The dictionary defines the word partisan as an “adherent or supporter of a person, group, party or cause. A person who shows a biased, emotional allegiance.” It also carries a military connotation, meaning someone “engaged in harassing the enemy.” We get our English word from the Latin pars, which means “particular” and which evolved into the word “partiality.”
The term has always possessed a kind of edge, yet previous times viewed a partisan as a loyalist who held to certain views. Today it accumulates increasingly negative baggage and such a person is frequently viewed as incapable of understanding and blind to further truth. That’s a shame. Sincere partisans are everywhere in politics, believing in their cause, and furthering their point of view. All of us hold opinions and have every right to express them.
Sadly, partisans can sometimes get caught up in a bigger game where larger forces seek to manipulate their leanings, where the stakes are higher and the modus operandi becomes mean instead of meaningful.
The unfortunate part is that even the best intentioned partisans can slide into a pattern of behavior or a culture that makes permissible what would never be accepted previously. Those larger forces pump us up, and, as time draws on, our need to fight for an ideal gets transcended by the need to see those with opposing views as somehow diminished or even demented. In willy-nilly fashion our political leanings become a form of blind faith that quietly closes the drapes and depends on interior lighting. Over time, we sell ourselves into it as a kind of political worshipper, bowing to the leader and serving up the sacraments of our new religion.
By this very process we slowly become drained of morality just at the time we think we are practicing it. The truth evolves into “our” truth and seeks to view society through the lens we have created. Yet the more we remain in such a setting, the less effective we become in the broader world. We sense we aren’t connecting and grow inwardly bitter as we live only for the horizon we see. Certain intrigues of cruelty breeze among us towards other persuasions and eventually they hardly trouble us.
Over time, as with ingrown religion, it becomes apparent that society at large just isn’t interested in our fervor and this reality frustrates us. Yet it is a democracy and if we are to succeed we must gain broader support. And though we can detect the detachment of citizens at large, we can at least conceal our own narrowed identity and pass among them without any real friction. In living this kind of double life, our pretences become hollow. We know if we express the true passions of our beliefs that our very ardour will trouble a general audience. The fervor that we once had plods on mechanically while our reasonable minds slowly leave us.
You can spot this most clearly in community versus political life. The modern partisan can work on school boards, charitable committees or broader community initiatives with people of other persuasions, flowing effortlessly through the waters of engagement. And yet he or she can’t operate in the same fashion in a parliament or even a city council because that would expose a kind of political weakness.
Without realizing it, when it comes to politics we can no longer incorporate half-tones in our visions; we have become a people of primary colours. And it could be worse than that: we view politics as black and white, monochrome and contrasting. We know only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without troubling ourselves with the finer shades required for community understanding and usefulness. We eventually become at ease only in extremes and express superlatives by choice.
The broader community can watch this process from a distance, understanding that our logic, our group-think, is leading us to absurd ends. They see our imaginations as vivid, but not creative. But the heavily partisan among us can’t spot in himself what the majority of citizens do in his movement. Where he once believed in values for their own sake, he now must take the form and custom of the tribe. In so doing, he loses his relevance and becomes perennially angry as a result.
Soon to be retired New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg witnessed the effect of all this on his own city, concluding:
The politics of partisanship and the resulting inaction and excuses have paralyzed decision-making, and the big issues of the day are not being addressed, leaving our future in jeopardy.”
Our communities require creative thinking not conformist ideologies. The sincere partisan who holds to valued principles must ever be careful of subscribing to the skepticism of modern politics and moving from the former to the latter. Unfortunately it is a journey increasing numbers of politically motivated and sincere individuals are taking. There is a place for partisanship in the modern political structure, but it is not the prominent place, nor even the most important public one.