Partisan attachment and the Messina Question

One’s judgment about Messina depends on one’s reasons for being a partisan.

Keith’s post, and others’, on Jim Messina’s decision to work for the Tories, have led me to think about the different reasons for being attached to a political party. Those who differ in their reasons for being partisans in the first place will assess concrete questions of loyalty and disloyalty in very different ways.

Leaving aside mere habit and a tendency to passively adopt the affiliations of those like oneself (no doubt the most common reasons for partisanship but no fun to argue about), I see three possible reasons for attaching oneself for a party and working for its success: (1) belief in that party’s specific policy positions; (2) primal loyalty to a group or a “side”; or (3) pragmatic acquiescence in a party whose positions are more moderate than one’s own, in the hope of moving politics in a more uncompromising direction over time.
If (1) you are a Democrat because of specific policies, Messina’s decision is not that hard to justify. Keith and others can argue quite plausibly that the U.S. Democratic party on a great many issues endorses policies similar to, or indeed to the right of, Britain’s Conservatives. It’s been pointed out that even British austerity is not necessarily to Obama’s Right if one sees it in absolute rather than relative terms: as targeting a certain level of public deficits, or a certain level of government spending as a percentage of GDP. (Now, if one is a determined Keynesian, relative terms are the only ones that matter: one increases spending and deficits, from whatever level, in recessions. But pace Krugman, not everyone sees short-term Keynesian categories as the only relevant ones, and a country that doesn’t borrow in the world’s reserve currency is arguably less free to be exclusively Keynesian than Americans are. I don’t myself buy this line of argument, but buying it is by no means crazy.) Even immigration may be no exception. While Cameron’s recent rhetoric has been inflammatory, for all I know his government’s policies don’t differ that much from those of President Obama, whose stance towards the undocumented involves proposing a long and difficult path to citizenship, and mass deportation in the meantime.

This is a complex and interesting debate. But it’s beside the point if (2) one is a Democrat because one supports “working people,” “the 99 percent,” women (defining their interests, as is fine with me but of course rejected by traditionalists, in feminist terms), racial and cultural/ethnic minorities, or the poor as opposed to “the one percent,” “angry white men,” “corporate power,” or the like. If one is choosing sides in such battles, and sees them as elemental, one simply must choose Labour in Britain as well—or at the very least the Liberal Democrats—because the Tories are the party of the people with wealth and power. (The same goes for a visceral ideological attachment to “the Left” as opposed to the Right—though that way of putting it is in the U.S., unlike in France, very much a minority taste.)

Finally, a lot of progressive activists put up with Obama, and the Democratic Party generally, not because they love the specific policies he calls for but (3) because they regard those policies as better than the Republican alternative and accept the pragmatic need to lock in moderate reforms now so as to pursue ever more equality in the future. (It’s common on the Right to portray all Democrats as like this, radical egalitarians in moderate clothing. That’s absurd as a sweeping generalization, but true of some partisans and, frankly, quite common among the base.) From this perspective, someone who supports moving towards the reforms that Obama proposes now and no further is not a proper partisan but a sellout or a dupe. Such a person has mistaken the start of the journey for its end.

By endorsing (1), partisanship based on specific policy positions, Keith has taken a position that’s quite common among policy experts. It may also be common among the more wonkish, data-driven type of political operative. (I honestly have no idea.) But it’s very uncommon, and the side-taking or pragmatic-activist positions are much more common, among the kind of devoted partisans who constitute any party’s base and who dominate blog-based commentary. That’s why Keith wonders why anyone would regard Messina as a sellout, while so many in Left Blogistan wonder how anyone could regard him as anything else.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

9 thoughts on “Partisan attachment and the Messina Question”

  1. Andy — very thoughtful analysis of the relevant psychology, you should go into my field…

    1. Thanks for the intended compliment, Keith, but I draw the opposite conclusion: no doubt I’m in the field I’m in, rather than yours, is that what you call “psychology” I call, well, politics.

  2. “It may also be common among the more wonkish, data-driven type of political operative.”

    I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of political operatives who are “data-driven” are driven by polling data.

  3. Well, color me stunned and abashed. I guess I had underestimated how much of a pure normative policy guy Jim Messina is:

    ““My favorite political philosopher is Mike Tyson,” Messina says. “Mike Tyson once said everyone has a plan until you punch them in the face. Then they don’t have a plan anymore. [The Republicans] may have a plan to beat my guy. My job is to punch them in the face.”” http://www.politico.com/story/2013/08/balz-pens-searing-indictment-of-2012-95191.html#ixzz2bCcojjL2

    1. Much as I’m prepared to believe, given evidence, that Messina is merely unprincipled (rather than substantively left of America’s center and right of Britain’s), surely it’s odd to argue that this quote shows that to be true of him. It’s normal, and not unhealthy, for political operatives to say that the only thing they care about is beating the opposing candidate or party. But that doesn’t preclude their having a reason, grounded in principles, policy positions, loyalty, or what have you, for wanting to do so.

      1. Well, sure. I’ve known some political operatives and they all despise the other party. But that’s why I think it’s really unlikely that they would go to the other side. Unless:

        1) they really, really want the money, or
        2) they come from a culture (or administration) of compromise and triangulation.

        My read is that the blogosphere sees this as both, but only is angry at him for #2. After all, who is Jim Messina without Obama*? It’s all about the President.

        *or Kenny Loggins.

  4. Maybe Messina can spend his time getting all the Tory voters to send David Cameron a birthday card, the only thing OFA has been doing for the past 30 days. In addition to this traitor, there’s also the fact of everything everyone else in this alleged “progressive” administration has done. Here are a few (thank you Frank Rich for pointing them out today in his review of “This Town,” The Great Unwinding” and “The Payoff”):

    The tale of how the Obama economic team was recruited en masse from Robert Rubin acolytes who either facilitated Wall Street’s pre-crash recklessness while in the Clinton administration or cashed in on it later (or, like Rubin, did both) never loses its power to shock, and is revisited in all three books. Michael Froman, Rubin’s chief of staff as Clinton Treasury secretary, not only served as the Obama transition team’s personnel director but moonlighted as a Citigroup managing director while doing so. “Obama essentially entrusted the repairing of the china shop to the bulls who’d helped ransack it,” Connaughton writes.

    Leibovich updates the story of the tacky prehistory of the Obama White House with its aftermath – the steady parade of Obama alumni who traded change we can believe in for cash on the barrelhead as soon as they left public service. The starry list includes, among many others, Peter Orszag (director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, now at Citi), Jake Siewert (the Treasury Department counselor turned chief flack for Goldman Sachs), and David Plouffe (the campaign manager and senior presidential adviser who did consulting for Boeing and General Electric). In a class by herself is Anita Dunn, the former White House communications director “who was instrumental in helping Michelle Obama set up her ‘Let’s Move!’ program to stop obesity in children”: She signed on as a consultant with “food manufacturers and media firms to block restrictions on commercials for sugary foods targeting children.”

  5. The model in (1) seems to assume people consider a party’s official positions identical to the actual goals of its leaders. If Cameron supports government-provided health care, while Obama supports having private insurance companies and a mandate-regulate-subsidize regime, then Cameron must be left of Obama, and anyone who supports the Democrats’ policies in the US should support the Conservatives’ policies in the UK.

    Surely this is naive. It is plausible that politicians and party decision-makers are themselves “pragmatic activists” following (3), taking an official position close to the national center while working for a more uncompromising position.

    In other words, people who care about policy might reasonably believe that George W. Bush would, if given the chance, sign into law bigger tax cuts than his party officially favored; that Barack Obama would support gay rights more strongly as president than he said he would in 2007-08; or that David Cameron might talk about ring-fencing the NHS to win an election, but would happily pare it back a great deal if he felt he could. To see Obama and Cameron as different is not necessarily to choose parties based on “primal loyalty.”

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