as a value, but quite another to make them a concrete reality. Even if adequate means existed, it is doubtful the polity could sustain the political stomach for it. The following questions arise:

Did we not just fight a war against these people? Why are we treating them as partners to be persuaded and not prisoners to be incarcerated (or worse)? How much less willing, then, are we to keep in view the dignity of undignified opponents when they still hold so many levers of power and so much popular support with which to continue their ruinous program? When so many innocents suffer, what excuse can there be for anything short of parsimonious political pragmatism? Something—and something successful!—has to be done now.

Admitting the problem of negative partisanship in a democracy—where the victims of stupid, cruel, and inhumane policies are also political actors—suggests that those victims are responsible for treating their victimizers according to the same rights of dignity and value (whatever those may be) that they themselves have been denied. This seems to rule out the alternative to agonism that produces the negative partisanship problem in the first place, not on grounds of political feasibility, nor on those of practical efficacy, but on the deep bedrock of moral coherence. How can it be the rational and responsible thing to tell victims they owe their victimizers anything?

In purely philosophical or political terms, this problem cannot be solved. Its force can be mitigated in various ways, through law, norms, and species of democratic self-talk. But in the end, there will always be reversions to some Hobbesian mean as the Overton window on political violence slowly shifts. Once rationality has committed itself to irrationality, once responsible freedom is used irresponsibly, it marks the whole situation indelibly and strategic efforts to erase it will only smear the stain over more and more of history.

But there does exist a theological analog for the negative partisanship problem: the problem of the supernatural, of nature and grace. Both problems contain an apparent contradiction: something necessary seems impossible. In the negative partisanship problem, it is necessary that all political actors be somehow treated as rational, responsible agents, but this seems impossible in the case of manifestly irrational and irresponsible actors. In the problem of grace, it is necessary that spiritual beings should enjoy eternal life, but it seems impossible that human beings could merit it.

In his unparalleled treatment of the question, Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, Bernard Lonergan analyzes the apparent impossibility that we should merit eternal life according to two “theorems”: what Lonergan calls “the theorem of the supernatural” and “the theorem of the states of (human nature).”[5] The theorem of the supernatural distinguishes between two orders of reality, one absolutely disproportionate to the other. It is a formalization of the Creator/creature distinction in which we acknowledge that only God is proportionate to causing existence, but it has the advantage of not being keyed to a single doctrine. It has what Jean Piaget calls “mobility.”[6] It abstracts a formal relation that can be deployed to help address a variety of philosophical and theological problems. It can, for example, help explain why even a prelapsarian human being would still need grace—because eternal life is God’s life, and God is infinitely disproportionate to human life and any of its powers or capacities.

The theorem of the states of human nature, in turn, situates categories like “prelapsarian” into a scheme that organizes the basic modes or “states” in which human beings may find themselves throughout salvation history. There is our original innocence portrayed in the Edenic narrative of Genesis, there is the fallen state with which we are all too familiar, but there also exists the state in this life in which we have laid hold of God’s offer of grace to imperfectly, but nonetheless successfully, repent of sin and evil. Finally, there is the perfect impeccability of the next life. For Lonergan, what Thomas’s solution to the problem of grace and merit coordinates is the way in which grace at once raises us into the eternal life of God, according to the problem set out by the theorem of the supernatural, but also repairs the sin by which we are fallen, according to the problem set out by the theorem of the states of human nature. This is what it means for Thomas to say that grace is both elevans and sanans, elevating and healing.

I propose that the negative partisanship problem can be broken down analogously and resolved theologically by the same solution. The absurd situation created by irrational and irresponsible political parties is a specific case of the more general fallen state of human nature. The dynamics of irrationality I have attributed to the former are, in fact, the general dynamics of the history into which evil has made its bloody entrance. Human history, after all, is (no less than the rest of the cosmos) made through the divine Word, but we have made a stupidity of God’s perfectly rational intentions. Nor can we simply “muscle” our way out of it. Trying to do so inevitably makes things worse. Thus, our politics needs the same gratuitous balm of divine healing as everything else.

But our politics do not only need healing. The broadly liberal view of politics I implied above, in which the possession of reason and responsible freedom invites all of us into some level of political participation, rests on capacities we possess by virtue of a spiritual life that, as St. Athanasius had it, we possess as an impress of the Word.[7] This divine kind of life that we live in our reasoning and our responsible decision making renders us—to borrow Maurice Blondel’s word—“trans-natural,” that is, neither purely natural nor always already supernaturalized. But this means that God’s grace would be necessary for the success of such a politics even if we had been able to keep malign actors out of it from the beginning. And, maybe most importantly, it would still be necessary even if we could raze the extant irrationalities and attempt to build a new, unsullied polity.

Theologically, then, we can affirm that solving the negative partisanship problem is not impossible, for we know that God’s grace is present and at work in our world, healing and elevating all of human life, including politics. Still, all of this analysis and analogizing is abstract and heuristic. But politics are so desperately concrete, and the negative partisanship problem especially so. How does God’s grace address the problem of sin and evil? Bernard Lonergan thought it did so by providing us with that inner liberty on which every program of liberation would depend. Lonergan transposed Thomas’s metaphysical account of grace’s effects into a psychological language of “willingness.” The integration of the spiritual and animal in human living means that we are imperfectly willing to be reasonable and responsible. Thus, as we face the torrent of moral circumstances, unless we are supernaturally helped, we inevitably fail to be one or the other or both. It is not so much that we cannot be, but that we will not be.

Once we have failed to do the good that God intended for us, the actions marred by this failure mar the whole scene and, as I noted above, practical reasoning about an irrational situation will produce irrational courses of action, no matter how sincerely and rigorously pursued. Some other way of responding is called for, one that sees the surd of sin and evil for what it is and somehow refuses to allow its poison to corrupt things further. Jesus speaks of such a response in terms of refusing to resist an evil person, of returning good for evil, of praying for those who persecute you, of loving your enemies (Matt 5:38-48). Jesus, of course, put his money where his mouth is on this point, rejecting the sword and accepting the cross. His disciples, as they took up the mantle of the apostolate, followed his advice and his lead, and many met similarly violent ends.

St. Paul, for his part, notes that we are commonly unwilling to follow where Christ and the Apostles lead, writing in Romans 5 that “only with difficulty does one die for [even] a just person.” We naturally find the prospect of suffering unjustly at the hands of the unjust prohibitively galling. Moreover, we rightly flinch at the prospect of asking others to join us in that fate. And yet, “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” God’s grace—the love of God poured into our hearts by the gift of the Holy Spirit—can provide us with the willingness to respond as Christ did (Rom 5:3-11). We can choose, freely, to be suffering servants of all, accepting punishment in exchange for wholeness, wounds in exchange for healing (Isa 53:5).

But (and this is of supreme importance, for if it is lost, all moral coherence is lost with it), we can only do this with genuine freedom if we offer ourselves up having laid hold of the power at work in supernatural grace and so with the same supererogatory gratuity of grace itself. There can be, in other words, no duty to suffer. Thus, this solution to the negative partisanship problem implies that perennial Pauline paradox: a politics that cannot be legislated.

Christ and the Apostle’s willingness to suffer, even die at the hands of the powerful, rather than to engage in the zealot’s agonism or to compromise for the sake of comfort or some share of power, was hardly the product of obscurantism or quietism. Jesus and, through him, his disciples knew the truth and they were not shy about it. The Kingdom of God is at hand and it is time to get with the program. Moreover, if you profess to serve the Kingdom of God, but only as cover for self-aggrandizement or self-enrichment, be prepared for your tables to be overturned in our zeal for the house of the Lord. Christ’s exhortations to love, pray for, and refuse to resist one’s enemies cannot mean Christians avoid having (or making) any. Though I have emphasized the agonist’s strategy for doing away with the negative partisanship problem, the quietist’s strategy will not work either. We cannot avoid, in affirming the rationality and responsibility of political actors, also and at the same time naming their irrationality and irresponsibility. In practical terms, it is worth remembering that we do not pick up our crosses from some neutral ground. They are handed to us. And not for nothing.[8]  

Still, our negative partisanship problem persists. That by faith we may be certain a solution exists is not the same as possessing it. That in Christ, the Apostles, and the Saints with them we have models and materials for a solution is not the same as conceiving of and enacting one ourselves. Moreover, the negative partisanship problem in general is only an abstraction, an object of thought that names the central and formative features of the puzzle we face. The real negative partisanship problem that Americans face is ours. Any adequate solution to it, however Christo-formed, will address its concrete logistical challenges, its historical legacies, its psychological quirks, its international implications, and so on. Christians who love the United States, who fear for her future, and who aspire to a more perfect union going forward must draw close enough to discern what these elements are, to name them, and begin to cooperate with any and all people of good will in setting about their rectification. Withdrawal is no “Option.” Even John the Baptist stayed close enough that, when he shouted, the powerful heard him. And what they heard was, “You generation of snakes, who warned you to flee the coming wrath?”[9]

[1] I express some fairly strident political opinions here. Needless to say, these do not represent the views of Church Life Journal, its editorship, or its supporting institutions. Moreover, I beg you not to be distracted for the fact that I do not argue for them, nor do I present evidence in support of them. They are a fact from which I am beginning, dear reader, not a conclusion towards which I intend to drive you.  

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age: On The Death of Rebellion (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010).

[3] Liberalism is often pilloried for precisely this kind of moral obscurantism and, by extension, quietism. I find such skepticism antithetical to the liberal project anyway. The point of trying to wedge the power of the state further and further into the gears of society’s ‘othering’ machine was always (however naively) in service of a discursive process terminating in judgments. Even the open-ended-ness of that process is meant to be in service of making judgments: if new evidence arises, if circumstances change, we keep matters open so that questions can be raised, new ideas expressed, and new courses of action decided upon. But even in light of this open-ended-ness, refusing to make a judgment when one is warranted is just silliness. Moreover, the risk of mistaken judgments is the beginning of a conversation, not its conclusion.

[4] When I was learning to drive, my aforementioned parent offered me the wisdom of the San Francisco 49ers football coach who told players to keep emotion out of their game by imagining their opponents as “N.F.O.s”—nameless, faceless objects. The coolheaded agonist strategy amounts to much the same.

[5] Bernard Lonergan, Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas (Toronto: Toronto, 2000).

[6] Jean Piaget, The Psychology of Intelligence (New York: Routledge, 2001).

[7] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2007).

[8] I have, in my account of that for which God’s healing grace makes us willing in the political arena, echoed the broad strokes of Ignacio Ellacuría’s soteriology. For him, the saving work of Christ’s cross continues in human history as the willingness of the oppressed, “crucified” people—those who bear the consequences of powerful people’s evil—to proclaim the Kingdom of God and its demand for perfect justice, even when they know they will be resisted (and, in the limit, killed) by those who perpetrate injustice to retain power. This, he thinks, is what saves us from the sin and evil named in the judgments at the heart of warranted negative partisanship. Nor does it only deliver the crucified, but—as the whole political situation can be sundered by the sin of a few—all of us are redeemed by it and, with us, our shared politics. See Ignacio Ellacuría, “The Crucified People,” in Systematic Theology: Perspectives from Liberation Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996), 257-278.

[9] Exorbitant thanks to Ryan Hemmer for offering comments and edits on earlier version of this essay.


Jonathan Heaps

Jonathan Heaps just completed a year as Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious and Theological Studies at St Edward’s University.

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