Imagine, for a moment, that George W. Bush had been president when the Transportation Security Administration decided to let holiday travelers choose between exposing their nether regions to a body scanner or enduring a private-security massage.
Democrats would have been outraged at yet another Bush-era assault on civil liberties. And Republicans would have leaped to the Bush administration’s defense, while accusing liberals of going soft on terrorism.
But Barack Obama is our president instead, so the body-scanner debate played out rather differently. Mostly, the Bush-era script was read in reverse. It was the populist right that raged against body scans, and the Republican Party that moved briskly to exploit the furor. It was a Democratic administration that labored to justify the intrusive procedures, and the liberal commentariat that leaped to their defense.
This role reversal is a case study in the awesome power of the partisan mind-set.
Up to a point, American politics reflects abiding philosophical divisions. But people who follow politics closely are often partisans first and ideologues second. Instead of assessing every policy on the merits, we tend to reverse-engineer the arguments required to justify whatever our own side happens to be doing. Our ideological convictions may be real enough, but our deepest conviction is often that the other guys can’t be trusted.
How potent is the psychology of partisanship? Potent enough to influence not only policy views, but our perception of broader realities, as well. A majority of Democrats spent the late 1980s convinced inflation had risen under Ronald Reagan, when it had really dropped precipitously. In 1996, a majority of Republicans claimed the deficit had increased under Bill Clinton, when it had steadily shrunk instead.
Late in the Bush presidency, Republicans were twice as likely as similarly situated Democrats to tell pollsters the economy was performing well.
In every case, the external facts mattered less than how the person being polled felt about the party in power.
This tendency is vividly illustrated by our national security debates. In the 1990s, many Democrats embraced Clinton’s wars of choice in the Balkans and accepted his encroachments on civil liberties after the Oklahoma City bombing, while many Republicans tilted noninterventionist and libertarian.
If Al Gore had been president on 9/11, this pattern might have persisted, with conservatives resisting the Patriot Act the way they’ve rallied against the TSA’s Rapiscan technology, and Vice President Joe Lieberman prodding his fellow Democrats in a more Cheney-esque direction on detainee policy.
But because a Republican was president instead, conservative partisans suppressed their libertarian impulses and accepted the logic of an open-ended war on terror, while Democratic partisans took turns accusing the Bush administration of shredding the Constitution.
Now that a Democrat is in the White House, the pendulum is swinging back. In 2006, Gallup asked the public whether the government posed an “immediate threat” to Americans. Only 21 percent of Republicans agreed, versus 57 percent of Democrats. In 2010, they asked again. This time, 21 percent of Democrats said yes, compared with 66 percent of Republicans.
In other words, millions of liberals can live with indefinite detention for accused terrorists and intimate body scans for everyone else, as long as a Democrat is overseeing them. And millions of conservatives find wartime security measures vastly more frightening when they’re pushed by Janet Napolitano rather than a Republican like Tom Ridge.
On an individual level, a partisan mind-set corrupts the intellect and poisons the wells of human sympathy. But for the country as a whole, partisanship guarantees that even when there’s an elite consensus behind whatever the ruling party wants to do (whether it’s invading Iraq or passing Obamacare), there will always be a reasonably passionate opposition as well.
At the very least, the power of partisanship means there will always be someone around, when Americans are standing spread-eagled and exposed in the glare of Rapiscan, to speak up and say, “Enough!”•
Douthat joined The New York Times as an op-ed columnist in April 2009. Previously, he was a senior editor at the Atlantic and a blogger for theatlantic.com. A native of New Haven, Conn., he lives in Washington, D.C.•