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Why more partisanship can cure what ails American politics

Partisanship is in part a tribal phenomenon, and like other aspects of tribalism it at times inspires irrational and ugly behavior. It rears its head most prominently at election time. And, ironically, since elections are swung by voters who lack strong partisan attachments, each autumn witnesses strong partisans bemoaning the partisanship of their adversaries and praising the independent-mindedness of their own favored candidates. The truth, however, is that for all its flaws partisanship is a bit like democracy itself — the worst idea around except for all the available alternatives.

And many of the flaws in American government can be laid at the feet not of the much-derided partisanship but at a lack of partisanship. Specifically, our combination of a decentralized federal system — which sees very different issues debated on Capitol Hill, in the statehouse, or at City Hall — and a system of parties which is overwhelmingly focused on federal matters has worsened local governance. For better politics in the future, we need not less partisanship but more — and more parties to go with it.

Parties provide information

The greatest virtue of political parties is that partisanship — where it works — provides crucial information. I have not been following the US Senate election happening in Iowa this year very closely. But if were to materialize in an Iowa City voting booth tomorrow morning, I'd have no trouble whatsoever figuring out who to vote for. That's because the partisan affiliations of Bruce Braley and Joni Ernst tell me an awful lot about what they would do in DC. In the short-term, Braley would give broad deference to Obama's executive appointments while Ernst will seek to prevent jobs from being filled in a timely manner. In the longer-term, Braley will vote for more progressive taxes and Ernst for less spending on social services.

In some states, voters will find themselves conflicted. Many people in Kentucky seem to share mainstream Democratic views on taxes and the minimum wage, while agreeing more with the GOP on environmental regulations and abortion. But even when the choice is a tough one, the party affiliations of Mitch McConnell and Allison Lundergan Grimes do a great job of broadly structuring the options.

Contrast this with a non-partisan election like the battle to become Washington, DC's first elected attorney-general. Absent partisan cues, even dedicated followers of local affairs are starting at square one. Even the best journalists following DC politics struggle to define what issues divide the candidates, and endorsements seem to be happening largely on the basis of affect. The established daily paper is backing the establishment's favorite candidate, Karl Racine, while the alt-weekly says "Karl Racine, the establishment's choice, isn't our favorite, mostly because he's the establishment's choice."

Parties extend candidates' ranges

Sen. Mark Udall on the trail. (Mark Piscotty/Getty)

By definition, a person can only have a few top priorities. That reality extends to politicians. And if the candidates on offer don't have a particular interest on the issue you're most passionate about, that can make deciding between them difficult. Parties, by linking politicians into broad networks of like-minded colleagues, help bridge these gaps of concern. The parties as collectives address many more issues passionately than an individual person could or would. Meanwhile, though the candidates represent particular constituencies, their partisan affiliations prevent them from lapsing into complete parochialism.

The voters of Colorado will decide who will represent them in the US Senate, but this choice has national implications. Because both candidates are affiliated with national parties, both contestants can be held somewhat accountable for the actions of national party leaders. This ensures a focus that keeps at least one eye on the national interest, alongside local state concerns.

Partisanship gone wrong

(Steven Michael Rogers)

Though pundits bemoan partisanship on Capitol Hill, the American party system works quite well when it comes to congressional elections. The problems arise further down the chain of command. State governments in the United States are given considerable autonomy from federal policy. They take the lead on several issues (education, transportation) where the federal government has a merely secondary role, and take the backseat on several issues (size of the welfare state, distribution of the tax burden) where the federal government is the primary authority. Yet, as political scientists Carl Klarner and C.L. Reynolds have found, voters do not act as if state and federal governments do different things.

Instead, they find, over a long historical period, a 0.93 percent correlation between the change in the number of US House of Representatives seats the Democrats pick up in the number of state legislature seats they gain. In principle, this could be because local conditions drive voting for federal elections. But in practice, through statistical analysis, they conclude the reverse: "When federal officers are up — which they often are — voters do not seem to reward or punish state officials on the basis of state conditions." Steven Michael Rodgers, similarly, finds that "compared to individuals' assessments of the state legislature, changes in presidential approval have at least three times the impact on voters' decision-making in state legislative elections."

In other words, strong partisan cues about federal policy overwhelm information about state policy. That makes state government less accountable and effective than it should be.

But the alternative of non-partisan elections is bad as well. Law professor David Schleicher made this point by looking at municipal elections in the United States. These are sometimes formally non-partisan and other times de facto non-partisan due to the overwhelming dominance of the Democratic Party. He finds that city council members face little pressure to articulate city-wide visions, or reconcile local interests with broader priorities. This leads to hyper-empowerment of people inclined to cry Not In My Back Yard to proposals for new construction of any kind. If council-members were forced to organize as disciplined teams, the teams would have to form and articulate views on the most desirable city-wide approach to development. But absent partisanship, the tendency is toward incoherence. Everyone wants more affordable housing, and everyone wants it somewhere else.

More parties for better partisanship

These guys know what's up (Shutterstock)

To see a better approach to federalism, Americans should look north of the border to our friends in Canada. In Canada, like in the USA, the issues that matter most in provincial government are not the same as the issues that matter most in federal government. Canada's approach to this is to have separate party systems for the separate levels of government. One might be a loyal backer of the Québec Liberal Party, while voting for the Conservative Party of Canada in national elections. Importantly, this wouldn't be "ticket splitting" in the American sense. Different parties appear on the ballot in provincial versus federal elections. There is no Québécois political party called "conservative," and backing the provincial Liberal Party does not imply membership in the federal Liberal Party. They're just different organization altogether.

In a system like that, rather than awkwardly partnering as leaders of the Democratic Party in New York State, Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo could be leaders of rival political parties. Voters in Colorado's Senate election could and would largely base their votes on their assessment of the Obama-versus-Republicans battle in DC, but their votes for governor and state legislature could be unpolluted by these dynamics. Questions about school management, land use, and transportation planning that the federal government doesn't do much on would get a full and thorough hearing in the races where they matter.

What ails us right now, however, is not too much partisanship but too little. Our complicated, multi-tiered system of government deserves a multi-tiered system of political parties to go with it.