How The 'Partisan Mind' Changes The National Debate

This lame-duck session of Congress has been marked by arguments over tax cuts, unemployment benefits, arms limitation and "Don't Ask Don't Tell" that seem to fall along partisan lines. But this week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that there are some other significant issues on which the partisan divide has seemed to change. Host Scott Simon talks with Douthat about his latest op-ed, "The Partisan Mind."

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

As we've just discussed, this lame duck session of Congress has been marked by arguments over tax cuts, unemployment benefits, arms limitation treaties and don't ask, don't tell, that seem to fall along partisan lines. But this week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that there's some other significant issues on that which the partisan divide maybe has begun to change a bit.

He joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ROSS DOUTHAT (Columnist, New York Times): Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: And you begin with the recent scene of people being patted down to go through airport security and increased security alerts.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Right. And suddenly this potential, arguable violation of American civil liberties inspired all kinds of conservative outrage that was largely missing, I would say, in the Bush era whenever any kind of similar violation of civil liberties was contemplated. And you had a raft of liberal pundits rising to the defense of the pat-downs, saying, you know, Americans needed to group up and let their junk be touched and all the rest of it.

SIMON: I was interested in this part of your analysis in your column, which is that a lot of people would simply say, well, this is hypocrisy. Democrats who decried the Patriot Act now seem to accept the fact that many features of the Patriot Act aren't been rolled back now that there's a Democratic administration. Republicans, who seem to be comfortable with aspects of the Patriot Act, are now saying that the federal government is getting far too intrusive in American life.

Rather than label that as hypocrisy, you seem to think that there might actually be some strength in there, that both parties are getting exposure in government and in opposition that the changes they're thinking.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Well, I guess what I'd say is, you can sort of pick apart the intellectual inconsistencies of partisans, but it isnt a bad thing that just as Democrats sort of say, well, our guys are in power now so we don't need to worry about civil liberties as much, Republicans start worrying about civil liberties a little more. I mean that is part of sort of the way democratic system functions.

But it's also true that debates move around a lot, depending on which party is in power. And the psychology of partisanship - there's all kinds of really interesting research showing how powerful that psychology is and how it affects the way people filter in information, the way people understand the state of the economy. Theyll think differently about it if a Democrat is president or a Republican is president, and so on. So it's very interesting terrain.

SIMON: I remember thinking in November if there'd be increased security alerts right before election. I remember what we in the press, and for that matter, Democratic partisans used to suggest.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Right, that these were attempts to scare the country into voting for the Republicans. But what's interesting is then if you go back to the Clinton era and look at the way debates over civil liberties and national security and foreign military adventures played out, you often had Republicans - especially House Republicans - striking the kind of notes that then Democrats struck in the Bush era. So there are always wrinkles. But it's also true that things swing back and forth, depending on who's in power.

SIMON: All the polls suggest that the American public doesn't like partisanship and doesn't like the sniping and doesn't like the bitterness. And as a generalization, all the election results suggest that they like it just fine. Where's the disconnect there?

Mr. DOUTHAT: The public, as a whole, doesnt have sort of deep ideological consistency on a lot of issues. And so if you don't think about politics that much, you don't follow it that closely, a pollster says should people compromise in Washington, you'll say of course they should compromise in Washington, without sort of digging into the nitty-gritty.

But then if the pollster comes back to you and says, well, but should they compromise on whether they're going to raise your taxes or cut your benefits, well, then, people suddenly start to see the utility of partisanship.

SIMON: Maybe we need to ask this question every now and then: What exactly is wrong or destructive about partisanship?

Mr. DOUTHAT: Well, what's destructive about partisanship is that it just leads to pure intellectual dishonesty. There are moments when ultimately the two parties have to compromise. And the trouble with partisanship is if you're a Republican who's spent the last two years either telling Americans, or more importantly, convincing yourselves that Barack Obama is an imminent threat to the republic, how do you then turn around and compromise with that guy, right?

And I think it was the same problem for Democrats in the Bush era. The more unpopular Bush became, it became harder and harder for Democrats to work with him, whether the issue is - you know, on Social Security they just decided to turn their backs; on immigration reform they sort of tried and failed to make a deal.

But so I think in an ideal world, everybody would believe the truth about things, right? They wouldnt be deluding themselves. And partisanship can make people delude themselves pretty easily.

SIMON: New York Times columnist Russ Douthat, thanks so much.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Thanks so much for having me.

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