The Toxicity of Partisanship
June 20, 2017
by J.A. Young
From John Adams's letter to Jonathan Jackson in 1780

There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.


From George Washington's farewell address

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.


For human beings that roamed across the plains and forests of prehistory, life was more simple. Before our species moved into huts and villages on our way to gleaming skyscrapers, we were hunters and foragers at the mercy of our harsh environments. It was during this time, and the tens of thousands of years that preceded it, that our genes gradually evolved to favor the traits that would lead to a greater chance of offspring. Those ancestors who were too weak, or too slow, or even too trusting of outsiders, were separated from their more fit peers in an achingly slow process that has left us with the genes and traits we carry with us today.


Suffice it to say that while evolution is a remarkable biological process, it has left us with pieces of humanity that we would rather do without. Our bodys tendency to hang on to every excess calorie we ingest, for example, is a process which held great utility in times of prehistory, but tends to cause problems in grocery store aisles. Perhaps our most glaring behavioral trait as humans is our historically tempered fear of the other. Skepticism of other tribes, and individuals we do not know clearly held merit tens of thousands of years ago, when competition for resources dominated our chances for survival, but today those cognitive tendencies have resulted in some of the greatest tragedies of our time. Genocide, persecution, segregation, and many more of humanitys most disgusting characteristics are, without question, woven into our DNA and the fabric of our culture. But that does not mean that they have to illuminate the path that our species takes forwards.


Our defining characteristic as people, the one that has taken us to the top of the food chain and far beyond, is our capacity for reason and understanding. Logic is also in our blood, and there in lies the key to transcending our brutish roots.


As Sam Harris points out, One of the greatest gains we are attempting to make, although we have done it imperfectly thus far, is to outgrow tribalism in all its forms. So we recognize that tribalism is not the best moral bedrock, and yet in a Darwinian paradigm tribalism is really the only game in town. And so we stand outside of Darwinian logic both morally and intellectually all the time now.


In the modern world, as in the ancient, we all want to pick sides the schools we attend, the sports teams we root for, the cars that we drive, and especially the people we vote for. These are the choices that we make in rhythm with our primal tendency to favor our own tribe and guard against the other. We all love to be part of a team, whether that means choosing a Ford over a Chevy or rooting for our home country in the Olympics. Nationalism, has taken up the banner of tribalism, trading international borders for village walls and presidents for chieftains. This desire to belong descends down the political ladder into the base of our current system, the party.


If there is one lesson that we can learn from the 2016 presidential election season, in light of the vitriol and caustic rhetoric, it is that the left and right sides of the partisan spectrum are continuing to diverge in tribal ways. Like the intrinsic expansion of our universe, Democrats and Republicans are only drifting farther and farther apart from one another, taking time only to fling muck in either direction. On each side of the debate line, there is a group that is utterly and completely convinced of their own veracity and the oppositions obfuscation of the truth. The political system in the United States has descended into complete and utter duopoly, where those with the courage to stand away from the diametric positions are mocked, shunned and rendered inert by the system itself.


This duality has infected the social dialectic down to the level of individual issues in a two party system. Let us look at two of the most contentious issues in our modern debate: abortion and gun control. If you brought a Martian down to Earth and explained to them these two issues, they would have the devils own job of understanding why the Republicans and Democrats fall starkly on one side and the other.


On the surface, the issues are completely separatethey deal with primarily different segments of the population, they entered our legal system via different routes. Why should a persons stance on one issue directly impact their footing on another? The only possible answer is tribalism, and it is the same answer for a host of other toxic issues.


Ten thousand years ago on the plains of North America, humans didnt have the option of moving back and forth between tribes, picking and choosing positives in one area and dismissing negatives in another, they had only the options of survival or death. That severity of reasoning is why we have a political system that is dominated by dysfunction and cognitive bias, and it is why we have a country that is entirely crippled by factionalism.


The founders of the United States of America could not see into the future with any certainty. They could not have predicted the rise of the Internet or our journey to the moon and back, but toxic partisanship was an intellectual plague that many of the first great Americans attempted to vaccinate. George Washington, the figurative and literal icon of our country, spoke at length about the issue in his farewell address. His language is a reminder of the cruel, vindictive side of human tribalism that echoes of Thomas Hobbes and reminds us that dissent and freethinking are antithetical to our current two party system.


John Adams was so candid as to say that there was nothing he feared so much as, a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution. The founders of our country may have been unable to divine the future, anticipating the rise of the Internet or social media, but that does not mean they were without insight. On the contrary, their fear of partisan tribalism was prescient on a level that is becoming more terrifying with each election season.