Civil Partisanship

Michelle Cottle makes an excellent point about the limits of political polarization in Washington:

Socially speaking, I’m not convinced Washington is more divided than other places—and less so than some. … I cannot count the number of Dems from places like New York and New Jersey and Boston who, following Bush’s 2004 reelection, I heard wail some variation on: How did this happen? I don’t know a single person who voted for him?! This is not to say that there aren’t conservatives in Connecticut or liberals in Texas. (Thank god for Austin.) But whether they identify with formal political parties or not, people form little social clots with like minded folk and, in the absence of some artificial stimulus, can lead lives as politically segregated as the House floor.

By contrast, it’s hard to be a part of political Washington and not wind up mixing with members of the opposite team. You get introduced to one another and must make small talk at professional dinners, cocktail parties, soccer matches, ballet classes, panel discussions, television green room, fundraisers, and so on. Even people who make a living publicly trashing one another learn to interact politely. Stories are perpetually written about Liberal Senator X’s long-standing friendship with Conservative Senator Y and how that relationship might impact Legislation Z. Conservative lobbyists break bread with lefty reporters. Liberal pollsters invite Republican Hill staffers to their book parties. Bob Barnett serves as everyone’s book agent. (Make that everyone famous.) You discover that members of the opposition don’t have horns (well, most of them don’t) and aren’t trying to destroy the republic. Now and again, you even invite some into your own home.

I lived in New York briefly, and many of the conservatives I knew there had (usually funny) stories about social snubbing as a result of their politics. Guys would get turned down by girls in bars after revealing their politics; dinner party invitations would be reserved for those of a shared political affiliation. D.C., by contrast, has always seemed a more civil place, which is one of the things I like most about it. Silly, narrowly focused stories claiming that D.C.‘s drinking establishments are divided, aside, I think most of the town’s professional political class fairly quickly comes to grips with the fact that the other team lives in town — and probably even drinks at the same bar.

As Cottle points out later in her post, that occasionally frustrates true-blooded partisans who prize their political self-segregation, presumably out of the belief that politics is akin to war. It’s understandable that people take their political ideas seriously. But I feel as if our polity would be aided by more of this sort of across-the-aisle friendliness. That shouldn’t be taken as an appeal to toothless centrism or lame bipartisanship. Rather, I’d like to see more individuals and communities model some form of civil partisanship. Political devotees of all ideological stripes ought to fight vigorously for their ideas. But playing hard — indeed, playing to win — shouldn’t prevent anyone from shaking hands with their opponent and having a drink after the game.