The Partisanship Spectrum
83 Pages Posted: 26 Mar 2013 Last revised: 21 May 2014
Date Written: January 24, 2014
In a polarized political environment, allegations of excessive partisanship by public actors are ubiquitous. Commentators, courts, and activists levy and process these allegations daily. But with remarkable consistency, they do so as if “partisanship” described a single phenomenon. This piece recognizes, for the first time, that the default mode of understanding is a descriptive and diagnostic failure, with meaningful consequences. Partisanship is not an “it,” but a “those.”
Without a robust conceptualization of partisanship, it is difficult to treat pathologies of partisan governance. Indeed, it is difficult to distinguish the features from the bugs in our political system. Moreover, the failure to understand the multifarious nature of partisanship impairs our ability to assess how to best confront the partisanship we care about most, particularly in electoral regulation.
In particular, most observers attempt to further or constrain partisanship through substantive rules and structural design. But parsing the spectrum of partisanship shows that these tools are neither necessary nor sufficient to address partisanship in its most disparaged forms. Conversely, analysts have failed to appreciate the power of strong situational norms to accomplish these ends. Because norms are socially constructed, our discourse about partisanship matters — and we are likely getting the discourse very wrong.
This piece attempts to flesh out the distinctions that have been heretofore elided. It develops a typology of partisanship, and then engages that conceptual structure to assess the various tools by which forms of partisanship — including the most pernicious portions of the partisan structure — may be addressed.
Keywords: partisan, partisanship, situational ethics, role morality, nonpartisan, election law, electoral regulation
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