Meyer-Lindenberg: An Ode to Better Partisans

My (German) dad, who’s a lot smarter than I am, patiently puts up with my claim that not everything in American politics is currently as nightmarish as it seems from the outside. And it’s a fact that a lot of valuable work is done away from the headlines and the outrage.

But if all you had was a media’s-eye view of what’s happening in America, you’d likely have an extremely skewed idea of the state of the nation. From the outside looking in, the obsession of the press with Trumpian scandals and banal palace intrigue is nothing short of ridiculous. And then there’s the constant drumbeat of fear, the mad scramble for something to feel oppressed about, the sense of gloom and impending apocalypse that rules social media. Is it any wonder that if the commentary on America were all you had to go by, as is typically true of us Europeans, you’d conclude that the country was going to hell in a handbasket – as is typically true of us Europeans?

The truth, of course, is that the scandalmongering and outrage so common in the media poorly reflect the reality of life in the States. I speak from experience: Even in DC, if you are working and keep your head down, politics is hardly the dark all-enveloping cloud Twitter users treat it as. For the vast majority of us, following politics is a game, a distraction.

But it seems that recently, the game hasn’t been a lot of fun for many people. Why, then, do we continue to play it? Why not . . .  divest from politics? There’s a strong argument that we’d get more mileage out of spending time on things that lead to obvious improvements in our lives. Learn to speak a foreign language, you boorish Americans. Go to the gym. Work harder. Put in Mark Bennett’s terms, attention is currency. Why spend it on the rantings of academics, political journalists and other half-employed bums?

The easy answer is that we love to argue, and the instant gratification of sticking it to some twerp on the internet outweighs the pleasure of reading Camus in the original French. Maybe so. But the tragedy, I think, is that we’re arguing about the wrong things. Hear me out: It’s at least possible that if the time and energy we put into disagreeing with others went into disagreeing about things of substance, the whole procedure wouldn’t be such an empty and unsatisfying waste.

Yes, this claim flies in the face of a common criticism of American political discourse, that it’s become “too tribal” and we ought to return to the halcyon days of Walter Cronkite, journalistic neutrality and “the most trusted man in America.” Nonsense! Apart from the fact that that era is an illusion – and as anyone who’s ever looked at an eighteenth-century newspaper with an article by “Publius” knows, political journalism in the States has always been partisan to the hilt – it’s never a good idea to struggle against human nature. Leave that kind of reform to the communists and the utopians. If we love to argue so much, why not try to harness that instinct for good?

And there’s the rub. The fare we’re served up by our politics is, currently, strictly empty calories. How tragic, when there are so many meaningful issues on which we could be making progress, if only by hashing them out with our political opponents! Instead, topics that, unlike the idiotic back-and-forth about Russian collusion on Twitter or the constant salvoes against the president in the New York Times op-ed section, are of some actual importance go ignored. Worse, when real problems do get a mention, they’re too often turned into opportunities to shout for or against Trump – no understanding of the facts required.

Take immigration. You only have to ask Mario Machado, or Vox’s Dara Lind, to learn how simpleminded it is to claim that Obama was “soft on illegals,” or that Trump’s deportations are an unpresidented break with the past. Yet, as with MS-13 or the “children in cages” fiasco a few months back, the thing that all too often matters to today’s partisans is whether an immigration issue can be pressed into service against a hated president. The problems with immigration policy run far deeper and date back longer than any one man, whether he be Trump or Obama, and can’t be solved by shouting a slogan like “Abolish ICE.” But that’s what today’s discourse amounts to, because it encourages the quick attack over engaging with the other team’s ideas.

Or take criminal justice reform. Until the president recently began to feud with the Koch Network, the Koch brothers were the bête noire of shallow social-media progressives. Now, at least from what I’ve seen among this type of thinker, up is down and black is white! And yet, well before this latest Trumpian outrage, the Kochs had joined forces with the Center for American Progress and the ACLU to help bankroll a concerted reform effort. How many of these shallow shouters knew this, or chose to find out about it, instead of relying on kneejerk tribal categorization to do their thinking for them?

It’s not that partisanship is bad. It’s that we have bad partisans – people who are very much out of step with the best of the noble tradition of arguing about politics in America, people who put identity over facts and lashing out over thought. Certainly, nobody could accuse the Federalists and Anti-Federalists of being apolitical. Yet it was the thoroughness of their engagement with the other side’s arguments that made their exchanges a classic of American thought.

Becoming a better partisan would likely do you as much good as learning to read French. The only downside is that we’d have to relearn to think about opposing viewpoints, instead of condemning them because of the identity of the speaker. What a wonderful, and classically American, world that would be.

29 thoughts on “Meyer-Lindenberg: An Ode to Better Partisans

      1. Guitardave

        Yeah!…..that’s more like it. I wonder, is there a tag team DJ competition for old people?…we just might kick some ass.

          1. Guitardave

            OMGWTF?…Did i just get a tummy rub form that despicable SGH guy?????…don’t let your Twitter “friends” see this… you might ruin your reputation.
            PS: Thank you.

  1. Richard Kopf


    We should not forget the duel between Burr, the “profligate, a voluptuary in the extreme,” and the genius who was Hamilton where the bad guy killed the good guy or at least the far better guy. Modern America needs more duels to even that score.

    As for reading Camus in the original French, screw that. Long ago we rightly rejected Citizen Genêt.

    All the best.


    1. David Meyer-Lindenberg


      Perhaps we need more voluptuaries. I volunteer SHG as tribute.

      All the best,

  2. Sacho

    Are you not arguing against your premise?

    > If we love to argue so much, why not try to harness that instinct for good?

    > And there’s the rub. The fare we’re served up by our politics is, currently, strictly empty calories. How tragic, when there are so many meaningful issues on which we could be making progress, if only by hashing them out with our political opponents!

    > How many of these shallow shouters knew this, or chose to find out about it, instead of relying on kneejerk tribal categorization to do their thinking for them?

    From your evidence, it seems that we like to argue, but only when it makes us feel good – when we can stick it to the other team. In that sense, it doesn’t really matter whether we’re arguing about the “wrong things” or the “right things” – our arguments will always be surface level, because a deep argument takes too much time and has too much nuance to deliver the same dopamine hit as petty chants on Twitter.

    Perhaps asking to go back to the old, rose-tinted days of “neutral journalism” is foolish, but it seems, so is asking for people to elevate their arguing skills. If we can’t have “neutral journalism” because of our nature, we also cannot have “better partisans”. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

    I’m pretty sure we’re stuck visiting cranky old curmudgeons to get our fix, and that’s the only qualitative difference I can see between the old and the new. “Back in my day”, cranky old curmudgeons were everywhere, telling me I suck at everything and need to do better. Now I’m encouraged to go to my safe space to get my ego stroked, and all those mean people that thought I didn’t amount to anything better shut up or I’ll sue them for all their horsemint. And why should I face adversity when Cortez promises me fifteen bucks an hour for the emotional laber of tweeting how much I hate Trump? There’s just no money in being a better partisan.

    1. David Meyer-Lindenberg

      I said that we like to argue when it makes us feel good, but not only when. Nor did I claim that the only way to feel good about an argument is when you’re sticking it to others, or even that all kinds of arguments deliver the same amount of pleasure. All of these are potentially valid observations, of course, and the more that that turn out to be true, the more reason we have to be cynical about the world. But I don’t think my post implies any of them.

  3. Jay

    So this whole misleading people about family separations is a group think thing with you guys or are you just the bunch of racist hacks you sound like? I really enjoy the links to articles that don’t support your bullshit. Keep that up.

  4. B. McLeod

    The peril in “disengaging from politics” these days is that it leaves the field to the fanatics. While you are busy reading Camus, they are busy launching the latest iteration of The Terror, setting up kangaroo “Title IX tribunals,” promulgating political correctness rules to dictate new pronouns, and trying to force bakers to bake cakes celebrating [Ed. Notes]. By the time you put down the book and go out to interact with society, you may find a strange new world.

    1. David Meyer-Lindenberg

      I’ve heard people make a similar case for the importance of voting – even if you hate all the parties, vote for the most palatable choice so the absence of your vote doesn’t let extremist votes count for more! Still, if the most palatable choice today’s partisans can make is owning the libs on twitter, I’m not sure how much good that will do at disempowering the radicals. Better by far to engage substantively with these issues, but right now, how many commentators are prepared to be like KC Johnson or Robby Soave? We need more of those guys, and less fluffy conservative snark.

    2. CLS

      I get this mentality, but what’s driving you to think there’s such a fight going on for the normality of everyday life? Are you actually affected by these issues or are you upset because the pundits on television are telling you to get mad?

      So much of our news these days is devoted to a recurring theme Bill Hicks once promulgated. “War! Famine! Destruction! AIDS!” Meanwhile, you look outside and the sun is shining and the birds are singing.

      Lay off the news for 48 hours and see if it doesn’t change the way you view the world. It’ll probably lower your blood pressure a few points at least.

      1. B. McLeod

        It depends on how far the “issues” get. Certainly proposed Rule 8.4(g) is a direct attempt to impair the first amendment rights of every practicing lawyer and every employee in every legal services business in this country. The Terror is an attempt to extend the current Title IX, gender-based attack on due process into society at large, and the [Ed. Note] “advocates” are certainly not going to stop with the bakers of the world (proposed Rule 8.4(g) being further evidence of this). I can see that I will be affected by these issues if they aren’t truncated, and it strikes me as prudent to pitch in against the bow-to-the-hat-on-the-pole crowd before they make it to where I am personally digging in.

  5. Billy Bob

    On the bathroom wall, Harvard U., 196-ish:
    To be is to do–Camus.
    To do is to be–Sartre.
    Doobee, doobee doo–Sinatra.

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