Andrew Potter: Self Help for Partisans
Partisanship is a disease. Seek help.
By: Andrew Potter
Four years ago, Cass Sunstein wrote a column arguing that the problem with America was that its politics were beset by what he called “Political Manicheanism”: Political disagreements were no longer seen as reasonable disputes among fellow citizens, but instead “as pitting decent people with decent character against horrible people with horrible character.” Basically, it’s good versus evil, with each side defined less by what they actually care about, and more by what (and who) they despise.
Canadians love to flatter ourselves that this is a more civil place than the United States. Yet despite all evidence to the contrary, the notion of “Canadian exceptionalism” continues to hold sway, as evidenced by the way Canadian pundits weighed in on the anniversary of the purported insurrection in Washington in January 2021, predicting (with barely-disguised glee) the crack up of the great republic to the south.
But as the events of the past week have made clear, Canadian politics is well down the same path as we’ve seen in America. And while we may not be headed for civil war, there is no reason to think that our national institutions are stronger or more robust than those in the states. And what makes the situation here in Canada so unnerving is that it is not a case of anonymous trolls or party hardliners dragging the moderate middle to the rough edges. Instead, the steady march into the pit of vulgarity, meanness, stridency and unrelenting bad faith is being led by experienced members of parliament and the major party leaders.
At some level, we all know that we’re entering a pretty dark place. We can blame COVID, we can blame the internet, we can blame foreign interference or the party system or Mark Zuckerberg. But the ones who are most to blame for the state of affairs are the partisans. Everyone who is currently a member of a political party in Canada is part of the problem, and needs to do some serious soul-searching about where they have led the country.
Look, many of us have acquaintances, friends even, who are partisans. But as anyone who spends time with enough of them knows, there is something fundamentally wrong with the partisan brain. Decent, smart, educated people who seem to have their feet firmly planted in the realm of reason and logic, cause and effect, inference and deduction, suddenly lose their minds when faced with an issue over which there is partisan advantage to be had, or when a threat to their tribe’s hold on power looms.
Arguing with them doesn’t work. Appealing to their sense of fairness or better judgment is no good. Partisans in the grip of partisanship can’t be reached, and won’t be helped — it’s like they are living in a different part of the galaxy where the familiar laws of reality don’t apply. They can only help themselves, and so in the interests of offering friendly but also urgently self-interested advice, here are three principles or guidelines partisans need to follow that will help guide them back to the comfortable gravity and welcoming atmosphere of Planet Sanity.
1. “What if my opponent did that?”
When it came to raw partisanship and unvarnished control-freakery, Stephen Harper did a lot of things that made his opponents mental. So much so, that a strong case could be made that the overwhelming appeal of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in 2015 was that they promised to just stop doing these sorts of things.
Yet if after the Trudeau-led Liberals came to power you had kept a running tally of things the Trudeau government had done labeled “what if Stephen Harper did that?” you’d have a pretty lengthy thread by now. Because despite riding to power on a wave of good intentions, in a lot of ways — its control over Parliament, the lack of transparency and the abuse of process, the torquing of public policy and programmes for partisan advantage, and most of all, the outright lying — this government is no better than the one it replaced.
Of course, they don’t see it that way. No one ever does, because people tend to interpret their own actions in light of what they see as their true motives. And because they see their motives as fundamentally good the Liberals, cheered on by their shamrock army, give themselves a pass for engaging in the behaviours for which they (and the press gallery) crucified Stephen Harper.
But here’s the thing: Stephen Harper almost certainly interpreted his own behaviour in exactly the same way. He no doubt justified his own control freakery and partisan gamesmanship on the same grounds — that it was in the service of the public interest. To respond that no, what Harper was really doing was advancing partisan interests makes the fundamental partisan error: “what I do is in the public interest, what my opponent does is for partisan reasons.”
Looking at your own actions the way your opponent might see them is very difficult, but you have to try. What you see might surprise you.
2. The principle of charity
In politics, it is smart to start with the assumption that whatever their background, your political opponent has more or less the same goals that you do — namely, making the world a better place. This is just a specific form of a more general injunction, which is that you should always begin with the assumption that people you disagree with are rational. You should assume that their beliefs are for the most part true, and that their beliefs and desires are connected to each other and to reality in some plausible way.
This is what philosophers call the “principle of charity.” It comes in various versions of varying strength, but the core of it is a demand that we interpret someone’s statements and behaviour in the most rational way possible. That is, we should avoid attributing irrationality, delusion, or bad faith to someone when a coherent or rational interpretation can be had. That doesn’t mean there are no irrational or deluded people, nor does it mean that no one ever acts in bad faith. But as the philosopher Joe Heath puts it, “If our understanding of the world depends crucially upon the claim that everyone else is an idiot, evil, on the take, or part of the conspiracy, then the problem almost certainly lies with our understanding and not with the world.”
In short, before calling your opponent insane, a lunatic, a criminal, or a total moron, check to make sure you are giving the best possible interpretation of those views that maximizes their status as rational people.
Applying the principle of charity is a good way of doing this. But an even better approach is to try to pass the ideological Turing Test.
3. The ideological Turing Test
Some of you may be familiar with the original Turing Test, in which the early computer scientist Alan Turing proposed to replace the ineffable question “can machines think?” with the behavioural question of whether a machine could interact with a human in a way that was indistinguishable from human to human interaction. As Turing saw it, if a human couldn’t tell the difference between talking to a human or talking to a machine, then there was no further question to be asked as to whether the machine was actually thinking.
The ideological Turing Test is the brainchild of the economist Bryan Caplan, and it is designed as a test to see whether a partisan truly understands the arguments of his or her opponent. The idea is that the partisan (say, a Liberal) is asked to answer questions or write an essay in which they are posing as their ideological opponent (say, a Conservative). If a neutral judge can’t tell the difference between the arguments of a true Conservative and those of the Liberal trying to “pass” as a Conservative, then we can conclude that the Liberal does genuinely comprehend the Conservative point of view.
How many Liberals out there think they could seriously pass as Conservatives, and how many Conservatives could pass as a Liberal? It’s not an idle question. Because if you can’t credibly represent your opponent’s views to a neutral observer, this means a few things. First, it is probably because you don’t actually understand those views. Second, this means you can’t have a proper argument with your opponent. Which suggests that you are probably not taking their ideas seriously, which means, finally, that what you’re doing is not debating them, or arguing, but performing.
Canadian politics, on all sides, is descending ever deeper into a style what we can call “performance partisanship.” If our representatives can’t see their way to helping themselves out of their partisan echo chambers, if they can’t put themselves in the other side’s shoes, if that can’t credibly interpret their opponents as rational people acting in good faith, then we will be not much better off than the Americans, defining ourselves not by what we believe in, but who we despise.
A version of this was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen. The Line is printing it today because it seemed particularly applicable for the moment.
Andrew Potter is the author of On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia, and Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever.
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