There's nothing inherently wrong with political partisanship.
Being a partisan focuses the mind, giving it form, orientation, and direction when engaging in political deliberation and action. Partisanship expresses a conviction about the whole of things — about justice and its demands, about the common good and its requirements. If everyone in the political community agreed about the demands of justice and the requirements of the common good, there would be no partisanship and therefore no politics. Public officials would just be competent managers overseeing a staid, automatic, and uncontroversial process of allocating public goods. But of course we do disagree about justice and the common good. And so we have politics, and so we have partisanship.
But partisanship without limits — well, that is a problem. And today, both sides suffer from it.
The limits of partisanship have disappeared — with many on each side of the partisan divide burrowing so deeply into their distinctive view of justice and the common good that the concept of a truth independent of partisanship has begun to warp, bend, and even break altogether. Or rather, each side has come to equate its own partisan view with the truth as such.
I can already hear the angry partisans on the left decrying the "each side" part of my last statement. How can I possibly be staking out an even-handed, pox-on-both-your-houses stance on partisanship with Donald Trump in the White House tweeting out blatant falsehoods and insane conspiracy theories he gets from right-wing talk radio and unreliable alt-news websites like Breitbart and InfoWars?
Well, let me be clear: I'm not advocating "Broderism" — the tendency of a pundit to follow the example of the late Washington Post centrist columnist David Broder in forever declaring the truth to be at a constantly shifting point equidistant from both parties. I'm simply trying to take the long view, and striving to elevate my thinking above the immediate partisan fray. And when I do, I see a complete mess on both sides.
Yes, Trump and his party bear the bulk of the blame. They are the ones leading the way into the wilderness of absolute partisanship, blurring lines between political argument and entertainment, denigrating the authority of science, treating blatant falsehoods as truth, encouraging belief in conspiracy theories, dismissing the need for expertise in policymaking, and even denying the possibility of objectivity altogether. In all of these ways, the Trump administration poses a serious danger to the health of liberal democratic government in the United States.
But that doesn't mean left-leaning partisans — including large swaths of the mainstream media — are innocently upholding justice, the common good, and objective truth. As Delmore Schwartz once joked, sometimes paranoids have real enemies, and the paranoid-in-chief occupying the Oval Office has some very real and very powerful enemies.
Anyone who denies this needs to go back and reread the most important (and unfairly maligned) magazine feature written last year: David Samuels' 9,500-word New York Times Magazine profile of Obama administration senior staffer Ben Rhodes. Journalists hated the piece, but for reasons so self-serving that it's hard to believe anyone took the objections seriously. (My colleague Noah Millman noted as much shortly after the essay appeared.)
Samuels portrays (and quotes) Rhodes as someone who views both reporters ("they literally know nothing") and Washington's foreign policy establishment (Rhodes calls it "The Blob") with utter contempt. It's that contempt that Rhodes uses to justify the propaganda shop he ran out of the Obama White House, subtly but significantly manipulating the story that the mainstream media told about the Iran nuclear deal by selectively and repeatedly leaking tiny bits of information to dozens of journalists who wove those bits of micro-spin into countless tweets and stories over the course of many months. The end result was a pro-Iran deal conventional wisdom — a pointillistic picture of reality composed entirely of colorful dots painted by Rhodes and his staff with the knowledge and support of the president.
While trying to get the Iran deal approved, Rhodes was in the position of needing to use journalists to defeat The Blob, which viewed with extreme skepticism (if not outright hostility) the Obama administration's efforts to reach a nuclear accord with Tehran. But once Donald Trump won the presidency, old opponents found themselves firmly on the same side. Rhodes and his former boss, the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, and the nameless and faceless bureaucrats who staff the executive branch agencies and departments that make up the "intelligence community." All of them were now united in standing against a president who had vowed to break far more radically from the established Washington consensus than Obama ever dreamed of doing.
"Trump Takes on The Blob." That's the headline of Susan Glasser's recent cover story in Politico. The title is perfect — as is the subtitle, which describes Washington's foreign policy elites as having "a new common enemy: the president."
Did President Trump and/or members of his campaign actively collude with Russian intelligence services to ensure Hillary Clinton's defeat in the 2016 election? Is Trump's apparent desire to align the U.S. more closely with Russia and pursue other policies favored by Vladimir Putin a product of strategic calculation or a result of blackmail or other forms of manipulation by the Kremlin? I don't know the answer to these questions, and neither do you. But what we can know is that the trustworthiness of the individuals and institutions that could answer them has been severely compromised by their explicit displays of partisanship over the past few weeks.
Michael Flynn may have been an extremist, an atrocious manager, and a bit of a loon, but he was also a man who aimed to drastically reform the intelligence services. And it was leaks from the intelligence services that brought him down.
There are countless reasons to think Jeff Sessions will make a bad attorney general, and he may well have made a mistake in failing to disclose at his confirmation hearings what appears to have been two fairly routine meetings with the Russian ambassador. But was it really a coincidence that news of those meetings leaked just one day after the most politically effective speech of Trump's early (and thus far very rocky) presidency?
I get it. Trump is proposing some pretty radical changes — some of which would alter policies and presumptions that have prevailed since the end of the Second World War. That's scary. And dangerous, especially when Trump's motives for doing so are so opaque and his temperament so unstable. I can certainly understand how "a senior Republican" who talked to Glasser might feel bereft that "everything I've worked for for two decades is being destroyed" — and how Democrats still fuming about the election and disgusted by Trump's domestic agenda might be inclined to ally with such Republicans both inside and outside the surveillance state to try and take down the president.
But the temptation needs to be resisted. Such efforts may well do more long-term damage to America's political institutions than anything the Trump administration aims to accomplish. Policies can be reversed with a signature. Re-establishing norms of bureaucratic neutrality within the government and journalistic objectivity in civil society is likely to prove far more difficult, if not impossible.