Tuesday, 30 December 2003

On partisanship

Ken Waight’s Lying in Ponds, which combines semi-regular “weblog-style” entries with daily analysis of America’s leading newspaper pundits, is one of the more worthwhile diversions in the blogosphere, even if I don’t share Waight’s apparent antipathy toward partisanship.

Partisanship has numerous functions in democratic society. In the electorate, it creates a psychological attachment between voters and politicians by providing a convenient “brand label” for voters, and a shortcut for voters who don’t have the time or inclination to research the qualifications of down-ballot candidates—even though it’s not immediately clear what meaningful difference there would be between a Republican and Democratic sheriff.

At the elite level, much of the role of partisanship is about communicating a consistent message to the public—the key part of Lazarsfeld and Katz’s “two-step flow” of political information. In essence, the public uses cues from elite figures to help inform and decide their own positions on political issues. Strong partisans, like Paul Krugman and Ann Coulter, are part of this process—as are more conflicted pundits like Tom Friedman. If there’s a risk associated with pundits like Krugman and Coulter, it’s that they give an exaggerated version of their own party line that often borders on caricature. But I don’t believe they are quite as harmful as those like Waight, who are bothered by the most partisan pundits’ apparent singlemindedness, seem to think.